Oiled birds may be cleaned up and beaches may be scrubbed, but the lingering affect of the poisonous gunk from the BP oild spill may be generations of wildife that is riddled with disease and deprived of food, Greenpeace researchers claim.
"We've all seen images of oiled birds and seeing the dolphins rising up through the oil, dead hermit crabs, things like that," said John Hocevar, a marine biologist and Greenpeace's oceans campaign manager. "For me the real concern is the long term impacts, the loss of habitat, the impacts on the whole food web. We're really looking at an entire eco system that's in real trouble."
Greenpeace has been in Grand Isle scoping out the island and the surrounding communities for a large-scale research mission later this summer that would bring one or two ships to study the effects of the oil spill on future generations of birds and animals.
The animals not killed outright by the oil spill, Hocevar said, will suffer "sub-lethal" effects on digestion, reproduction and other physiological systems for decades. As the most basic form of bottom feeders, such as plankton, die out, small fish and mammals above them will be forced to contend with a food source that is at once dwindling and diseased, perpetuating a vicious cycle, he said.
Greenpeace, he said, is also hoping to set up a first-of-its-kind study on the effect of the oil spill on fish spawning, which started this season around the same time as the spill. This area of the gulf is home to several endangered species, particularly the blue-fin tuna, he said, and no one yet knows how the spill will impact their ability to survive.
"An entire generation, possibly several generations, of dolphins, seabirds, fish, invertebrates – they're just not going to do very well," Hocevar said. "Almost everything that you need to be healthy isn't going to work quite as well as it used to."
He pointed to the dolphins seen frolicking in the waters off Grand Isle, breathing in the oil and dispersant as they surface. Nearby on Queen Bess Island and a few miles away on Cat Island, huge populations of pelicans and other seabirds watch over their young that were hatched just as the BP rig exploded and sank some 100 km away.
Wildlife Will Feel Impact of Oil Spill for Decades
Steven Mars, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, told ABC News that they share the same concerns as Greenpeace.
The department is catching few oiled pelicans now – about 10 per day compared to up to 60 per day two weeks ago – but the newly caught pelicans are suffering much more internal distress.
"We're starting to see 20 percent reduction in body weight than they should have. The preening process has caused them to ingest the pollutants, the oil," he said. "You're starting to have kidney, liver, other digestive challenges."
As a result, the department is focusing its energy on the breeding adults rather than the chicks just hatched this summer in hopes of preserving the population. The chicks, he said, are already growing up on contaminated food sources brought in from the ocean by the adults.
"If we lose the breeding population, we won't have generations in the upcoming years," Mars said. "Our focus is to save all birds, but science tells us we need to be saving the breeding adults, so they can come back next year."
Hocevar said that the most shocking thing he's seen yet on Grand Isle was tens of thousands of dead hermit crabs on the beach of Grand Isle State Park.
"We're probably going to feel the impacts for decades," he said.
He charged that, despite heavily publicized images of suffering animals, BP was downplaying the horrors he has seen every day in the ocean.
"What we've been seeing and hearing from BP and sometimes the government has often been very different from what independent scientists are saying."
But BP spokesman Curtis Thomas said the company is taking wildlife research seriously and has just begun using a recently approved $500 million research grant that will study not only the habitats but effects of the oil and dispersants.
Marsh Grasses Coat With Oil Will Die,/h2>
Thomas said that for groups that have a specialized interest, BP's response will not be enough. Some, he said, have called out the company for doing too much for the wildlife when there is so much to be done elsewhere.
A double boom system set out by BP around Queen Bess and Cat islands, one to block the oil and one to absorb oil, had trapped enough oil to darken both booms, but oil slicks could still be seen lapping at the shores where the birds had built intricate nests.
The grasses around the sensitive island marshes have already been coated with oil and will eventually die, Hocevar said, depleting a food source and forcing the thousands of birds that live there to find sanctuary elsewhere.
Hocevar said he's already seen some evidence that the dolphins and some birds are starting to change their behavior patterns, moving closer to shore to stay ahead of the oil.
"But as it moves ashore there's no place for them to go," he said.
Hocevar said the sheer size of the spill and what Greenpeace believes to be contamination of the entire water column, from sea floor to surface, all but ensures a years-long process to return balance to the waters.
"Unfortunately the damage has mostly been done," he said.