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On Endangered Species Day, Recognizing the Cost of Oil Spills


How might the Deepwater Horizon disaster impact the status of the brown pelican and the West Indian manatee? USFWS photos.

This coming Friday, May 21, is Endangered Species Day. It is a day to both celebrate the amazing successes achieved for wildlife protection ... and to reflect on the work still left to be done.

Since the creation of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, hundreds of animals and plants have been listed as threatened or endangered. The ESA provides listed species with protections and resources to prevent their extinction. The good news is that because of Endangered Species Act protections, 21 species have been saved from extinction and delisted, including the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and the American alligator.

And yet, while the Endangered Species Act has achieved much in its 37-year history, the truth is that there is still so much work left to be done for too many vulnerable species. And this is made all the more evident in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. When said and done, the oil spill will be recognized as one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history.

Millions of gallons of oil will have disastrous impacts on the coast line, wildlife, and vital fishing and tourism industries within the Gulf of Mexico. Summer is the prime breeding season for most of the wildlife in the region, including oysters, turtles, birds and migratory fish. This spill has the potential to devastate species already on the Endangered Species List, cause new species to be listed, and even threaten species that had been successfully removed from the list. The effects will be felt for years to come.

Several endangered species are at risk of further losses or even extinction as a result of the oil spill. Before the oil spill, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle was already the most-endangered sea turtle in the world. Found almost exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico, Kemp’s Ridley only breeds on a few select beaches in Texas and Mexico (among those beaches are some at Padre Island National Seashore and Gulf Islands National Seashore), but they feed in the Mississippi River estuary. As they migrate between their feeding and breeding grounds, the endangered sea turtles will pass through the site of the oil spill, putting them at risk of swallowing oil directly or consuming it indirectly through food sources that may be contaminated with oil.

Loggerhead and green sea turtles are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List. They breed along the western coast of Florida (including sites within Gulf Islands National Seashore) throughout the summer and many sea turtles migrate through Gulf Coast waters. The danger of oil contamination may exacerbate the problems the sea turtles already face from habitat loss, fisheries and pollution.

The West Indian manatee is an endangered mammal that spends much of the summer swimming through coastal waters along Florida and, to a lesser extent, the Gulf Coast. Manatees prefer to eat sea grasses, so they will face fewer effects from ingesting oil than other wildlife. However, as manatees swim along the surface they could inhale toxic gases released by the oil. These chemicals could have short and long term health effects on adult manatees and affect the development of their young.

Bluefin tuna is not listed on the Endangered Species Act, but the population is declining dramatically in the United States and around the world. Overfishing has become such a threat to bluefins that at the last Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a complete worldwide ban on bluefin fishing was proposed (it failed, but that’s another story).

From April to June, the Atlantic stock of bluefins migrates into the Gulf Coast and breed in the exact location of the oil spill. Even if adult fish survive swimming through the oil and low oxygen environment, the eggs might not survive into adulthood. This could send Atlantic bluefin populations into a full tailspin to the point where Endangered Species Act protections might be too little, too late.

The Gulf Coast is a vital habitat for migrating birds. Birds use it as a resting stop on their way north, or they breed in the coastal dunes and marshlands. The reddish egret breeds only along the Gulf Coast and the American oystercatcher nests and feeds on its beaches. These two birds are on the front-lines of the devastation and will provide the first clues into the true impacts of the spill on birds. Will the oil push birds with low-population sizes onto the Endangered Species List?

The brown pelican is one of the greatest success stories of the Endangered Species Act. In November of last year the large coastal bird was removed from the list after over 30 years of recovery efforts, introductions, and habitat protection. Brown pelicans breed on barrier islands and coastal marshes in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast, including the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The oil spill has the potential to undo all the amazing work the Endangered Species Act has achieved.

Brown pelicans are threatened by the oil spill in two ways: poisoning from consuming contaminated fish and heat loss. A clean, healthy bird’s feathers interlock to keep cold water away from the body and increase buoyancy. After a spill, oil gets between the feathers and stops this natural process. It allows water to reach the bird's skin and makes the bird vulnerable to exposure and heat loss. In less than a year after its removal from the Endangered Species List, brown pelicans might be in for their biggest challenge yet.

On May 21st, take some time to recognize the achievements of the Endangered Species Act and the hard work of government agencies, non-profits, scientists and citizens to protect our most vulnerable wildlife. Create a backyard habitat for migratory birds, organize a beach cleanup, or take your children to a local national park or zoo to learn about an endangered species. If you can, consider volunteering your time to help in the Gulf Coast oil spill cleanup or, if you live farther away, by volunteering to protect an endangered species near you.

Visit NWF’s Oil Spill Website to learn more about the oil spill and what you can do to help.

To volunteer with the Gulf Coast oil spill cleanup, call the Deepwater Horizon Response Volunteer Request Line at 1-866-448-5816 or visit


As this environmental disaster of epic proportions drags on – with the dire consequences yet to be fully determined and realized – the U.S. government needs to take a more urgent and heavy-handed approach to the clean up. And not publicly designate a company already being accused by many as grossly negligent and incompetent as the primary organization responsible for saving the environment.

Sure, some of this is posturing and our government is letting BP know it has a lot of liability in the matter.

But this oil spill has already spun way too far out of control, and it’s starting to seem like nobody knows what to do or how to stop it.

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