Environmentalists Monitoring Oil Spill Impact

Melissa Block talks to Robert Thomas, of the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University in New Orleans, about the potential effects the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will have on the wildlife and habitat of the coastal gulf ecosystem.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of species of wildlife threatened by the oil that's headed toward the coast. And we're going to talk now with someone who has spent his career studying the ecosystems of that Mississippi Delta, Robert Thomas, a scientist at Loyola University in New Orleans. Welcome to the program.

Professor ROBERT THOMAS (Scientist, Loyola University New Orleans): Good to be here.

BLOCK: Can you give us a sense of the ecology, the diversity of this area where the oil is headed? What does this look like?

Prof. THOMAS: Well, first of all, it's America's most vast coastal wetlands. And it has an awful lot of variety of ecosystems, all the way from open water estuaries to bayous and swamps and a variety of types of marshes. Matter of fact, it's so diverse that we have a marsh here called intermediate marsh. It's not even recognized anyplace else in America.

So these are really, really special wetlands and they're extremely productive. I mean, they produce 40 percent of the commercial fisheries of the continental United States. But when a naturalist like myself goes out in the field, you know, just tremendous diversity of birds and reptiles and mammals and insects and plant species and the like, it's an absolutely spectacularly gorgeous place.

BLOCK: And all of that diversity would be threatened, I imagine, by the oil headed that way.

Prof. THOMAS: Exactly. And what we see coming right now, the image of what is coming toward us right now is a vast, vast oil slick is going to come right into Breton Sound, right across the Chandeleur Islands, right back into an incredible place for wildlife and it's coming in on a high tide. So the oil is just going to get a free ride up into the wetlands.

And once it coats those wetlands, once it contaminates oyster reefs, once it starts to contaminate the estuaries where 95 percent of the commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico have their nursery grounds, a major calamity is what we're going to have to deal with.

BLOCK: Major calamity. I'm thinking, too, about the bird populations and the timing of this. This would be, I think, peak nesting season, also peak migration season.

Prof. THOMAS: Yeah, you know, it's peak nesting season, especially for the animals that are nesting in the low areas like out on the Barrier Islands. A variety of terns and gulls and pelicans and things like that, and they're likely to get a good soaking from the oil. And everybody's very fearful of if they'll be able to survive. It's hard enough for the adults to survive when they get oil on them, but if the babies, if it gets into the nests and contaminates the babies, they're pretty much gone. So you'll lose a nesting season.

And then you can sit there and speculate on the migratory birds that are coming through. Most of them are landing in treetops and staying on higher ground. But an awful lot of them are going to land in the backwaters of the estuaries to feed and gather their resources before they fly on.

BLOCK: What about the wildlife in the Gulf itself? There have been sperm whales spotted around this area of the oil spill, sea turtles out there. What about the effects on them?

Prof. THOMAS: Well, you know, most of those animals will leave. Most people who are talking about this down here are speculating. And I have to say, it's always speculation. But based on our experiences, whales, porpoises, sea turtles, things like fin fish will simply move.

But that leaves things like the plankton flora and anything on the bottom, that includes blue crabs and especially those oyster reefs, which has people just scared to death down here. That's a major part of our economy and it's a major part of our culture.

BLOCK: What do you figure the long-term impact of this spill will be on the ecosystem of this delta?

Prof. THOMAS: I suspect with an influx of this much oil that the long term is not going to be good. It's probably going to be very bad because it's going to weaken those wetlands even further. It's going to decimate the fauna. It's going to decimate the flora and we're going to be left with a very, very crippled ecosystem that has been supporting an enormity of bio-diverse life.

BLOCK: Well, Robert Thomas, thanks for talking to us about it.

Prof. THOMAS: Absolutely.

BLOCK: Robert Thomas is director of the Center for Environmental Communications at Loyola University in New Orleans.

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