TERRY GROSS, host:

The BP oil spill has been disastrous for wildlife in the Gulf, like sea turtles and the brown pelicans. My guest, Doug Inkley, is the senior wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation. He's an expert in endangered species conservation and wetlands conservation.

Doug Inkley, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of the damage, so far, to wetlands and wildlife.

Mr. DOUG INKLEY (Senior Wildlife Biologist, National Wildlife Federation): Well, we're still counting the toll. One of the problems with the BP oil spill is that the major impacts are occurring out of sight, underwater.

What we're seeing on the surface, such as the oiling of the wetlands or these terrible pictures of pelicans that were caught up in the oil, that is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

The fact of the matter is this oil spill is a mile deep, and dispersants are being added to it so that oil is dispersing throughout the entire water column and having probably a huge effect on the marine wildlife.

Meanwhile, up on the surface, we do see damage. We see significant damage. We see oil on hundreds of acres of wetlands. We see well over 1,000 birds killed. We recognize that we already have a significant toll on wildlife. But we are not being able to measure what's happening underwater, where I'm very concerned about that.

GROSS: Are you afraid that certain species are going to be totally wiped out?

Mr. INKLEY: What I am concerned about here is that we are probably pushing closer to the brink of extinction several species. In particular, I'm talking about the sea turtles.

We have five species of threatened and endangered sea turtles that frequent the Gulf of Mexico. And the problem with an endangered or threatened species is that every individual counts. So a dead sea turtle, especially an adult that may take 20 years to mature, is removing an animal from the breeding population for a very long time.

GROSS: Why are the sea turtles so vulnerable?

Mr. INKLEY: Well, one reason the sea turtles are so vulnerable to this oil spill is it's right in the middle of where they frequent. They're there all the time.

Two: Studies have shown that the sea turtles do not recognize oil for what it is, and they do not know how to avoid it. So they'll just surface in the oil as if it were the natural water surface.

A third reason is that the tar balls that float in the water can have an appearance of looking somewhat like jellyfish, and many sea turtles eat jellyfish. So the problem is that the sea turtles actually ingest the oil when they're going about their normal processes.

But that's not all.

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. INKLEY: There's one more problem here, and that is that this right now is the nesting season for the sea turtles. They're naturally crawling up on the beaches - they have been for the last probably month or two - depositing their nests of about 100 eggs and then going out to sea.

Well, those hatchlings are beginning to hatch out of the eggs now and crawl into the Gulf, where they expect to encounter pristine waters and plenty of food, but that's certainly not what they're going to encounter this year.

GROSS: So there's like a whole generation that probably won't survive.

Mr. INKLEY: We have the possibility that this year's crop of sea turtle hatchlings will not survive in the area proximal to the oil spill. That's a very real possibility not only for sea turtles, but also for some of the sea birds that are in the area, such as the brown pelicans. We could lose a very significant portion of the young that normally would be brought into the population this year.

GROSS: How old do sea turtles live to?

Mr. INKLEY: Oh my gosh, sea turtles can live to be 30, 40, 50 years old. It's a very interesting population dynamics for sea turtles that they lay quite a few eggs during their lifetime, but only a few make it to adulthood; and those that do make it to adulthood usually survive for decades.

GROSS: Now something else I've heard about the sea turtles is that some of them are basically being burned alive by the oil burns, by attempts to burn off part of the oil.

Mr. INKLEY: Yes, we're very concerned about that. What's happening is that the boats are dragging these lines and trying to circle the oil that's floating the surface to concentrate it, and then it is lit so it can be burned to burn the oil off of the surface.

And when these oil slicks are kind of rounded up by the boats and pushed into one area, the sea turtles and other creatures can get stuck in them, and we've heard reports that captains were not allowed to retrieve any marine life, such as sea turtles, that they saw and that the areas were actually lit on fire. So that's certainly not a good sign for the sea turtles.

So we're probably having a lot of sea turtle mortality and other wildlife mortality that we're never even seeing.

GROSS: What makes sea turtles special?

Mr. INKLEY: Seat turtles are special in my mind because they are -they're such neat critters. If you've ever seen one I've been very fortunate in my lifetime that I've seen a sea turtle crawl out of the ocean on the coast of Georgia, many years ago, and crawl up on the beach - this historic, prehistoric-looking creature, which it really is - and lay its eggs laboriously, some hundred or so, about the size of a Ping-Pong ball - and then crawl back into the sea. It was something that I obviously cherish and remember from my childhood.

