In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and unleashing a torrent of oil and natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to approximately 15,000 unique species of wildlife, including 28 types of dolphins and whales, five different sea turtles, and 49 species of sharks. A wide variety of habitats support this abundance of wildlife, including wetlands, barrier islands, coral reefs, and oyster beds.
The disaster's impacts on wildlife, and on the habitats they need, were severe and remain ongoing. The National Wildlife Federation staff, our Gulf state affiliates, our partners, and our volunteers have been on the front lines since the Gulf oil disaster began, and we're still there—working for the recovery of Gulf wildlife, waters, and communities. We have an obligation to aid the Gulf wildlife recovery and ecosystem restoration, and prevent future dirty fuel disasters.
Deepwater Horizon's Impact
Since the explosion, the National Wildlife Federation has closely monitored the scientific research on the impacts of the disaster. In late 2015, the federal government released an in-depth study, known as the Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan.
This comprehensive study—and additional independent scientific research—make it clear that wildlife and habitats throughout northern Gulf were damaged by the oil and dispersants, and for many species the impacts are ongoing. The report concluded, “These injuries affected such a broad array of linked resources and ecological services over such a large area that they can best be described as an injury to the entire ecosystem of the northern Gulf of Mexico.”
Dolphins and Whales
Nearly all of the 21 species of dolphins and whales that live in the northern Gulf have demonstrable, quantifiable injuries.
The number of bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay and the Mississippi Sound—two places particularly affected by oil—are projected to decline by half. Multiple studies have determined that the injuries to bottlenose dolphins were caused by oil from the disaster.
It is estimated that it will take approximately one hundred years for the spinner dolphin population to recover.
There are only a few dozen Bryde's whales in the Gulf. Nearly half this population was exposed to oil, and nearly a quarter of these whales were likely killed. The long-term survival of this population is in doubt.
Scientists estimate that as many as 167,000 sea turtles of all ages were killed during the disaster.
In 2010, the once-remarkable recovery of the endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle halted abruptly. Scientists remain concerned about this species of sea turtle, which is known to congregate and feed in areas that were oiled off the Louisiana coast.
Heavy oil affected nearly a quarter of the Sargassum—a type of floating seaweed—in the northern Gulf. Sargassum is an important habitat for juvenile sea turtles.
Studies have determined that oil is particularly toxic for many species of larval fish, causing deformation and death. The federal study estimates that the disaster directly killed between two and five million larval fish.
At this time, the data does not indicate that the oil spill caused significant decreases in populations of commercially harvested fish species.
However, a number of species of fish have documented oil spill injuries. For example in 2011, some red snapper and other fish caught in oiled areas had unusual lesions, rotting fins, or oil in their livers. Oil spill impacts have been documented in fish species such as southern flounder, redfish, and killfish.
At least 93 species of bird were exposed to oil. The resulting loss of birds is expected to have meaningful effects on food webs of the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Species particularly affected include brown and white pelicans, laughing gulls, Audubon's shearwaters, northern gannets, clapper rails, black skimmers, white ibis, double-crested cormorants, common loons, and several species of tern.
The Gulf Floor
Scientists estimate the habitats on the bottom of the Gulf could take anywhere from multiple decades to hundreds of years to fully recover.
A significant portion of the Gulf floor was affected by oil. The federal study confirmed that at least 770 square miles around the wellhead were affected, while a separate analysis determined that at least 1,200 square miles were affected. Both studies suggested that a significant amount of oil was likely deposited on the ocean floor outside the areas of known damage.
Coral colonies in five separate locations in the Gulf—three in deep sea and two in shallower waters - show signs of oil damage.
In Louisiana, erosion rates approximately doubled along roughly 100 miles of shoreline. The effect lasted for at least three years. Louisiana already had one of the highest rates of wetlands erosion, even before the disaster.
Oil and response efforts killed as many as 8.3 billion oysters. These losses have put the sustainability of oysters in the Gulf of Mexico at risk.
Helping Wildlife Recover
BP and the other companies responsible for the oil spill disaster have paid significant criminal and civil fines. As much as $16 billion of these fines could be spent over the next two decades for helping Gulf wildlife and restoring estuaries, wetlands, oyster reefs, and other important habitats. We have staff working in all five Gulf states to make sure this money is spent to benefit the Gulf and its wildlife.
Restoring Gulf Ecosystems
The money from the legal settlements provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore the Gulf—from the BP disaster and from the previous century of overuse. Our April 2017 report, Making the Most of Restoration: Priorities for a Recovering Gulf, details 50 specific strategies that would improve the Gulf of Mexico and its estuaries, including efforts to:
Restore the Balance Between Fresh and Salt Water—Over the past hundred years most of the rivers that flow into the Gulf have been leveed, dammed, deepened, or straightened. Where possible, restoring more natural flows of fresh water and sediment into our coastal estuaries will benefit fish and wildlife, both along the coast and in deeper waters.
Rebuild Wetlands—The entire Gulf Coast is rapidly losing marshes and wetlands, but the problem is most pronounced in Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta, which loses an average of a football field of land every hour.
Bring Back Oyster Reefs—Some Gulf estuaries have each lost more than 90% of their historical oyster reefs. Restoring oyster reefs across the Gulf will improve water quality, recreate lost habitat for fish, and better protect communities from hurricanes.
Replace Lost Sediment—The Mississippi River is straitjacketed by levees from the Midwest to the bottom of Louisiana’s boot toe. Sediment that once fed Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and barrier islands is now sent into the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana’s wetlands and marshes are disappearing rapidly, in part because they are starved of the river’s sediment and fresh water.
Shore Up Barrier Islands—Barrier islands are important wildlife and shorebird habitats, serve as a first line of defense against storms and protect wetlands and other estuarine habitats. However, many of the Gulf’s barrier islands are eroding rapidly, particularly in the Mississippi River Delta.
Reforming Offshore Drilling Policy
As a nation, we need to make sure catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon do not happen again. The National Wildlife Federation advocates for policies that will:
Reform federal oil and gas leasing practices to improve safety monitoring
Lift liability limits so companies responsible for spills are held fully accountable for the costs
Dedicate funds from the sale of exploration licenses in the Outer Continental Shelf to Gulf restoration efforts
Invest in more effective response techniques, such as better containment methods and less use of toxic dispersants