Three-quarters of the world’s reefs at risk

Representatives from ZSL’s Conservation and Living Collections teams on Thursday participated in the launch of the Reefs at Risk Revisited report launch.

Coral at ZSL London Zoo© ZSL – James Godwin
Dr Heather Koldewey, ZSL’s International Marine and Freshwater Conservation Programme Manager, said ‘This report provides an invaluable compilation of the latest and most comprehensive data set on the world’s coral reefs.
These data support ZSL’s position that we are in imminent danger of losing most of our coral reefs over the next 30-50 years unless there is a rapid and global action. ZSL is committed to such action through diverse programmes that span from grass roots initiatives like EDGE Coral Reefs, to our international policy work supporting GLOBE’.

In the 10 years since the first Reefs at Risk analysis, threats have increased by 30 percent. This includes recent impacts from climate change which causes rising ocean temperatures and coral bleaching.

The most immediate and direct threats arise from local sources, which currently threaten more than 60 percent of reefs (about 150,000 sq km of reefs). Local threats include overfishing, destructive fishing, coastal development and pollution.

Unless steps are taken to reduce local pressure and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, the percent of threatened reefs will increase to more than 90% by 2030 and to nearly all reefs by 2050.

Most vulnerable

The report identifies 27 nations most vulnerable to coral reef degradation and loss in the world (of 108 reef countries assessed). The nine coun¬tries most vulnerable to the effects of coral reef degradation, due to high dependence on coral reefs and low adaptive capacity, are: Haiti, Grenada, Philippines, Comoros, Vanuatu, Tanzania, Kiribati, Fiji, and Indonesia.

The report makes 60 recommendations for action. ZSL’s coral reef conservation efforts respond to many of these, including supporting and implementing effective marine protected areas (in Chagos and the Philippines through Project Seahorse), building conservation and management capacity in coral reef nations (EDGE Corals, Project Seahorse), supporting the most vulnerable countries (e.g. Philippines through Project Seahorse) and influencing policy (Climate Change programme; GLOBE Action Plan for Coral Reefs).

The report was led by the World Resources Institute, along with the Nature Conservancy, the WorldFish Center, ICRAN, UNEP-WCMC, and GCRMN. One of the report’s authors, Dr Allison Perry, is a former member of the Project Seahorse team.,796,NS.html

The full report can be downloaded at

It’s time humans stopped to consider Earth’s health

From Michael McCarthy in The Independent today

I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come.

Are there any limits on what humans can do? Asked rhetorically, the question invites the smiling, triumphant answer, No!, complete with happy-clappy exclamation mark. But to ask it the other way – that is, to ask it simply, in all seriousness – seems to me something that doesn’t happen any more. In fact, the absence of this question seems to be a great gap at the heart of our current creed, which we might term liberal secular humanism, as we approach one of the climaxes of human history, which is the coming clash between humans as a species, and the Earth which is our only home.

I wrote about this three weeks ago, asking how much room there will be in the 21st century world for non-human creatures, using as an example the future fate of insects, which may well have to be sacrificed wholesale, if intensive farming has to be doubly intensified to feed nine billion people by 2050. I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come. There was an animated reader response to this, so I should like to return to it.

Climate change is only the most dramatic (and controversial) of these consequences. There are many others visible already, about which there is no dispute, ranging from the worldwide collapse of fish stocks to the disappearance of wildlife abundance from the British countryside. Liberal secular humanism certainly acknowledges these disturbing trends; it is greatly concerned about them, shakes its head sadly and strives to prevent them; but what it does not do, is put the whole picture together.

It does not allow the conclusion to which the rapidly increasing degradations of the natural world are all pointing: that a fundamental conflict is looming between the Earth and Man (I use the term in the biological sense of the species Homo sapiens).

This failure to recognise the fundamental nature of the clash will, at the very least, greatly handicap our response to it. I think it arises from our current creed’s greatest failing, its deficit of spirituality, by which I mean a failure to see existence as anything other than human-centred. Liberal secular humanism, which you could argue has been our belief system since the Second World War, has a single, honourable aim: to improve human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be happy, and free from want and fear and disease, and to live fulfilled lives.

What it doesn’t do is allow that there might just be a problem, an intrinsic problem, with people as a species. That is absolute anathema.

You can understand why: poverty is terrible enough without suggesting that people as a whole are in some way flawed. Yet for the Greeks, the founders of our culture, this idea was central to their morality.

