On April 20 of this year, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded resulting in an uncontrolled release of oil into the ocean. Estimates now indicate that 1.5 million to 4.2 million gallons continue to flood into the Gulf on a daily basis totaling between 85.5 million and 239 million gallons with no end in sight. Superimposed on the threat of the oil, is the already more than one million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants that British Petroleum (BP) dumped into the Gulf to try and breakup the oil. These chemicals are being used in unprecedented amounts and in untested ways.
One major concern is the impact of this crisis on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. Marine mammals are a particular concern because they serve as sentinels for human health and because they are key species for both the ocean ecosystem and coastal economies. Marine mammals are at risk in this crisis. For example, there is a resident population of about 1,600 sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. This population is endangered, as all sperm whales are, but this population is considered to be at particular risk because the size of the group is so small. Losing even a few whales will have dramatic population effects because individual whales take a long time to reach sexual maturity and then only produce a few calves over their lifetimes. The Gulf Oil spill is a specific threat to these sperm whales, because they occupy deeper waters and thus are much closer to the greatest amount of oil. Moreover, studies show that prior to the explosion, many sperm whales spent a lot of time near the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. In fact, a dead sperm whale has recently been discovered near the oil spill though the cause of death has not yet been reported.
Oil can have immediate and long term impacts on whales and other marine mammals. Marine mammals breathe air and, thus, if they surface to breathe in an oil slick, they can inhale the oil resulting in respiratory issues. Even if they do not surface within the slick itself, they may inhale sufficient amounts of the strong fumes emanating from the slick that can render them unconscious and cause them to drown. Oil can contaminate their food, and if they eat it, they can experience digestive disorders and immune system effects. Oil can also have long term effects such as damaging their DNA. If this occurs, it can impair the whales’ ability to reproduce, thus, reducing the number of calves born. The impacts of oil on whale populations were seen after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That oil decimated the killer whale population, reducing it by 40%. Experts predict that this population will ultimately go extinct.
The effects of dispersants on whales are unknown and have not been studied. They have also never been released into the environment in such massive quantities.
Toxicology is the study of how chemicals (like oil and chemical dispersants) poison people, plants and animals. Currently, there are no focused toxicology efforts to assess the impact of the oil crisis in the Gulf on whales and no efforts to conduct a similar study in Atlantic whales now before the oil arrives. Moreover, no government rapid response funds for university researchers have been allocated for toxicology studies. In fact, remarkably, many of the programs specifically exclude using these funds for toxicology studies. It is essential that we conduct whale toxicology studies in both the Atlantic Ocean (before the oil arrives and then again after it does) and in the Gulf of Mexico in both oiled and non-oiled areas. It will be up to us, the people, to fund these studies.
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