NOAA’s Steve Murawsky, NOAA’s Director of Scientifc Programs Briefs the press on endangered turtle strandings and the difficulties of tracking oil spill sheen, and effects on wildlife, in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the BP oil spill.
Portions of his press conference are reproduced below:
We are all vitally interested in the fate of wildlife populations relative to the oil incident. NOAA and its interagency academic partners continue to be concerned about the potential impacts of both oil and the dispersants on the short- and long-term prospects for marine wildlife populations, including but not limited to the fishery populations, marine mammals, sea turtles and other critical components of the Gulf of Mexico’s large marine ecosystem.
NOAA and its state agency partners have a robust monitoring program at sea, in the air and on the shorelines to determine the species at risk from oil and dispersants and to track the movements of the oil and the dispersants relative to the animal communities that we’re interested in.
The observations for animal impacts include shipboard surveys aboard our own NOAA research vessels, state research vessels, chartered commercial fishing boats as well as aerial surveys of mammals and turtles on both fixed-wing aircraft and chartered helicopters. In particular, we’re concerned about the fate of marine mammals and turtles – the air breathers that must periodically surface where they can inhale these products.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to many marine mammal populations including bottlenose dolphins, which occur very inshore as well as offshore, as well as sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, beaked whales and other deep-diving whales, as well as offshore dolphin populations. These populations are in the vicinity of the incident and they use the deep ocean canyons that are next to it to feed.
There are five species of endangered and threatened sea turtles that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico and live in shallow coastal areas, as well as transiting the deep areas. Aerial surveys have observed both marine mammals and sea turtles swimming in and near oiled waters. Marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as the species upon which they depend, have been affected by this event ever since it began and are continuing to be exposed to dispersants and oil.
These impacts, in particular in the offshore areas – I know my colleagues at the Department of Interior want to emphasize this – are difficult to detect offshore because it’s an area that’s very difficult to observe. A functioning Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is critically important to all these Gulf seafood species that we eat and the long-term impacts are likely to express themselves over years to come.
The springtime is the spawning time – the critical point in the lifecycle for many of the Gulf’s most important fishery resources, including offshore, the bluefin and yellowfin tuna. Inshore, the larvae of groupers as well as white and pink shrimp, cobia, amberjack, Spanish and king mackerels, dolphin fish, as well as blue crabs. We know from testing that the youngest life stages in these species are the most vulnerable and that’s the free-floating eggs and the larvae.
This time of the year is also the beginning of nesting season for sea turtles in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. First nests have already been laid by loggerheads in the Florida panhandle and we expect nesting in Alabama is imminent. Of course, we’re working very closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service and others to monitor nesting and to try to do anything that we can to mitigate or minimize the impacts on nesting activity.
Since April 30th, we’ve documented 162 sea turtle strandings from the Texas-Louisiana border through the Florida panhandle. The stranding rate that we have – and this is the first two weeks of May compared to May five-year average between 2005 and 2009 – is up significantly from that rate. Most of the sea turtles that we’ve documented actually have been sea turtle mortalities.
Especially in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, the stranding rate is significantly higher than the background level that we’ve detected in the past. I would say we need to caution those numbers a little bit because of the increased effort that we’ve got looking for turtles now as compared to sort of background monitoring.
One of the important aspects of this is that we’ve got, of the animals that were in good enough condition, we’re doing necropsies, which are basically autopsies, of looking for either oil on the surface of the animal or ingested and then there are samples of potential contaminants, going for more detailed chemical analysis.