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Gulf oil spill: Threat to wildlife grows

April 29, 2010 |  3:41 pm

Pelicans

The massive oil slick threatening the Louisiana coast has come at the worst time for the region's sea life, wildlife and bird species, all of which depend on a complex water system for their existence.

And in a worrisome forecast, Coast Guard officials said weather in the Gulf of Mexico was becoming unstable Thursday afternoon. The stormy conditions could cause crews to suspend operations, which include more than 70 vessels. The National Weather Service forecast rain and thunderstorms moving into the region with rough seas expected.

Late spring is the peak time for neo-tropical songbirds moving from the Yucatan Peninsula to make their first landfall in Louisiana. As many as 25 million birds a day transit the region during the period of northern migration. More than 70 percent of the country’s waterfowl frequent the gulf’s waters, including the brown pelican, which is in its nesting season. A large rookery of pelicans sits on Breton Island, in the spill’s projected path. That population of birds is still recovering from a previous oil spill that devastated the population.

Federally protected marine mammals -- whales, dolphins and sea turtles -- are among the species at risk. A pod of sperm whales has been sighted near the spill but has so far avoided the area. Turtles are more vulnerable. As they begin nesting season in coming days, they swim to shore to lay eggs on protected beaches. Biologists fear the animals could become coated with oil as they rise to the surface to breathe.

The 400 miles of shoreline includes a national park and more than 20 national wildlife refuges.

“It’s a very complicated system that is sensitive to change in any piece of it,” said Karen Westphal, a coastal wetlands expert with the Louisiana Audubon Society. “Our marshes are not a wall. This spill is not going to stay on that outer edge. It’s a sieve.“

The gulf’s rich fishery is in the midst of shrimp season, as well as the spawning and harvest of oysters.  In some areas, biologists say, plankton may become affected. That could mean  fish larvae will either fail to find food or the food could be contaminated.

That concerns the  region’s commercial and private fishermen, who have mounted a grass-roots campaign to help retard the spread of the oil spill. More than 250 people with boats have registered in St. Bernard Parish, near New Orleans, according to Karen Turni Bazile, assistant to the parish president. Bazile said recreational boaters and others turned out for a meeting Thursday morning and asked to be able to help preserve Louisiana’s fishery.

--Julie Cart

Related:
Photos: Oil spill spreads in the Gulf of Mexico
Efforts to fight Gulf of Mexico oil spill are ramped up
Interactive: Burning spilled oil

Two brown pelicans and a flock of seagulls rest on the shore of Ship Island as an oil containment boom line floats just offshore south of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island south of Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico on April 29,  2010. Containment lines were places south of the Barrier Islands and were scheduled to be placed at the entrance to all coast bayous and estuaries to to prevent oil from reaching the Mississippi Coast.  EPA/WILLIAM COLGIN

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