Connect to share and comment

10 animals most at risk from Gulf oil spill

Sea turtles, oysters and shorebirds are all in danger from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

6. Oysters

The coastal waters around the very tip of Louisiana’s boot-shaped coast are home to some of the most productive oyster farms in the country. Oils and hydrocarbons are toxic to oysters. Unfortunately, hydrocarbons can persist in coastal sediments for months or even years. Louisiana oyster farmers, many of whom barely scrape by with high fuel costs and global competition, could have trouble weathering the oil spill if their harvests are affected.

7. Shrimp and blue crab

Coastal marshes are key to the life cycle and development of Louisiana shrimp and blue crab — both staples of the local seafood industry. Inshore shrimp season will open in mid-May, while brown shrimp are in their post-larval and juvenile development stages.

Blue crab
Blue crab. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

8. Menhaden and marsh-dwelling fish.

The young offspring of species such as mullet, menhaden and marsh-dwelling forage fishes are especially vulnerable at this time of year. Menhaden is a little fish you've probably never heard of, but people all over the world use it everyday. Menhaden fish oil and meat are used in everything from cosmetics to animal feed. Louisiana is one of the world’s biggest suppliers and the oil spill comes smack in the middle of menhaden spawning season.

Mullet fish
Mullet fish. (Toshiyuki Aizawa/Reuters)

9. Beach-nesting and migratory shorebirds

Overdeveloped beachfronts all along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida have made life difficult for several species of plovers, sandpipers, terns and oystercatchers. Those that build their nests on the ground and feed on invertebrates are susceptible to oil on the beaches. Some migratory shore birds fly nearly the length of the Western Hemisphere and use barrier islands in the Gulf for key resting and refueling spots on their journey.

Plover. (Bill Stripling/National Audubon Society)

10. Migratory songbirds — warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers, swallows and others

About 96 species of neotropical songbirds make a 500-mile journey without a pit stop across the Gulf of Mexico. The next two weeks mark the height of their migration as they travel north from Central and South America to breed in North America. The smoke from controlled burns to mitigate the oil spill could affect the migration, but the impacts will be difficult to monitor.

Warbler. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

On a positive note, the sweet crude oil found in the Gulf is lighter and less toxic than other oils. It can be burned without refining it first and some ecosystems might be able to break it down over time.

Sources: Gulf Restoration Network; Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy; Louisiana Sea Grant Program; National Audubon Society's Louisiana Coastal Initiative; Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of pygmy sperm whales and to correct a reference to porpoises.