How Does the BP Oil Spill Impact Wildlife and Habitat?

International Bird Rescue

Scientists are still assessing the effects of the estimated 170 million gallons of oil that flooded into the Gulf after the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

More than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were found injured or dead in the six months after the spill.

Learn How Oil Impacts:

The long-term damage caused by the oil and the nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants used on the spill may not be known for years.

Immediate Impacts

In the months following the Gulf oil disaster, wildlife managers, rescue crews, scientists and researchers saw many immediate impacts of the oil impacting wildlife.

Long Term Impacts

Though oil is no longer readily visible on the surface, it isn’t gone. Scientists have found significant amounts on the Gulf floor, and the oil that has already washed into wetlands and beaches will likely persist for years. We likely will not see the full extent of impacts for many years, which makes creating and implementing successful restoration plans a serious challenge.

Oiled Dolphin
  • Sick Dolphins - As part of the official investigation into impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a team of scientists did comprehensive physicals on dolphins in Barataria Bay in 2011, a heavily-oiled area of the Louisiana coast. Nearly half the dolphins studied were very ill; 17 percent of the dolphins were not expected to survive.

  • Sea Turtles Stranding at 5x Normal Rates - Data from the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network indicates that between 1986 and 2009, an average of nearly 100 sea turtles were found stranded annually in the oil spill area. Since the spill, each year roughly 500 sea turtles have been found stranded, most of which were the very endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

  • Unbalanced Food Web - The Gulf oil disaster hit at the peak breeding season for many species of fish and wildlife. The oil’s toxicity may have hit egg and larval organisms immediately, diminishing or even wiping out those age classes. Without these generations, population dips and cascading food web effects may become evident in the years ahead.

  • Decreased Fish and Wildlife Populations - Scientists will be watching fluctuations in wildlife populations for years to come. It wasn't until four years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster that the herring population collapsed. Twenty years later, it is still has not recovered.

  • Decline in Recreation - The Gulf Coast states rely heavily on commercial fishing and outdoor recreation to sustain their local economies. According to NOAA, commercial fisheries brought in $659 million in shellfish and finfish in 2008, and just over 3 million people took recreational fishing trips in the Gulf that year. After the spill, recreational fishing from the Atchafalaya Delta to Mobile Bay was shut down from May to August, and state park closures dealt a serious blow to the parks' summer revenue.

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Five Years and Counting, a report by the National Wildlife Federation