There was a continual problem with Man. Man was glorious, almost God-like, and continually striving upwards; yet only the Gods were actually Up There, and if Man tried to get too high, as he often did, the Gods would destroy him. The Gods represented Man’s limits.

The principal fault of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was Mr Clever. The Gods showed him that he wasn’t (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation, which now he can see).

In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of Man of having limits, of not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature, is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever. Still less, of course, is there any trace of the more recent, Christian version of it, which is Original Sin. Just the opposite: in our current creed, Man is not Fallen, Man is Good; so, as they used to say of General Motors and America, what’s Good for Man is necessarily Good for the Planet.

Except that it isn’t. What’s Good for Man may wreck the planet, and with the mushrooming expansion of humans numbers, increasingly seems likely to. Yet so forceful is our creed that it stamps on the very formation of the thought that Man may be the Earth’s problem child. Suggest it and you will be met with a sigh, and a knowing chuckle; or even more likely, indignant confrontation. So the fundamental conflict which is coming between Us and the Earth, this major moment of history, which evidence everywhere increasingly points to, is not recognised in our dominant belief system; and thus is not addressed.

We humans have always thought ourselves different in kind from other creatures, principally for our use of language and our possession of consciousness. There is another reason, which is becoming clearer; we are the only species capable of destroying our own home (which you might think of as Original Sin in its ecological version).

It seems to me that moral account needs to be taken of this, in the heart of what we believe and understand about ourselves; all the indignant denial of it – as the noble struggle continues to raise so many people from misery to decent life – will not prevent it from being so.

Forest and Bird welcomes new Sub-Antarctic protection


Good news for Forest & Bird and conservation , but a selcctive win…. Yes indeed – NZ Govt is being very ‘particular’ in their conservation efforts – they are choosing to be particular and conserving just that site!  

Forest & Bird today welcomed the government’s decision to expand marine reserves and marine protected areas around New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic islands.

Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson announced that a marine reserve would be created covering the entire 12-nautical mile territorial seas around Antipodes Island.

Of the territorial waters around the Bounty Islands, 58 percent will be made a marine reserve and Danish seine fishing will be banned on the western side and south east corner of the remaining territorial waters.

A marine reserve will cover 39 percent of the territorial waters around Campbell Island and a potential giant crab fishery will be allowed in the remaining area with a review after five years.

Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell said Forest & Bird welcomed the expansion of protection in the Sub-Antarctic islands. The only existing marine reserve in New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic region is in the territorial waters around the Auckland Islands.

“Including all of Antipodes Island as a marine reserve is a good result for conservation.” Hackwell said.

“Forest & Bird would rather have seen all of the territorial seas of the other two Bounties and Campbell Islands fully protected.

“But the outcome of 60 percent of the Bounties being put in a marine reserve, with trawling restriction in the remaining area, is a big improvement on the present lack of protection.

“The decision not to fully protect the territorial seas around Campbell Island on the basis of a possible crab fishery that does not yet exist is disappointing.

“All the territorial seas around New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic islands have World Heritage status and as a country we should be recognising their international status with appropriate protection.

“This has been the result of an intensive year-long process in 2008, involving all the stakeholders.

“We should look at setting up similar forums for setting up marine reserves in other parts of New Zealand,” he said.

COMMENT Barry Weeber Pity the Government only accepted the fishing industry proposals for Campbell and Bounty Islands. World Heritage Area and species still at risk.

MY COMMENT Yes indeed – NZ Govt is being very ‘particular’ in their conservation efforts – they are choosing to be particular and conserving just that site!!/ForestandBird!/forest_and_bird

Are Africa’s seas getting protection they deserve, finally?

