The Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico nearly three years ago, but the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that it released are still killing dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life in record numbers, according to new research.
The report, "Restoring a Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands Three Years into the Gulf Oil Disaster," found that dolphins were among the hardest hit animals. As of just earlier this year, infant dolphins were dying six times faster than they did before the spill. Scientists aren't even yet sure of the extent of the massive spill, given that it was impossible to fully clean up the chemical-laden, carcinogenic oil.
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"Three years after the initial explosion, the impacts of the disaster continue to unfold," Doug Inkley, senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation and lead author of the report, said in a press release. "Dolphins are still dying in high numbers in the areas affected by oil. These ongoing deaths - particularly in an apex predator like the dolphin - are a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem."
An infographic summarizes some of the findings.
The NWF also highlighted these findings:
* Dolphin deaths in the area affected by oil have remained above average every month since just before the spill began. (The infant dolphin data was gathered in January and February of 2013.)
* NOAA called the dolphin die-off "unprecedented" - a year ago. While NOAA is keeping many elements of its dolphin research confidential pending the conclusion of the ongoing trial, the agency has ruled out the most common causes of previous dolphin die-offs.
* More than 1,700 sea turtles were found stranded between May 2010 and November 2012 - the last date for which information is available. For comparison, on average about 240 sea turtles are stranded annually.
* A coral colony seven miles from the wellhead was badly damaged by oil. A recent laboratory study found that the mixture of oil and dispersant affected the ability of some coral species to build new parts of a reef.
* Scientists found that the oil disaster affected the cellular function of the killifish, a common baitfish at the base of the food web. A recent laboratory study found that oil exposure can also harm the development of larger fish such as mahi mahi.
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"The oil disaster highlighted the gaps in our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico," said Ian MacDonald, professor of Oceanography at Florida State University. "What frustrates me is how little has changed over the past three years. In many cases, funding for critical research has even been even been cut, limiting our understanding of the disaster's impacts."
BP and other companies responsible for the disaster are now on trial in federal court for violations of multiple environmental laws. BP on its website says it has a "commitment to sustainability worldwide" and that it has been meeting the challenges of the spill.
"Despite the public relations blitz by BP, this spill is not over," said David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program. "In 2012 six million pounds of tar mat and contaminated material from the BP spill were cleaned up from Louisiana's coast."
(The oil slick as seen from space by NASA's Terra satellite on May 24, 2010; NASA image)