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Oil & Habitat
As stewards of our nationís coastal, marine, and riverine habitat, we are concerned about the near and long-term impacts of oil spills and impacts on the ecology of these natural resources. Our job is to conduct studies to identify the extent of natural resource injuries, the best methods for restoring those resources, the type and the amount of restoration required to execute the resources and their habitat. NOAA leads a rigorous and thorough Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which is a legal process to identify injuries to coastal and marine natural resources, including marine and migratory fish, endangered species, marine mammals, and their habitat.
We work to ensure that habitat affected or lost due to an oil spill is allowed to flourish once again. NOAA expertise and science, paired with long-standing partnerships with local and academic organizations as well as public input, are critical to the long-term recovery of productive coastlines, vibrant fisheries, and thriving wildlife.
General Facts—When Oil Meets Habitat
- Oil and dispersants in water can result in exposure of aquatic resources to toxicological effects. This contact in the water column might be exacerbated by weather conditions.
- The presence of discharged oil in the environment can cause decreased use of habitat, altered migration patterns, altered food availability, and disrupted life cycles.
- Oil can kill marine mammals, fish, sea turtles (pdf) - 2.5mb), and aquatic invertebrates or damage reproductive functions. This is particularly true for shellfish, such as oysters and clams, which live in and filter shallow water.
- Oil reaching nearshore areas can affect productive nursery grounds and areas containing high numbers of fish eggs and larvae.
- Oil can kill corals (pdf - 248kb), depending on species, life stage, and exposure. Branching corals are more sensitive to oil impacts than are massive or plate-like corals. The time of year when a spill occurs is critical, because coral reproduction and early life stages are particularly sensitive to oil.
- The effect of the oil on coastal erosion is determined by how much oil reaches the coastal regions and how long it remains. Oiled plants can die, along with roots that bind and stabilize the soil, leading to erosion.
After a Spill—Effects of Chemical Dispersants on Habitat and Animals
- Chemical dispersants are used to break up large slicks into droplet and smaller sizes so natural biodegradation can occur. While decreasing oil exposure for surface dwelling organisms such as birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles, it increases the exposure for fish, shrimp, oysters, coral, and many other species.
- Although chemical dispersants are less toxic than oil, scientists have limited knowledge about the long term environmental impacts when they are used in large volumes. Dispersed oil is more difficult to clean up prolonging its presence and ecological impact, particularly in buffering wetlands.
- The level of toxicity of a dispersant depends on the substance used and the environmental conditions at the time it is applied.
On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform killed 11 men and caused a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is something our nation has not seen before, causing a range of ecosystem impacts along the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida. With 20 years of experience restoring habitat impacted by oil, including restoration activities conducted in the Gulf prior to the spill, NOAA is prepared to lead the effort to develop a range of restoration strategies. We are involved in both near and long-term restoration efforts to return the Gulf to pre-spill conditions.
Habitat in the Gulf of Mexico
- Approximately 97 percent (by weight) of the commercial fish and shellfish landings (pdf - 2mb) from the Gulf of Mexico are species that depend on estuaries and wetlands at some point in their life. The Louisiana coastal zone alone accounts for nearly one-third (by weight) of the fish harvested in the entire continental United States.
- Estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico (pdf - 2.1mb) are essential fish habitat for red drum, reef fish, shrimp, stone crab, and coastal migratory fish species.
- Important and vulnerable habitat, including essential fish habitat, covers nearly every part of the Gulf of Mexico. Some examples include coral reefs (pdf - 9.9mb), mangroves, marshes, submerged aquatic vegetation, and sandy beaches where turtles breed.
- In general, the 42 managed species of reef fish in the Gulf are found in bottom areas with high relief, such as coral reefs, artificial reefs, and rocky hard-bottom surfaces deeper than 100 meters. If oil reaches the bottom or nearshore areas, the majority of the reef fish species would be impacted.
- The Gulf of Mexico is the only documented spawning grounds for Western Atlantic bluefin tuna. Following spawning, bluefin tuna larvae remain in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Bluefin tuna eggs and larvae might die when contact is made with oil droplets.
- Some reef fish in the Gulf, such as red snapper and red grouper, spawn in spring and their eggs and larvae are often carried by currents. Larvae would not be able to avoid or escape the oil in currents.
- Species such as gray triggerfish, amberjack, and several gulf shark species, which use the Gulf’s coastal habitats as nursery areas in the spring and summer months, might also be affected by the oil.
Shorelines and Coastal Wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico
- Each year, we lose 25 square miles of coastal wetlands in Louisiana alone. In the past century, we have lost more than a million acres.
- If the current rate of erosion continues, Louisiana alone could lose an additional 800,000 acres of wetlands by 2040, moving the shoreline inland by as much as 33 miles in some areas.
- The Gulf of Mexico coastal areas comprise more than half of the coastal wetlands within the lower 48 states. Louisiana alone has approximately 40 percent of the total.