South Africa maps first deep-sea preserve

The Independent/AFP

Underwater canyons, deep-sea coral reefs and sponge banks are part of a unique ecosystem that South Africa wants to save within its first deep-sea marine protected area. After 10 years of consultations, South Africa has mapped the boundaries for the proposed reserve stretching 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the eastern KwaZulu-Natal coast.The mapping required synthesising the many divergent interests in the Indian Ocean waters, with 40 industries from fishing to gas lines to jet skis operating in an area home to about 200 animal species and their ecosystems.”All of this data was then entered into conservation planning software in order to identify areas of high biodiversity while avoiding areas of high (economic) pressure,” said Tamsyn Livingstone, the researcher who heads the project.The conservation area is being born in a spirit of compromise, which will allow people and companies to continue using the protected waters in zones designated as lower-risk threats to biodiversity.The scheme still needs to be passed into law, but would join South Africa’s existing network of marine preserves strung along its 3,000-kilometre (1,800-mile) coast stretching from the warm Indian Ocean to the cold southern Atlantic.South Africa has embraced this “participatory” method to protecting species living in its water, an approach pioneered in California and Australia.Global goals for protecting biodiversity have been debated for two weeks at a UN summit in Nagoya, Japan (, in an effort to set goals on saving habitats which would help to end the mass extinction of species.Environmental groups want 20 percent of coastal and marine areas protected, they say China and India are lobbying for six percent or lower. Talks are supposed to wrap up on Friday.Part of the challenge is in protecting species that are more often than not still unknown. Only one quarter of the estimated million species in the oceans have been discovered.A global census of the oceans unveiled in early October uncovered prehistoric fish thought dead millions of years ago, capturing researchers’ imaginations about what else lurks in the deepest parts of the sea.”Offshore biodiversity is not well known,” said Kerry Sink of the South African National Biodiversity Institute.Exploring the seas remains an expensive project, prompting South African researchers to reach agreements to share information with fisheries, coastal diamond mines and the oil industry.”South Africa’s plan is unique in covering all industry sectors to ensure that biodiversity planning minimizes the impact on industry,” she said.”Healthy offshore ecosystems underpin healthy fisheries and keep options open for future generations.”With growing worries about climate change, scientists say the deep seas could become an important source of protein for the planet, because water temperature changes less at great depths.That assumes that the growth of industry can be managed alongside the marine life, especially as oil companies find ways to drill in ever-deeper waters.The explosion of a BP oil rig in April off the Louisiana coast, rupturing a 1,500-metre deep well, highlighted the risks.It took five months to shut off the leak which caused the biggest the oil spill in US history, with 205 million gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf.

Marine Reserves in UK

South African Biodiversity Inst

In this Year of Biodiversity, are we to celebrate or commiserate?

In this year of Biodiversity, we need a debate about the state of the UK enviromment. Here’s is a start by Michael Mccarthy of The Independent   

The tragic loss of British wildlife

Some truths are never voiced because they are virtually impossible to perceive. For example, I have never heard anyone declare how appallingly impoverished Britain’s wildlife is. That’s not the subject of a national debate (although it ought to be). That’s not even a national perception. In fact, I don’t know if it’s anybody’s perception. But it’s no less than the truth.

 I have spent most of my life hearing time and again a peculiarly smug proposition, which is that “Britain’s xxxx is the best in the world.” Fill in the exes at your leisure from a long list: civil service, dinner-party conversation, breadth of heritage, movie technology, sense of humour, overseas broadcasting, gentlemen’s tailoring, armed forces, you name it. It’s a statement which trips ever so comfortably off the tongue. But how would you like to be told: “Britain’s wildlife is among the poorest in the world”? How would that look on a tourist poster?

Not that what we have isn’t wonderful in itself, not that we don’t cherish every feather, every flower, every footprint of it. But the fact remains that our wildlife today, British biodiversity, is but a mean, miserly fraction of what its true, “natural” level is, of what it has been in the past and what it really ought to be. And we are blind to the fact.

The reason is a curious one: every generation tends to take what it finds around it to be the norm. American marine biologists have coined an evocative term for this: the shifting-baseline syndrome, first applied to the management of fish stocks. You may think that the baseline, or natural state, of a stock is what it was at the start of your career, yet actually it may once have been very much greater. And of course this applies right across the natural world – to poppies, to skylarks, to tortoiseshell butterflies, of which your grandparents saw thousands, your parents saw hundreds, you saw dozens, and your children will see the odd one and never apprehend there is anything amiss. They will gaze on impoverishment and take it as standard.

I have felt this for a long time, yet my sense of it was triggered anew this week when I found myself in the delta of the River Mississippi, covering the BP oil spill. The Louisiana marshes are swirling with sparky life, graced with clouds of exotic herons and egrets and birds of prey, even at the side of the road, and I was put in mind of the Norfolk Broads or the Fens, wildlife showpieces of our own, and thought how little they had in comparison.

Louisiana is sub-tropical, of course, and species richness increases as you move towards the equator, so let’s do a comparison in more temperate zones. How many wild bird species do you think have been recorded in St James’s Park in central London? About 65. How many in Central Park in New York? More than 200. Or we can bring it back to Europe. We have about 60 butterfly species in Britain; go to France and you will find 250. We have but three woodpecker species and one, the lesser spotted, you will be lucky to see in a lifetime now; go to France and you can find seven. And it’s the same story with mammals and reptiles and amphibians and pretty much everything.

