Gulf oil spill illustrates risks to nature

America faces the greatest environmental disaster of our time in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the devastating impact on America’s wildlife is ongoing. As cleanup efforts continue, we must take heed of the lessons offered by this disaster to better protect our nation’s wildlife, waters, wetlands and beaches.

The oil threatens almost 40 wildlife refuges and countless species of fish, wildlife and birds, including sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, rare migrating whooping cranes, manatees, American crocodiles and alligators, and whale sharks, not to mention the 445 species of fish, many of which play an essential role in the economy of the southern United States. In fact, the Gulf Coast produces 70 percent of the oysters harvested in our country, and the oil spill’s impacts on those whose lives depend on the Gulf’s fisheries are echoing throughout the country.

Impacts on wildlife are devastating, and recovery centers have been constructed across the Gulf Coast to meticulously treat hundreds of animals endangered by the oil. Workers and volunteers have faced sweltering heat and difficult conditions to rescue and treat more than 500 birds, including pelicans, and about 60 different kinds of sea turtles are going through the cleaning process each day. 

These recovery efforts are impressive and continue to expand, but more dedicated attention continues to be needed. As oil creeps into new wetlands and beaches, the demand for wildlife recovery efforts will undoubtedly increase. There is also the fear that once the treated animals are released, their instincts will compel them to return to their natural habitat and to the oil. Most troubling is that through sheer limitation of resources, these wildlife recovery centers can only treat a small fraction of the wildlife most visibly affected by the oil.  They can do nothing for the smaller and more remote sea creatures and larger ecosystems upon which the Gulf Coast depends.

Without full scale ecosystem restoration, the animals that are rescued will not have a home to which they can return.

Investment in the long-term recovery of the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding habitat is vital. In order to have a clear picture of the effects of the oil spill on water quality, habitat, wildlife populations, commercial fisheries and recreation activities, an accurate assessment of where things stand today and the anticipated long-term damage to the Gulf region, as well as potential impacts on our coastal communities along the Eastern Seaboard, is needed.  Additionally, sufficient funding is necessary for federal natural resource and environmental agencies and the work they do in partnership with state wildlife agencies to help monitor, protect and, where feasible, restore habitat damaged by the spill. While BP bears responsibility for cleanup costs, the federal government can serve as a bridge to deploying needed investments right now. Even in the absence of this oil spill, our National Wildlife

Refuges are spread thin in managing wildlife on refuges nationwide — we must ensure our refuges have adequate resources to help countless species of fish, wildlife and birds recover in the Gulf. Finally, we must prioritize funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has lagged for several years and neared its full authorization level of $900 million annually only twice in its 45-year history.

While the Gulf of Mexico might never fully recover from this tragedy, the havoc wrecked by the oil spill serves as a sobering reminder of how vulnerable our lands, waters and wildlife are, and the need for a concerted effort to ensure their protection. Pop-up strip malls, multiple-lane highways and expanding suburbs have come to be commonplace throughout our country: convenience, technological advancement and rapid development. It is hard to imagine life without these conveniences, but equally hard to imagine is an America without our treasured open spaces, oysters, pristine beaches and wild wilderness. In pursuing advancement, it is vital that we take the responsible steps to mitigate the risks to our natural world by conserving our cherished wildlife, habitat, water and land for future generations.
Rep. Castle serves on the House Financial Services Committee and is ranking member on the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education. He is co-chair of the Congressional Wildlife Refuge Caucus and a member of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus.