Cascading Effect on the Environment Expected

Scientists studying the BP oil spill which has only recently been capped believe there could be a decades-long “cascading” effect on marine life.

Experts estimate that some 400 species could be at risk from the impact of oil and the chemical dispersants laid down in an effort to disperse the oil. They believe a massive impact could hit the marine life and shift into an overall biological network shift in the Gulf of Mexico, and that it could have already begun.

Animals like the tiny oil-eating bacteria, up to shrimp and crabs, further up to endangered sea turtles, brown pelicans and even sperm whales are all at risk. But it isn’t just those currently being affected by the oil, but future generations of these animals.

Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University told the AFP that “a major environmental experiment is underway.” Sadly, this isn’t Kendall’s first rodeo either. He was one of those who helped study the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impact on the wildlife in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Approximately one 17th of the low estimate of oil that has escaped from the ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico was poured into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. However, according to Kendall, the Gulf spill is “so much more complex.”

He is referring to the fact that 1.84 million gallons (7 million litres) of chemical dispersants have been spread throughout the Gulf in an attempt to keep the oil from coating the surrounding shorelines. However, in doing so, the dispersants have broken up the oil into droplets that may never be recovered.

On top of that is the possibility that the dispersants could enter the food chain of marine life and, potentially, our own food supplies.

Doug Inkley, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, warns that the 2,600 dead birds, mammals and turtles already found could be but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Many dead fish and sharks sink, and the impact the oil will have on plankton is still not entirely certain. “This could be an effect that will ripple all the way up the food chain,” he said.

Inkley fears that a disaster similar to when Prince William Sound’s Pacific herring population collapsed four years after the Exxon Valdez spill could take place as a result of the Gulf spill. The herrings failed likely because so few of the herrings that spawned in 1989 reached maturity, and the same could be for dozens of marine and bird species that were beginning their breeding season when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank.

“You could have a (population) crash later because of the failure of many of the young to survive this year,” said Inkley. “The impacts on wildlife I expect will last for years, if not decades.”

Source: PhysOrg

Image Source: lagohsep via Flickr

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