Researchers expect it will take years, possibly even decades, to learn the full ecological impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, but some problem areas have already been identified and need to be addressed, according to a report from the National Wildlife Federation.
Dead dolphins, a decline in sea turtle populations, lower catches of red snapper and problems with speckled trout reproduction aren’t limited to the conditions immediately after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, according to a report released Monday.
“This year, far more peer-reviewed science is available than ever before,” said Ryan Fikes, lead author of the report and National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf of Mexico restoration scientist. “It will be years before we know all the impacts from the Deepwater Horizon.”
Many studies have not been made public because they are part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which involves state and federal agencies as well as BP working to determine how much it will cost to repair the environment.
BP officials dispute the gloomy picture and recently released their own report that claims the Gulf of Mexico is almost back to normal. In a written statement, Geoff Morrell, BP senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs, said the National Wildlife Federation’s report is a “work of political advocacy by an organization that has referred to the Deepwater Horizon accident as ‘an historic opportunity’ to finance its policy agenda.”
BP’s report on the health of the Gulf of Mexico was widely derided by nonprofit coastal groups and other members of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment team, including the state of Louisiana and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as being premature and misleading.
Authors of the National Wildlife Federation report agree that much of the peer-reviewed information about the Gulf of Mexico’s health isn’t available to the public yet, but what is available paints a less than rosy picture. The results from more than 200 studies were included in the National Wildlife Federation report that highlights 20 different Gulf of Mexico species, Fikes said.
“The scale of impact to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems are massive and should not be ignored,” Fikes said. One of those problems is the ongoing die-off of dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
The most recent study published in February found the deaths might be due to a number of reasons, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
BP has repeatedly said the problems started before the rig explosion and most recently, in BP’s five-year report, said, “There is no evidence to conclude that the Deepwater Horizon accident had an adverse impact on bottlenose dolphin populations in the Gulf of Mexico.”
However, a 2013 NOAA study found that half of the dolphins examined in Barataria Bay in 2011 were in bad health and the cause pointed to oil exposure.
Other impacts the National Wildlife Federation report examined included the large amount of oil still on the sea floor around the well head and in coastal marshes, the impact on animal diversity as well as land erosion caused after plants died.
The report also looks into research on the blue crab, brown pelican, common loon, coral, eastern oyster, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, laughing gull, loggerhead sea turtle, mahi-mahi and red snapper.
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was seeing good nest recovery through 2009 with a growth of about 15 to 18 percent each year, according to the report. However, that number dropped in 2010 by 35 percent. The nest counts went back to pre-spill levels in 2011 and 2012, but fell again in 2013 and 2014.
“The recovery of this species could be in doubt,” Fikes said.
Because the turtles don’t reproduce until they are 10 or 12 years old, it could still take some time to see if there are long-term impacts.
David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf of Mexico restoration program, said it’s vital to make sure money paid by BP through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and Clean Water Act fines goes toward restoration.
“We have to make sure this money is spent wisely,” Muth said.
Just how much money will become available for restoration is unknown because the assessment process is years from being completed and the courts haven’t issued a decision on the Clean Water Act fines.
The National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups released a report in December laying out specific projects — from barrier island restoration to sediment diversions from the Mississippi River — that would provide the most benefit in restoration efforts.
Most of the recommendations come from projects included in Louisiana’s master plan for coastal restoration and protection.
“Just because we don’t know the full impact doesn’t mean we can’t start restoring now,” Muth said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.