Tens of thousands of dead birds.
More than 170,000 turtles.
A billion newly hatched fish — and maybe as many as 8 billion oysters.
That's the federal government's estimated toll on wildlife from the undersea blowout that wracked the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. In addition, as many as half of the dolphins that lived in Louisiana's Barataria Bay, the worst-hit part of the coast, may have died as a result — a loss "that will take decades to recover naturally," its report states.
The undersea gusher damaged the hearts of fish and the lungs of dolphins, fouled beaches where birds and turtles nest, and killed marsh plants that provide food and shelter for other animals. The figures are included among hundreds of pages of documents that detail a proposed settlement between the US government and BP, which owned the failed well at the heart of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
"All of the natural resources of the northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystem were threatened and many were injured, some severely, as a result of the Deepwater Horizon incident," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded after five years of study. "These injuries caused significant adverse effects to the environment … and to the economy of the region."
NOAA had been holding those conclusions close to the chest in anticipation of a court showdown with BP. Now they're being put out for public study and comment before a federal judge in New Orleans decides whether to approve the proposed deal, currently estimated at more than $20 billion. The settlement proposal includes $8.1 billion for natural resource damage and another $700 million to address any yet-undiscovered losses, with much of it going to restore the Gulf's ecosystem.
"What we have been saying, and what a lot of others have been saying for the last five years, is that the damage was extensive, and many, many, many resources — birds and mammals and turtles — were severely affected by the spill," said David Muth, the Gulf restoration program director for the National Wildlife Federation. "That's borne out by the fact that BP agreed to an $8 billion settlement, which is unprecedented."
NWF experts had heard rumors that the estimated toll would be high, "but we never knew what the final numbers would be," he added. "Because there was a pending court case, there was no real publicity about what the field teams were finding."
The estimated losses are based on a combination of on-site sampling, previously known populations of key species, laboratory studies of the toxicity of the oil and the dispersants used to break it up and the mathematical extrapolation of those results to put a number on the ecological damage to life far offshore and below the surface. Most of the deaths will never result in bodies washing ashore.
But Bethany Kraft, the Gulf restoration program director for Ocean Conservancy, said the damage is visible in high-profile species like dolphins.
"You see them very sick and more vulnerable," she said. More than 1,400 dolphins and other marine mammals have been found dead since the spill — a rate several times higher than the years before the spill.
"The ones that you find are indicative of probably many more that you don't find," Kraft said.
In the years since the spill, BP has pointed to a rebound of Gulf Coast fisheries and tourism and disputed studies linking its spill to the deaths of dolphins. It already has paid more than $30 billion in cleanup costs, compensation and fines and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of the 11 workers killed when the drill rig Deepwater Horizon blew up and sank off Louisiana.
In a statement to VICE News, chief BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said the company was reserving judgment on the damage assessment.
"While BP fully supports the consent decree, BP had no role in developing, and at this time is taking no position on the damage assessment and restoration plan that was wholly prepared by the U.S. and Gulf States' Trustees," Morrell said.
In all, NOAA's report estimated that between 50,000 and 84,000 birds died as a result of the disaster. Sea turtle losses were calculated at 4,900 to 7,600 larger sea turtles — and 56,000 to 166,000 small juveniles.
In Louisiana, the state's rich oyster beds were devastated not only by the spill but by the release of fresh water from the Mississippi River into the salty coastal waters where they grew. And the survivors are struggling to reproduce, "compromising the long-term sustainability of oyster reefs throughout the northern central Gulf of Mexico," NOAA concluded. The losses will likely amount to between 4 billion and 8.3 billion oysters — or up to half a billion pounds of oyster meat.
"Oyster populations in the north central Gulf of Mexico will likely require substantive restoration activities to overcome the population bottleneck created by the oil spill and associated response activities," the report states.
The toll also includes more than 4,300 square miles of sargassum — a nuisance to tourists on the Gulf's brilliant white sands, but a source of food and shelter for fish and young sea turtles — and trillions of tiny plankton. A billion fish larvae may have died in the spill as well.
Those are huge numbers, but ones that might represent barely a dent in a vast marine ecosystem, said Steve Murawski, a University of South Florida marine ecologist who has studied fish populations since the spill.
"For little things like plankton, trillions are trivial, given what we know about how abundant they are," Murawski said. A single fish may lay millions of eggs. But for species like oysters, the losses are "a very significant number."
The impact on other species is harder to judge because so few studies of the Gulf had been conducted before the blowout, he said. That's likely to change, as the settlement is expected to provide up to $2 billion for additional research over the next decade and a half.
"A lot of studies have continued in terms of what's going on, and those continuing studies are going to help us understand what's going on," Murawski said.
The public has until December 4 to comment on the settlement, NOAA spokesman Ben Sherman said. Once those comments are reviewed and any changes are made, the deal will go before a judge for approval and the trustees—four federal agencies and the five Gulf states — will start developing restoration projects, he said.
Meanwhile, environmentalists and local governments are reviewing not only the mortality numbers but the proposed restoration plans, which stretch into the 2030s.
"All of that good work, all of that paper, is only as good as the trustees' implementation of projects that matter," Kraft said. "There's still a lot of work to do."
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