Black death

Is BP’s oil-spill recovery merely a slick PR effort?

UC Davis expert Michael Ziccardi examines a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that was oiled in BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill.

UC Davis expert Michael Ziccardi examines a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that was oiled in BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill.


The heart-wrenching images from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are hard to shake: pelicans immobilized by oily sludge, dolphins lying dead on beaches, sea turtles burned alive in containment fires set by BP.

They cry out for rescue. But is BP’s massive recovery effort no more than a public-relations coup that gives a false impression lives are being saved?

That’s the argument made by Brian Sharp, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed. Sharp concludes that because so few oiled birds survive, euthanasia would be the more humane choice. This truth, he charges, is being withheld from the American public.

Sharp’s contention, said Michael Ziccardi, UC Davis director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, “is just wrong.”

“If it was a mechanism to put a happy face on it, BP would be trying to reduce the amount of money they’re spending. And they’re not,” said Ziccardi, a veterinarian with a doctorate in epidemiology who’s an international expert on rescue of oiled birds and other wildlife.

Ziccardi—whose own evaluation, which shows greater than previously recognized survival rates for oiled birds, is currently undergoing peer review before publication—said that from his experience responding to more than 45 spills, the responsible companies want to support rescue efforts. They’re also required to by law.

He disagrees with almost everything Sharp argues, quarreling over the age of Sharp’s data as well as his method of tracking birds after release, though he doesn’t deny that euthanasia is sometimes the right choice.

Nearly 39,000 people are involved in the spill cleanup in the Gulf. Ziccardi returned last week for a breather after two monthlong rotations, working 14-hour, seven-days-a-week shifts, coordinating the efforts of nearly 150 people focused on rescuing sea turtles and mammals.

More than half of the 2,327 birds collected by July 5 were dead. Nearly all the 54 dolphins recovered had died. Of the 601 turtles collected, only 157 were alive. The threat to turtles and mammals is less from external oil, however, than from ingesting the poisonous fluid. Not all deaths can be attributed to the oil, and scientists are conducting blood analyses and autopsies to determine how thousands of animals have died.

BP is liable for the cleanup and rescue, as well as fines for harming endangered and threatened species. The Gulf is home to five species of sea turtles—all are endangered or threatened. Each incident could cost BP up to $50,000. Some turtles have perished in the more than 278 controlled burns that have removed some 10 million gallons of oil from the open water to protect shoreline and wildlife.

“We won’t be able to collect remains of any turtles burned, so we don’t have any evidence,” Ziccardi said. “But we believe it’s likely that some sea turtles have been affected.”

The issue exploded in the blogosphere last month after a boat captain reported he was prevented from collecting turtles near one burn box. Ziccardi said trained observers now accompany control crews, and that BP will permit rescue operations and hold off on igniting fires if turtles are spotted.

But even without that complication, there’s no telling how many of the rare turtles have been harmed. Rescuers have no idea what percentage of the total population they’re reaching.

And they have scant knowledge about how to treat them once they are collected, since they’ve been affected by only a few oil spills in the past. Continuing rescue efforts—adjusting care protocols as evidence is gathered—is the only way to improve treatment and increase survival rates now and in the future, Ziccardi said.

It’s also our obligation, he concluded, to do everything humanly possible to mitigate the effects of these kinds of man-made disasters.