Public aquaria to help wildlife affected by oil spill

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Aquariums around the Gulf of Mexico are gearing up to help rehabilitate wildlife affected by the oil spill this month.

Unfortunately this may come too late as studies suggest that some wildlife including fish may be affected for generations to come.

Over 50 organisations including the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Clearwater Aquarium, Audubon Aquatic Center and Minnesota Zoo have pledged their time and resources to help rehabilitate affected wildlife such as turtles, manatees and seabirds as well as assisting in the clean up. In total 32 national wildlife refuges are under threat encompassing five states Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Texas.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute's Division of Marine Operations, and the Mote marine laboratory under an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a high-tech robotic submersible to the oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico to examine the underwater plume of oil.

The oil spill is now over 1500 metres deep and covers an area 2500 square miles with 140 miles of coastline affected and deep sea plumes of oil being found up to 142 miles away from the rig.

The oil from the spill contaminates marine wildlife in a number of ways. Dead fish, dolphins and turtles continue to wash up onshore alongside balls of tar and debris, whilst experts predict that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that they are only seeing around 10% of the animals such as sea birds that have been affected.

The oil may kill and affect animals through drowning, coating them, clogging their mouths, damaging internal organs, forcing them to move away from their natural habitat, starving them and even affecting their ability to breathe by clogging gills or poisoning them with toxic fumes. This is before we even start to look at the effects of plumes of oil deep in the water column and the massive quantities of dispersants being used.

Problems will also come if the oil remains in the upper layer of the water column - an area filled with extremely sensitive invertebrates and fish larvae. Those that are not immediately killed will likely have lower reproductive rates and life spans. They could also sicken the larger fish that feed off them.

If the oil settles on shallower shelves, it will damage important habitats like coral reefs, which can have a lasting impact on survival and reproduction rates for years to come and if it reaches coastal wetlands this will have a devastating effect on critical breeding grounds of any number of shrimp, crab, fish, turtles and other marine animals.

A U.S. government team of experts estimated that the very least that the spill has released is 12,000 barrels per day which would mean that about 516,000 barrels (21.7 million gallons) would have been released through to the start of June, making the Deepwater Horizon double the volume of that released by the Exxon Valdez disaster so far.

If there is any silver lining to be had, some experts predict that this could allow some fish stocks to recover. As recently as 2004, the gulf of Mexico had in excess of 20,000 licensed trawlers and some scientists say that the closure of fisheries will allow a much needed recovery period for some fish and shrimp.