"I want to make no mistake about it. This spill is significant and in all likelihood it will affect fish and wildlife resources in the Gulf and maybe across the North American continent for years, if not decades. And the first impacts to wildlife are now becoming apparent."
In May, the government found 156 dead turtles washed up on the Gulf coast, a big increase from past years. There was no visible oil on the outside of the turtles' bodies, but scientists are still dissecting them. Barbara Schroeder is the federal sea turtle coordinator. She says we may never be able to know how many animals die far out to sea.
"We do have a number of dead turtles onshore but we also believe that most of the impact to turtles at least at the moment will not be readily seen, because it's happening offshore. And as with the seabirds and the marine mammals most of those mortalities will never make their way to shore to be counted."
In Texas, wildlife organizations are getting ready to send bird watchers into coastal refuges and marshes. Cecilia Riley directs the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson. She says a bird count will help later if BP has to pay for damage to Texas shorelines.
"They have to have a dollar value that they've assigned to all of this various wildlife that's affected. And they have to have population numbers. They have to be able to say 'Well, you know we had X snowy plovers nesting on this beach, pre-damage — a year later the oil's come in, the beach is contaminated, we have zero snowy plovers nesting on this beach.'"
Wildlife officials are watching the calendar. Baby turtles will hatch in two months along Gulf coast beaches and head for the water. Many seafood species such as tuna, amberjack and mackerel are spawning. And more birds will migrate back to the Gulf of Mexico in the fall. Ralph Morgenweck is a science advisor to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We are fortunate in the sense that a lot of the birds that winter in the Gulf are now in the northern part of the United States and into Canada where they're on their nesting grounds. So that buys us some time. However, this winter when they return to their wintering grounds they will be exposed to one degree or another to the results of this particular spill."
In the best case scenario, BP stops the leak soon and much of the oil is cleaned up quickly. But federal officials also described other possible outcomes. A hurricane could push oil over the beaches into mangrove swamps and wetlands. Or the oil slick might spare the birds at first, but kill off the tiny mussels, clams and larvae that they feed on.
FT JACKSON, La (May 15, 2010) -- Dr. Erica Miller, a member of the Louisiana State Wildlife Response Team, cleanses a pelican of oil at the Clean Gulf Associates Mobile Wildlife Rehabilitation Station on Ft. Jackson in Plaquemines Parish, La., May 15. The station stood up to provide support for animals that may have been affected as a result of the April 20 explosion on the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit Deepwater Horizon. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg/Released)
The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory needs experienced birders to conduct a coastal census in the coming weeks: