The impact of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on wildlife may not be known for years, but work is ongoing to assist the wildlife that is impacted now. Veterinarian Joe Smith of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Fort Wayne, Ind., is the information liaison between all the Association of Zoos and Aquariums member zoos and aquariums, government agencies and contracted organizations in the coordinated effort to work with and assist wildlife.
The zoos and aquariums are helping find permanent homes for animals that can’t be released because they have been oiled too severely or have injuries that won’t allow the release, Smith says. Those animals are going to zoos and aquariums as ambassadors of their species, he says.
The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans is coordinating the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program for that state and the Jackson Zoo in Jackson, Miss., is coordinating bird redistribution to other zoos, Smith says.
With a system in place, Smith says, the unknown is still the oil spill’s impact on wildlife overall. This spill is anything but typical of what has been seen in the past when oil spills have been experienced in the oceans and seas.
“This spill is different than the typical oil spill because most of the time there is a confined area that is usually near shore and isn’t continuously spewing oil,” Smith says. “Helpers can get the wildlife all in one area and deal with the situation. But this spill is offshore with an ongoing oil leak, and it’s a much greater area.”
That means that wildlife workers have not seen the mass casualties as in the past, as in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But instead, it’s been a slow and steady trickle of wildlife, Smith explains. “A lot of this depends on the waves, the winds and the weather, where we will see the wildlife impacted,” he says.
Work with sea turtles is happening out to sea as much as possible, where the turtles are treated from boats before they hit the shore because many times that is too late, Smith says.
While external oiling where the wildlife is covered in oil, impacts individual animals, bogging them down, there is also internal oiling and that impact may not be known for quite some time. This happens when the birds, turtles and other ocean wildlife breathe in the oil or preen themselves and ingest the oil in various quantities. This can cause liver and kidney failure and immunization issues long-term, Smith says.
And other impacts are not yet known. “The biggest impact is on the eco-system,” he says. “The impact isn’t yet known for fish and micro-organisms because when they die, they sink to the bottom (of the Gulf).”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is studying fish and other oceanic life, Smith says. NOAA scientists have been capturing fish and assessing their environment, as well as monitoring the time they spend in oiled and unoiled water.
NOAA scientists also have collected tissue samples from sperm whales and other marine mammals, as well as measuring plankton, fish and squid, the primary food for whales, according to releases from NOAA. All of these efforts will help measure the possible effects of the oil on them. “We have assembled an exceptional partnership with world-class academic scientists who will work with us to evaluate the potential for effects from the spill on marine mammals throughout the Gulf,” said Lance Garrison, Ph.D., of NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center and the principal investigator for NOAA.
NOAA and partners are also conducting aerial and boat-based surveys to document potential changes in dolphin populations.
While NOAA is heading these efforts, Smith is coordinating veterinarians and vet techs working in the Gulf. His ties to the Louisiana Gulf – his hometown is Baton Rouge, La. – made him interested and qualified to organize the efforts, he says.
“When the spill first started, I sought out information and found that I had more than what I could find, and it just sort of snowballed,” Smith says.