UC Davis is working to help rectify the damage done by the oil spill that occurred in the Gulf Coast over three weeks ago – a cause of great concern among the scientific community due to its potential impact on wildlife.
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), a program administered by the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis, aims to clean and rehabilitate wildlife affected by oil spills. The program is involved daily with activities in the recovery effort in the Gulf Coast, and is watchful for new developments and data.
OWCN Field Operations Specialist Nils Warnock is apprehensive about the vulnerability of wildlife following the oil spill.
“It could have great and long-lasting impacts on the wildlife there,” Warnock said.
According to Warnock, when oil comes in contact with a bird, it influences how feathers thermo-regulate the bird, which often leads to hypothermia. Influence on thermo-regulation is one of many harmful impacts that oil has on birds.
“It is toxic through ingestion, and will cause burns on the skin,” Warnock said.
The oil spill comes in a difficult time, Warnock said, as this is the peak migratory period for birds coming from Central and South America.
Much emphasis is being placed on restricting the oil’s penetration to the shoreline, which would increase the numbers of wildlife affected.
“Generally, it is more probable that different species will come in contact with the oil if it makes it ashore,” Warnock said.
The longevity of the impacts of the spill is still uncertain, but it could last for decades, according to Warnock, who believes this is one of the largest oil spills to happen in North America.
“People should be worried because it has the potential to affect lots of peoples’ livelihoods, along with having severe economic impacts for the economy there [Gulf Coast],” Warnock said.
UC Davis, one of the leaders in the world in responding to oil spills, has already dispatched wildlife veterinarian and OWCN director Mike Ziccardi to the scene of the spill.
Ziccardi has been in Louisiana for almost two weeks and is helping coordinate wildlife recovery and rehabilitation efforts. Through his regular maintenance of a blog for the OWCN while in the Gulf Coast; Ziccardi describes the situation as attracting increased amounts of attention from both media outlets and government.
“Today was another good one [day] for the Mammal/Turtle Unit, though the political and media winds are swirling a bit fiercer,” he said on May 3.
Ziccardi mentioned in his blog that the number of turtles found dead as a result of contact with oil remains at zero. There has been confusion among the media in terms of the 20 dead turtles that washed ashore in Gulfport, Mississippi- an area known for a particularly high number of strandings this time of the year.
“There are excellent biologists here who have a huge amount of knowledge of turtle ecology, as well as an extensive volunteer network of ‘paraprofessionals’ who yearly survey these beaches to monitor the nests,” Ziccardi said. “With this type of support, I think we stand an excellent chance of dealing with oiled nests and hatchlings if it should happen, when it could have been an extremely difficult undertaking without this level of infrastructure and support.”
Ziccardi reflected upon the highly debated use of chemical dispersants in his blog, noting what he believes to be the overlying positive amongst any negatives.
“I said (and still feel) that it is truly the lesser of two evils, due to its reduction of the immediate effects on birds, mammals and turtles,” Ziccardi said. “This not only dilutes the overall “dose” of the oil, but it also removes it from the surface where the primary exposure to the most “sensitive” wildlife might occur – birds that rest on the surface which can lose their waterproofing, and mammals and turtles that breathe and feed at the surface which can cause significant gastrointestinal and respiratory damage.”
Dispersants can have toxic consequences of which are yet unknown, along with not actually removing the oil from the water but rather limiting its visibility, according to Ziccardi. These actions, which he understands can biomagnify in the food chain, are long-term negatives outweighed by the short-term positives.
The OWCN remains involved with the effort in the Gulf Coast. For more information, go to owcn.org.
ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org