But they're so endangered, and they have such a unique lifestyle, but we've had a huge impact on them around the world. All the sea turtle species in the world are threatened or endangered. And it's because of people over-consuming them, such as going to the beaches and taking their eggs for food. No regulation of that or no prohibiting of that in certain places. We're trying to get a better handle on that now, or to stop those practices.

Unfortunately, they've been caught in the nets of fisherman. In particular, what was damaging for a number of years was shrimp trawlers. They would pull their trawlers, their nets, beneath the surface for quite some period of time, and the sea turtles would get caught in them and drown. But through the requirement of the use of TEDs, called turtle excluder devices, TEDs, the National Wildlife Federation and others worked very hard to require the fishermen to use, and that's helped save a lot of turtles.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Doug Inkley, and he's the senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, and we're talking about the impact of the oil catastrophe on wildlife and wetlands.

The brown pelican has become a symbol of the spill's devastation, and the brown pelican is also Louisiana's state bird. What's particularly tragic about the brown pelican, as a lot of people know, it had just been taken off the endangered species list last November, and now it's being totally threatened again.

The reason why it had headed toward extinction was because of DDT, the pesticide. So it must be particularly upsetting to you to see what's happening to the brown pelican now.

Mr. INKLEY: Well, it does concern me greatly, because the biologists worked really hard to help the species recover. The bird has recovered along the Atlantic Coast, along the Pacific Coast and on the Gulf Coast, as well.

And then we have this BP oil spill, and wham, there's a new problem in the Gulf of Mexico for this particular species. And it couldn't have happened at a worse time because it happened right at the beginning of the breeding system.

The adult pelicans can get oil on them if they're still able to fly and get back to the nest, and they incubate their eggs. Then they can unintentionally rub the oil off of their feathers onto the eggs, and that's toxic to the eggs. It will kill them.

But it's even worse than that, and I'm not trying to exaggerate here at all because what really happens is that these eggs have now hatched, which means that instead of having one or two mouths to feed, these adult pelicans now have two or three young in the nest that they also have to feed.

So rather than sitting around incubating their eggs all day, they're very active, and they're out foraging, looking for a lot of food. Which means that they have a much higher probability of coming in contact with oily water and not being able to fly and get back to the nest either the bird dies or hopefully is caught and tried to be cleaned up and released again but by the time it's released and back in the wild, its chicks will be dead.

GROSS: And the pelicans probably also have a lower probability of finding food to feed the baby pelicans.

Mr. INKLEY: Well, that's exactly right, and what you're talking about there is we've circled right back to my major concern, which is the food chain effects. What's happening? Are there going to be enough fish for the pelicans to find? Are there going to be enough fish for the dolphins to find? Are there going to be reduced populations of shrimp, et cetera, in the future?

We already know from a previous experience that the effects of an oil spill like this can last for years if not decades. The Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound occurred in 1989. And what's happened now is that we've realized that some 21 years later, the herring population - the fish, the herring population - has still not recovered. So we have to recognize that there could be some very long-term effects of this oil spill.

GROSS: My guest is Doug Inkley, the National Wildlife Federation's senior wildlife biologist. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Doug Inkley, and he's the senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, and we're talking about the impact of the oil spill on wildlife and wetlands.

I have to say I really love pelicans. I've spent several summer vacations in a part of California that has a lot of pelicans, and they're such magnificent creatures. And they look to me like they're from prehistoric times, because their really large, fringed wings look they really look like they're from the dinosaur era, like they're related to pterodactyls.

Mr. INKLEY: Yeah, they do look like that, don't they?

GROSS: Are they that old?

Mr. INKLEY: They actually are one of the more primitive species of birds, when you look at the taxonomic classification for them. Fortunately, this oil spill is not going to really affect them on the Gulf or Pacific Coasts excuse me, the Atlantic or the Pacific Coast, but certainly, the total impact remains yet to be seen in the Gulf Coast.

GROSS: We've seen kind of heartbreaking pictures of oiled pelicans being cleaned. And the idea is that once they're brought back to a state of health, and the oil is clean that they can thrive again. But really, what happens after they're cleaned? I mean, are they sent back out into the same oiled area that they were rescued from?

Mr. INKLEY: It's a lot more complex than simply capturing an animal that has oil on it, washing it off and returning it to the wild. There are wildlife veterinarians. If there's broken bones, they can set them. They can give every individual animal a checkup to make sure that it's okay, and they don't release it until such time as they deem that it is appropriate.