This is partly geographical accident; since we are cut off at the end of Europe it is impossible for many species to replenish their populations from the continent. But why do we often seem to have so little of what we do have? Why is there so little abundance?

Three years ago, in a groundbreaking book, Silent Fields, the biologist Roger Lovegrove provided the answer: he revealed in detail how, for the best part of 400 years, an unremitting campaign of organised slaughter was waged against wildlife in Britain. From the time of Henry VIII until the First World War, systematic killing on a scale unthinkable today was directed at most of our familiar wild animals and many wild birds: badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, otters; green woodpeckers, jays, kingfishers, bullfinches. Millions were slaughtered, first, by country people, from about 1530 to 1800, to claim bounties under the Tudor vermin laws, and second, by gamekeepers controlling predators on aristocratic shooting estates, from about 1800 to 1914.

Besides “thinning out” wildlife everywhere, this drove to the edge of the abyss, and to the remote corners of the land, a whole series of creatures which in Shakespeare’s day were familiar to everyone in the countryside: polecat, pine marten, wild cat, hen harrier, red kite. We have never recovered; and since the arrival of intensive farming 40 years ago the situation has only worsened: half the birds in the fields of England have disappeared since the Beatles broke up. Britain’s wildlife is one of our dearest assets and a balm for our souls, but it is very far from what it ought to be, and its impoverished nature seems to me now to be its most striking attribute.

Got those Mississippi geography blues

As a one-time aficionado of folk-blues, I had heard and listened to many of the famous singers who came from the Mississippi Delta – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson – so when I got to the mouth of the great river this week I was hot to find their traces. It took me some time to realise that the delta of the Mississippi river, and the Mississippi Delta, are two quite separate locations, the latter (where the bluesmen came from) being a plain in the north-west of the state. Just thought I’d pass it on.

World Oceans Day ‘celebrates’ with …. an oilspill!?

World Oceans Day is June 8

Whlist growing up in my native New Zealand, never all that far from the coast and beaches, I enjoyed the times I was ‘beside the sea’ but tried not to take it for granted.

In time, I became involved in helping to run Seaweek activities for children and families , with the resulting buzz of seeing these children gaining a very real and tangible benefit from being outdoors. I also helped set up the first marine reserve  near Wellington, the capital city. All of these experiences were based on my long-time voluntary efforts with the ‘Forest and Bird’ New Zealand’s largest independent conservatioon group  

See full size image

Having travelled to the United Kingdom, and enroute visiting Italy, France and most recently Croatia, I again had a renewed awareness of how much these countries rely on, benefit on but I wonder if they take for granted (?), their coasts, wildlife and all of the incumbent natural resources.

Our fish stocks are being depleted, with Marine Conservation Society suggestions regarding sustainable fish

The whaling ban is in jeapordy

The current oil spill in the Bay of Mexico only serves to illustrate how much we – or at least industry and government (?) – are willing and able to risk these finite natural resources. The images of wildlife covered in oil and Barak Obama with Tar balls on the beaches is the visual ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Nature is resilent – the latest reports of islands thought to be sinking, actually doing the complete opposite – but we humans are consistently battling with Nature for more and more resources, due to an ever-expanding population, and the seas and oceans are hsowing the strain! 

Is it really ‘all up’ to the future generations or can we not start, here and now, to make that difference?

Attack on Nature: Oil spill hits the beaches; how will we respond?


Nature – or rather nature in distress as a result of our industry incompetence – has made headline television news and newspapers’ front page.  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is in competition with the UK elections for breaking news and its status is predicted to outdo the Exxon Valdez

MY VIEW: ‘Blame game’: It was interesting to note on Channel 4 News, BP pointing the finger at the company  who owns and manages the oil rig. BP did acknowledge however that as it was ‘their’ oil that was being extracted, and they were doing everything possible to slow the devastation..Companies should – and need to be taken to account to ensure this happens – take responsibility for the consequences – economically and environmentally – for the industries. Pollution is especially problematic as once the ‘flow’ begins, the damage can be severe and long term.  Oil pollution is the form of slicks is has a reputation for being a major concern, as it is very difficult to handle and, in  the context of the open ocean,  spreads… and then  does immeserbable damage. As The Independent’s Michael McCarthy states: ‘This couldn’t have happened at a worse time or a worse place’. How we respond will show what we really think about the oceans and their resources. It will also signal how much we have learnt about past wildlife disasters.

