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Impact of Gulf Disaster Greatly Underestimated

Animals’ deaths may be 50 times higher than believed

Photo courtesy of National Geographic

A new study argues that many more whales, dolphins and other animals died in the Gulf oil spill last year than people were led to believe.

A new study published in Conservation Letters notes that reports of animal deaths were based on the numbers of bodies actually recovered, but that this seriously underestimates what actually happened.

“The recorded impact on wildlife was relatively low, leading to suggestions that the environmental damage of the disaster was actually modest,” said lead author Dr. Rob Williams from the University of British Columbia. “This is because reports have implied that the number of carcasses recovered, 101, equals the number of animals killed by the spill.”

Dr. Williams and his team focused on 14 species of whales and dolphins, comparing number of bodies washed ashore with conditions further out in the ocean, and concluded that only 2 percent of bodies were ever recovered, and that the true death toll could be 50 times higher than the number that was officially estimated.

“The same factors that made it difficult to work on the spill also confound attempts to evaluate environmental damages caused by the spill,” Williams said. “Consequently, we need to embrace a similar level of humility when quantifying the death tolls.”