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.
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.