They are releasing most of the animals at a remote site from where they were captured, which of course is appropriate since we still have a huge amount of oil present in the Gulf and will continue to do so through at least August, given the projections for the relief wells.

So some of the animals are being taken to other sites, such as Texas or Florida, and the animals are being released there. I know that's been done with the brown pelicans.

GROSS: So when pelicans are released to a different location than they came from, are they confused about where they are and what to do?

Mr. INKLEY: Well, you bring up a very good point because birds, just like you and I, they know their home territory. When you go out on the street, you know where to go for food. You know where to go to sleep at night.

Well if you take a bird you've captured it, you've cleaned it, you move it 500 miles away, and you release it it doesn't know where the best feeding areas are. It doesn't know where to roost at night in a safe place away from predators.

So it really is very challenging to be successful in this program. But I believe that we have to make every effort that we can. After all, we're the people that we're the cause of this problem in the first place, the oil spilling, and it was mankind that brought it upon them, and we have an obligation to try and help them out.

But it is a challenge. Even a bird that is released, that looks perfectly healthy, may have what we call sub-lethal effects to it. For example, mallards that ingest or eat oil, albeit unintentionally, their behavior can be changed such that they don't actually properly go through the entire mating process, and therefore, they're not able to produce young.

So the bird looks fine, but it may not be fine in the way that it's functioning. Its immune system could be depressed.

So there are lots of concerns, but oftentimes, birds and other animals have been returned to the wild after being oiled and have been documented to breed successfully.

GROSS: Are dolphin at risk from the oil spill?

Mr. INKLEY: Well, dolphin are at some risk. It's been fortunate that while there have been some - more than 50 dolphins that have been found dead since this oil spill started - that at least the numbers are not as high as with the sea turtles. For some reason, the sea turtles seem to be much more susceptible. I'm concerned with the dolphins about the long-term effects in terms of the food chain.

But there's another mammal species that I've very worried about, more so than the dolphins, to be honest with you, and that is, you know, the sperm whale.

This resident population of sperm whales lives right at the edge of the outer continental shelf, where it drops off from several hundred feet deep down to a mile or more deep at the bottom of the Gulf.

They dive down there to feed. They feed on that drop-off cliff, if you will, and where should this oil spill be occurring but right at the bottom of that steep drop-off a mile deep.

This is where the animals spend a great amount of time, and it's been documented that they especially like to hang around the outflow of the Mississippi River because that's where a lot of nutrients come down the river and help feed the life that's in the Gulf, and so it's part of the food chain, fertilizing it, if you will. But this is exactly where the oil spill has occurred.

GROSS: Sperm whales have such a they're big, and they have such a big body surface. Does that make them any more or less vulnerable?

Mr. INKLEY: Well, they do have a big body surface. What I have heard reports of, is that the animals seem to be surfacing to breathe in the slick itself, as though they're taking no natural aversion to it.

Well, remember, they're breathing through their blowholes, and the blowholes are right down there at the surface of the water where the oil is.

When I was on the Gulf of Mexico, I stopped at one point 10 miles from shore, still 50 miles from the spill site, and all around me was a half-inch thick of this terribly odiferous, black, thick oil. And we had to wear face masks.

Now, we're asking these sperm whales to breathe in this stuff without face masks, if you will, and so they're vulnerable to the fumes. It can cause burns. It can cause toxic chemicals to build up in them when they're breathing it in.

And think about these animals. They have special adaptations to allow them to dive a mile deep into the ocean. What's happening when their capacity to take oxygen in is impaired by breathing of these vapors. Is it affecting their ability to stay down for long periods of time?

We do know that one sperm whale has been found dead since the beginning of the oil spill. It was some 70 or so miles south of the oil spill site, and studies have yet to be completed to determine whether or not oil had anything to do with the death of this animal. It's still unknown, but it is of concern to me.

GROSS: Doug Inkley, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. INKLEY: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: Doug Inkley is the National Wildlife Federation's senior wildlife biologist. After we recorded our interview, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a plan to find sea turtle nests, which are now filled with eggs, and move them out of the range of oil and later release the baby turtles on the east coast of Florida. Doug Inkley estimates there are between 800 and 900 sea turtle nests in the Gulf, which an average of 100 eggs in each nest.

You can find a photo gallery of brown pelicans in the Gulf on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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