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Atlantic bluefin tuna
Guardian, May 24, 2010

Obama urged to save marine life from oil
Campaigners warn bluefin tuna and other rare species could be facing extinction

By Suzanne Goldenberg

The Obama adminstration came under growing pressure today to save the bluefin tuna and other rare species from becoming extinct, as concern grew about the long-term environmental consequences of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. With no end in sight to the gush of oil on the ocean floor, conservationists called on the administration to grant endangered species protection to bluefin tuna.

BP officials had earlier ordered another delay, until Wednesday, in efforts to clog the well by pumping in heavy drilling mud. The company also announced it would pledge as much as $500m over the next 10 years for research into environmental consequences of the spill, including the controversial use of chemical dispersants.

Conservationists fear the heavy reliance on the toxic chemicals to break up the slick before it reaches shore has inflicted additional damage to stocks of bluefin, on top of the effects of the millions of gallons of crude oil now spewing into the Gulf.

The Gulf of Mexico is the only spawning ground for western Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Bluefin tuna stocks, which have fallen by 80% since the 1970s because of heavy demand for sushi and sashimi, could now be wiped out entirely because of the spill, conservationists warned.

"I think there is a very high risk of extinction with the oil spill still continuing," said Catherine Kilduff, oceans attorney for the Centre for Biological Diversity, the conservationist group which petitioned the Obama administration to protect the fish.

The petition filed today would compel the administration to consider the consequences of offshore drilling – or a spill – on the populations of tuna before sanctioning any new oil rigs in the Gulf.

In recent days the group has launched three additional court actions against the Obama administration, seeking stronger protection for marine wildlife from offshore drilling.

The centre accuses the Minerals Management Service, the government agency in charge of drilling, of a systemic policy of forgoing environmental reviews of projects in the Gulf. Several news organisations have reported that the agency continued to approve drilling projects without environmental impact reviews, days after the spill.

The administration is also under pressure from state authorities in Louisiana, who are furious at the thick tide of oil washing into delicate marsh areas. The state's governor, Bobby Jindal, has said some 65 miles of Louisiana's coastline is affected, contaminating oyster beds and coating pelicans and sea turtles in thick layers of crude oil.

The US interior secretary, Ken Salazar, and the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, were to meet Jindal during a tour of the affected region later today.

"The Gulf of Mexico is an extremely rich ecosystem. I think we counted about a dozen endangered species that depend on the Gulf for at least some of their life cycle," said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for the Oceana conservation group. "It is also spring and the season for spawning and nursing, and the young of many species are likely to be affected."

Bookmakers have already begun to set the odds for survival for some of the most threatened species, such as the Kemp's Ridley Turtle or Brown Pelican. In the case of bluefin tuna, conservations are afraid BP's clean-up efforts are making the spill even worse, because of the oil company's reliance on huge quantities of chemical dispersants to break up the slick before it reaches land.

Those chemicals can be devastating to fish reproduction. Most of the 600,000-plus gallons of dispersants were deployed on the top 30 metres of the water column where the bluefin spawns, and where it finds its prey.

Conservationists fear the toxic mix of crude, dispersants, and diluted oil could jeopardise the survival of eggs or larvae, or build up in fish tissues.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton