Oil-covered fish, sea turtles, and jellyfish are among the first casualties washed ashore from the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion that has left millions of gallons of oil seeping from the ocean floor. The spill, which is estimated to be leaking at rate of 200,000 gallons a day, has environmentalists bracing for what could become the biggest environmental disaster in decades, easily topping the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of 11 Animals Threatened by the Spill
While an assortment of techniques, such as booms, fire, and dispersants, have been employed with limited success, the first step, according to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, is to shut off the oil flow at the source. The technical process of plugging a hole five miles below the water’s surface may take weeks, however, and until then, the threat of oil washing onto the coast and damaging delicate coastal and marine ecosystems will continue to increase.
The oil’s effects go far beyond the dead or dying animals seen washing ashore, and for the ecosystems and their inhabitants, the potential damage is particularly magnified by the spill’s timing.
• How to Help the Gulf• Voices from the GulfThe marshes around the Mississippi River are temporary homes for nearly 5 million migratory birds traveling through the Western Hemisphere, and tens of thousands are nesting eggs now along the shore. Once a bird is coated with oil, it can die within hours and can bring sludge back to its nest and young in the meantime. Furthermore, these months are a key spawning period for shrimp and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, meaning the immediate effects of the oil could last for generations to come.
The full extent of the damage from the April 20 explosion won’t be known for weeks, months, or even years, and optimism may be hard to come by until the leak is stopped, but rescue efforts are in full force. Care for animals at triages are prioritized by red blood cell count, percentage of body covered in oil, and how much the animal appears to be suffering, among other factors. When recovery is possible, workers clean, hydrate, and prepare the animal for release, but in some severe cases the best and only option is euthanization.