WASHINGTON, DC, May 3, 2010 – World Wildlife Fund officials said today that the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which could cripple the region’s seafood industry and destroy the habitats of hundreds of bird and water species, underlines the need for the world to move strongly towards safer, cleaner energy sources of energy.
"The ecological and economic devastation now unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is a reminder that offshore oil exploration and production is in fact deeply hazardous and we should think twice before opening up even more delicate and treacherous waters to development," said WWF International Director General James Leape.
An estimated 400 to 600 species are potentially at risk, with the oil beginning to reach the Louisiana coast at a peak period for migratory birds and other wildlife. The area is a vital wintering or resting spot for nearly three quarters of America’s waterfowl, with the first chicks venturing into marsh ponds and into the path of oil.
The area impacted by the oil spill is a major spawning area for the endangered Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. The gulf region also accounts for about half of U.S. shrimp and 40 percent of domestic oysters.
Oil is highly toxic to marine and coastal environments and its impacts on wildlife and can persist for decades, said WWF officials, noting that oil can still be found from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Unless the well is capped soon, the gulf spill is set to surpass the Exxon Valdez quantity of oil early this week.
In late 2009, WWF was involved in assessing the environmental risks and damage from the blowout of the Montara exploration well head in the Timor Sea. Though less than a tenth the scale of the Gulf of Mexico disaster (an estimated 400 barrels a day, against the current 5,000), and being located in much shallower seas (300 feet as compared with 5000 feet) the leak still took 73 days to plug.
Oil spread over nearly 56,000 square miles of sea and reef and into Indonesian waters and the global conservation priority area of the Coral Triangle. Like the Gulf, the Montara spill area contained whales and dolphins, tuna spawning areas, turtles and seabirds.
“Unfortunately I think the real toll on the wildlife will never be known,” said WWF Conservation Director Gilly Llewellyn, who is based in Australia and traveled by boat to the Timor Sea during the spill. “We believe that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of marine creatures including sea birds, whales and dolphins would have come in contact with that oil and been affected.”
Dr. Llewellyn, a marine scientist who is also familiar with the Gulf of Mexico, said Louisiana’s coastal biological richness came from the complex mix of sandy barrier islands and muddy marshes.
“You can clean sand but you can’t clean mud,” she said. “If the oil gets into the mud the effects could be very long-lasting.”
WWF officials have called for a moratorium on gas and oil exploration and development in the waters of the Arctic until there is a better understanding of the risks and an improved capacity to respond to spills and other environmental hazards.
“We once again call on the Obama Administration to withdraw permission for the petroleum industry to begin exploration in the Arctic, scheduled for July of this year, pending a full environmental impact review. We also urge the Obama Administration to cancel the leases in Beaufort and Chukchi Seas that were issued by Bush Administration,” said WWF’s Vice President for Arctic and Marine Policy William Eichbaum. “More than two decades have passed since the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine waters of the Prince William Sound and killed millions of marine mammals, fish and birds. The devastating effects of that disaster continue to be felt today. We cannot take a similar risk with the Arctic.”