PLUS: * Will it reallt be a catastrophe??

Gulf oil slick is a disaster for world climate deal

Offshore oil drilling could become unacceptable, eliminating Barack Obama’s bargaining tool with the Republicans, writes Geoffrey Lean. Could the greatest casualty of the giant oil slick surging through the Gulf of Mexico turn out to be not Louisiana’s magnificent wildlife, or the biggest US fishery outside Alaska, but the last remaining chance of an international agreement to combat climate change? It seems counter-intuitive. Surely an economic and ecological disaster, caused by exploiting the fossil fuels that emit all that carbon dioxide, should make the world keener to tackle global warming by moving to cleaner sources of energy? But that would be in a rational universe – one where agreement did not depend on two increasingly dysfunctional institutions: the UN climate treaty negotiations and the US Congress.

* Barak Obama’s Demands:   £17billion wiped off BP shares as oil slick reaches U.S. coast in ‘worst spill in history’… and Obama says they will pay 


Environmentalists always cry “ecological catastrophe!” when oil gushes into the the sea, and usually they are wrong.

A 1993 spill off the Shetlands from the wrecked oil taker Braer, forecast to kill “whole populations” of birds, actually did little damage. Nor did a similarly apocalyptically-hailed one off Spain in 2002. And a scientific expedition a year after the release of a million tons of oil, affecting 350 miles of coast on the Arabian Gulf during the first Gulf War, found no trace of it in 177 out of 180 dives in the sea. WHERE

Yet sometimes nature cannot cope. The spill from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 killed at least 250,000 birds –ten times as more as in any previous disaster – and the area’s fragile ecology has yet to recover fully. And already it looks as if the new spill in the Gulf of Mexico may be even worse. 

As off Alaska, the oil threatens a huge area of particularly vulnerable coast. Louisiana is the largest producer of seafood in the lower 48 states, providing half the country’s shrimp catches, two out of every five of its oysters, and more than a third of its blue claw crabs.

And its three million acres of wetlands – 40 per cent of the US total – provide vital nurseries and spawning areas for fish. Over 70 per cent of the country’s waterfowl use the wetlands as resting or wintering areas, and all 110 of its species of migratory neo-tropical songbirds also rely on them. In all, some 400 species – including whales and endangered turtles – are threatened by the spill.

As much as 90 per cent of the Gulf’s marine species depend on wetlands at some stage in their lives, and most of them are in Louisiana.

As luck would have it, it has also come at a particularly bad time of year, at the peak spawning time for fish and for bird nesting and migration. And the timing is also dreadful for President Obama, who just this month opened up vast areas of US coastal waters to oil exploration.

Full articles

The Telegraph

Louisiana oil spill: slick reaches US coast

Oil from a leaking underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico has started washing ashore in the southern US state of Louisiana, amid fears that the slick could become the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history. 

Oil spill in Gulf of Mexico ‘could be worse than Exxon Valdez disaster’


BP struggles to stop crude pouring from well a mile under the sea as growing slick menaces US coastline

By David Usborne, US Editor

The first coating of oil from a growing spill in the Gulf of Mexico was expected to reach the US shoreline last night, despite frantic efforts by the United States and BP to halt its drift and avert the threat of an environmental calamity not seen since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.

 The US Coast Guard and the oil firm were leading the bid to limit the spread of slick, fed by oil leaking from broken well pipes one mile under the sea at an estimated rate of 5,000 barrels a day – five times greater than initial estimates. But the White House last night served notice that BP, whose rig exploded last week and then sank, must foot the bill for the entire clean-up.

With three leaks detected near the sea, the spill could eventually match the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, when 11 million gallons gushed from a crippled tanker into an Alaskan sound, devastating the local habitat. In fact, it could prove even more serious, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, told reporters. “The Valdez was a knowable quantity of oil because it was a ship. This is a well,” she said.

 Michael McCarthy: This couldn’t have happened at a worse time or a worse place

The Gulf oil spill could not have occurred at a worse time or a worse place, environmentally, a United States expert on the region said last night.

 The gigantic slick is likely to hit marine and coastal wildlife at the height of the breeding season, said Aaron Viles, the campaign director of the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network.

