Posted on 19 May 2010
An ocean current could carry oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico around Florida and up the East Coast, federal officials said Tuesday.
Officials also announced they were closing one-fifth of federal waters in the Gulf to fishing—a major blow to the seafood industry—due to the threat of oil still leaking from a well opened by the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which burned and sank late last month.
A thread of oil from the spill already may have entered a movement of water in the Gulf known as the Loop Current, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Oil in the Loop Current could reach Florida within 10 days and then start heading up the East Coast, she said.
As the slick spreads, government officials on Tuesday more than doubled the swath of the Gulf where fishing is prohibited.
As of Tuesday afternoon, about 45,700 square miles, accounting for about 19% of federal Gulf waters, were closed to fishing, up from the roughly 9% that was closed as of Monday.
Concerns about the spill's effect on wildlife are mounting. Government officials said Tuesday that they have documented 156 dead sea turtles, 12 dead bottlenose dolphins, and 35 oiled birds—23 of them dead—since the spill.
The number of dead sea turtles is significantly above historical levels, they said, though they haven't yet determined whether the deaths resulted from the oil spill, which started April 20.
Wildlife experts are particularly worried about ecological impacts that aren't yet visible—including how the oil, and chemicals sprayed to break it up, may be harming deepwater corals as well as whales and birds that live miles offshore.
"What concerns us most is what we can't see," said Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This spill, in all likelihood, will affect fish and wildlife resources in the gulf and across North America for years, and maybe for decades."
In an attempt at ecological triage, those fighting the spill are applying hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical "dispersants" onto the slick, aiming to break it into tiny particles that then can be digested by naturally occurring bacteria in the water.
But scientists say they don't know how that much dispersant, combined with the thousands of barrels oil that officials estimate are continuing to gush out of the well every day, will affect sea life from the Gulf's floor to its surface.
To answer those questions, government officials and scientists are scrambling to dispatch research ships to collect information.
"There is going to be groundbreaking science to really get a handle on the total impact," said Roger Helm, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's division of environmental quality. "But we all feel very strongly that the impact is very significant."
Oil picked up by the Loop Current could wash ashore along the southern portion of the East Coast as clumps known as tar balls, Ms. Lubchenco said.
Coast Guard and NOAA officials began surveying the shores off Key West by boat and helicopter on Tuesday, after 20 tar balls, each measuring three inches to eight inches in diameter, washed up on a state-park beach there Monday.
The Coast Guard said the globs could be oil remnants from a ship; laboratory tests are under way to determine their origin. The Loop Current runs from the Gulf through the Florida Straits, which divide the Florida Keys from Cuba.
The current then turns into the Gulf Stream, which runs up the East Coast roughly to Cape Hatteras, N.C., where it moves further out to sea.
NOAA models suggest that by the time any oil picked up by the Loop Current were to make landfall along the East Coast, it would have lost most of its toxicity, Ms. Lubchenco said.
But, she added, "A lot of that will depend on local conditions and local winds."