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Disaster Field Guide 

Louisiana's Gulf coast is home to thousands of species

click to enlarge Oil from the BP spill creeps ever closer to the interior marsh, a nesting ground for wildlife.
  • Oil from the BP spill creeps ever closer to the interior marsh, a nesting ground for wildlife.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compiled a report of species at risk from BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Defense Fund biologist Stacy Small helped explain what's living in our backyard with a field guide to all the Gulf's creatures.


  In 2008, recreational fishers took about 24 million fishing trips. Commercial fishermen took home more than 1.27 million pounds of fin fish and shellfish, accounting for $659 million worth of seafood.

  The largest Gulf fishing catches are red snapper and shrimp. Brown shrimp are caught from June through October, though this season has been canceled to hopefully allow juvenile shrimp to grow for next season. Other shrimp species found in the Gulf include white shrimp, pink shrimp, royal red shrimp, seabobs and rock shrimp.

Marine mammals

  Bryde's whales, protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, are the only baleen-equipped (a filtering structure that separates small fish from mouthfuls of seawater) species in the Gulf, mainly inhabiting a shelf break region in the northeastern Gulf. Baleen fouling is the biggest threat to whales — oil clogs the whale's bristle-like baleen when they skim-feed through oil slicks. Whales can starve or suffer from the toxicity of oil-on-skin contact or fume inhalation.

  Sperm whales are found throughout the northern Gulf near the 1,000 meter depth and are listed under both the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales and hunt large-bodied prey in deep water.

  Nine Gulf dolphins protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act include the bottlenose, Atlantic spotted, Risso's, rough-toothed, Fraser's, pantropical spotted, striped, Clymene and Spinner.

  Other marine mammals at risk include the dwarf sperm whale, pygmy sperm whale, Cuvier beaked whale, Blainville's beaked whale, Gervais' beaked whale, short-finned pilot whale, killer whale, false killer whale, pygmy killer whale and melon-headed whale.

Sea turtles

  Five sea turtle species inhabit the Gulf, including the Kemp's Ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, green, hawksbill and the olive ridley.

  Kemp's Ridley turtles only nest in the western Gulf. During the spring and early summer months, they migrate through Louisiana's coastal waters to nesting beaches in Mexico and Texas. "That oil can be toxic to the eggs or hatchlings if they emerge from sand on beaches," Small says, noting that Kemp's Ridleys are the world's most endangered sea turtles.


  Last month, marine scientists observed the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which at 5,000 acres is the second largest wildlife refuge in the United States. Scientists surveyed wildlife there, noting about 2,000 pairs of brown pelicans and 5,000 pairs each of royal terns, Caspian terns and other shore birds. Now that oil has compromised the land there, that habitat is severely threatened.

  Louisiana's state bird, the brown pelican, saw a boom in its population in the years after Hurricane Katrina devastated its coastal habitat; last year, it was removed from the endangered species lists. Half the brown pelican's population in the southeast resides almost exclusively on the Gulf coast.

  The sandwich tern lives only on barrier islands and coasts, and the Gulf provides habitat for three-quarters of the birds' southeastern population. One-quarter of the southeast population of the Wilson's plover calls the Gulf home.

  Other birds along the Gulf include 35 percent of all black skimmers, 41 percent of all Forster's terns, 16 percent of all gull-billed terns, 25 percent of all laughing gulls, 42 percent of all least terns, 36 percent of all royal terns and 22 percent of all snowy plovers.

  Small says she is most worried about birds nesting in colonies along the shore, including brown pelicans, royal terns and other fish-eating species. "They're at risk of being oiled when they dive for fish, or consuming it when they catch their prey," she says.

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