Special Reports

Experts: No way to tell how many animals oil will kill

Federal wildlife and fisheries experts said Tuesday that there will be no way of estimating the number of animals killed by the Gulf oil spill, so many of them will die in deep water and not be counted.

Even the confirmed deaths – 156 turtles, 12 dolphins and 23 oiled birds – have not all been attributed to oil or the chemicals used to disperse it. Tests results are still out.

For example, an average of 47 sea turtles are reported stranded along the Gulf Coast in May, based on a five-year average, agency representatives said. The range is 15 to 80 in May of each year.

In a meeting at the spill response headquarters in Robert, La., officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and the National Park Service told reporters that estimating the dead is impossible because it’s difficult to observe what’s happening so far off shore, where the oil is entering the Gulf.

And guessing at what the scope of the disaster will be in years to come is difficult.

NOAA’s Steve Murawski said there are animals and birds that will succumb to the volatile and toxic elements of the crude and die immediately. There likely will be upland and sensitive areas affected when the oil comes ashore. And in the long run, there could be a decline in the populations of predators that eat oiled animals.

Migratory birds and thousands of other species will be affected, they said.

But the primary concern now is the fate of mammals and turtles near the slick that need to come to the surface to breath. They are most at risk, and they’ve already been spotted swimming near the oil or in areas where dispersants have been used.

Whales, dolphins and sea turtles feed in the deep ocean canyons near the source of the oil gusher.

Beach-nesting shore birds like the least terms, skimmers and oyster catchers also are of primary concern, because oil on the beach would kill or injure them.

Seafood may not be as at-risk as one might think, they said. Fish and other seafood have a self-cleaning mechanism that will help purge oil toxins from their tissue before they become human food.

The Food and Drug Administration and the EPA are monitoring the seafood supply.

So far, 12 birds have been captured and of them, eight have been cleaned and four of those released.

“The visibly oiled birds is only a small part of our concern,” said Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “What concerns us most is what we cannot see.”

Millions of birds that range across the western hemisphere, winter in the marshes along the Gulf and forage the same waters that has oil in it now.

“A lot of the birds are in the northern United States and Canada, that buys us some time,” said Ralph Morgenweck, senior science adviser with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But this winter, when they return to their wintering grounds. They will be exposed to this spill.”