“We are very concerned, especially if you look at it in terms of sensitive and threatened species,” Mr Viles told The Independent. “BP’s oil drilling disaster couldn’t have happened at a worse spot at a worse time of the year.”

Among the deep-water species for which there is great anxiety are sperm whales, because the Gulf of Mexico population have their primary feeding grounds in the “Mississippi canyon” – a deep water trench 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana which is five miles wide and 75 miles long.

This is where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, which exploded and sank a week ago beginning the colossal oil spill, was located. There are thought to be only about 1,600 sperm whales in the Gulf, in a population which is classed as endangered.

There is also great concern for the western Atlantic population of the bluefin tuna, which is the world’s most sought-after fish because of the Japanese demand for it for use in sushi and sashimi.

Just as the eastern Atlantic population of Thunnus thynnus breeds only in the Mediterranean, where its population is thought to be on the brink of collapse from overfishing, so the western Atlantic population breeds only in the Gulf of Mexico – and it is spawning at the moment.

 “The primary season is right now,” Mr Viles said. “This is a horrible time.”

 Besides marine mammals and fish, marine reptiles are also threatened: three of the world’s seven species of marine turtle breed in the Gulf, the green, the loggerhead, and the Kemp’s Ridley, the latter being the rarest of all, officially classed as critically endangered and nesting only on Gulf of Mexico beaches, mainly in Mexico itself, but also on the shore of Texas. (Nearly all of the Kemp’s Ridley turtles in the world nest on a single beach, Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas).

But the concern for deep-water marine life is, if anything, exceeded by fears for what the oil slick will do if its hits the shoreline along the four Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

At the moment it looks like the black tide will, if not prevented, come ashore at the Birdfoot Delta, the estuary where the Mississippi river enters the sea.

But there are fears that it may affect the coastline all the way east to Florida. “This is an oil slick the size of Jamaica,” Mr Viles said. “We have never seen an oil spill of this magnitude, and it is likely to be the worst ecological disaster ever to hit the northern Gulf coast.”

Birds that nest on the shores and in the marshes of the coastline are likely to be hit by the oil, such as the brown pelican, whose population crashed in the 1970s because of pesticides, and which only came off the US endangered species list late last year.

Another species in the firing line is the least tern, a charming bird closely related to the little terns of Britain and Europe.

In a further dangerous twist, also at risk are the migratory birds which are currently pouring into North America from the neotropics of Central and South America where they have spent the winter: millions of them cross the Gulf from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and the first place they make landfall is the Gulf coast itself.

The oil slick also presents, of course, a substantial commercial threat to wildlife – especially to the oyster and shrimp fisheries which, along the North-Central Gulf coast alone, are thought to be worth $3bn a year. “The fishermen are likely to have their worst year ever,” Mr Viles said.

Gulf wildlife endangered

Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

The smallest of the eight species of pelican, the brown pelican nests in colonies, often on small islands, along the coastlines from Washington and Virginia in the north to the mouth of the Amazon in the south. In the 1970s, the birds suffered a severe population decline because of the use of pesticides.

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

The largest of the toothed whales, the creature on which Moby Dick, “the great white whale” in Herman Melville’s story, was based. The sperm whale lives on squid, for which it can dive as deep as 10,000 feet. It can be 70 feet long and weigh as much as 50 tons.

Western Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus)

The bluefin is one of the world’s most sought-after fish, prized for its flesh, especially in Japan, where it is a prime ingredient of sushi and sashimi. The Eastern Atlantic bluefin spawns in the Mediterranean, where overfishing has nearly driven it to extinction; the Western Atlantic form spawns only in the Gulf.

Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Green turtles are mostly herbivorous. Their meat and eggs are considered delicacies in many countries, so hunting has devastated green turtle populations around the world. There is an important population in the Gulf.


On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez, en route from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles, California, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The vessel was traveling outside normal shipping lanes in an attempt to avoid ice. Within six hours of the grounding, the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 10.9 million gallons of its 53 million gallon cargo of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. Eight of the eleven tanks on board were damaged. The oil would eventually impact over 1,100 miles of non-continuous coastline in Alaska, making the Exxon Valdez the largest oil spill to date in U.S. waters.

The response to the Exxon Valdez involved more personnel and equipment over a longer period of time than did any other spill in U.S. history. Logistical problems in providing fuel, meals, berthing, response equipment, waste management and other resources were one of the largest challenges to response management. At the height of the response, more than 11,000 personnel, 1,400 vessels and 85 aircraft were involved in the cleanup.