Photos: Grim inventory of wildlife claimed by Gulf spill

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  1. Dead fish float along the waterways at North of Point a la Hache Marina, La. on July 10. It is unclear what killed the fish and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries is investigating. (P.J. Hahn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The remains of a dead pelican are seen on Raccoon Island, the largest pelican rookery in Louisiana. Rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, it was home to more than 60,000 pelicans, but since the oil spill mature pelicans are scarce. Instead, there are thousands of dead birds and emaciated and abandoned juvenile and baby birds. (Andy Levin / Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Monday behind Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands. These workers were seen preparing to lay oil boom around an island in St. Bernard Parish, La. Wednesday. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The LaFontaine family of Waveland, Miss., find a horseshoe crab dead amid globs of oil on the beach of its town July 7. Numerous dead horseshoe crabs were found along the beach as their populations are thought to be declining world wide due to harvesting, gathering by humans and habitat destruction, like that caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Bevil Knapp / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Scientists are seeing early signs that the massive Gulf spill is altering the food web, by killing or tainting creatures that form the foundation of marine life -- such as this dead pyrosome, spotted June 17 by a University of California Santa Barbara team in an oil slick near the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig -- and spurring the growth of others more suited to a fouled environment. (University of California Santa Barbara Department of Earth Science / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts a dead sea turtle into a garbage back at night on Orange Beach, Ala., on June 16. It is undetermined if the turtle death was caused by the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A dead crab sits among oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a beach in Grand Terre Island, Louisiana on June 9. (Lee Celano / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Biologists from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries recover a dead dolphin off of Grand Isle. The scientists towed the dolphin to shore as a thunderstorm was approaching. Further testing will determine if its death was due to exposure to toxins from the oil spill. (Carolyn Cole / LA Times via Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A dead Northern Gannet covered in oil lies along Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, La. on May 21. A month after the well blowout and rig explosion that unleashed the catastrophic spill, sheets of rust-colored heavy oil started to clog fragile marshlands on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, damaging fishing grounds and wildlife. (Sean Gardner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A dead jelly fish floats in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on June 7 in the Gulf of Mexico south of Venice, La. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dead fish sit on a boom in place to help shield marshes impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Pass a Loutre, La., May 22. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    P.J. Hahn / AP
    Above: Slideshow (11) Grim inventory of wildlife claimed by Gulf spill
  2. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  3. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  4. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  5. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  6. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion
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updated 7/22/2010 9:42:33 PM ET 2010-07-23T01:42:33

The marsh is soaked with oil and the grass is dying. It's a common sight on the Gulf coast these days, and it's nothing new for Robert Nailon.

The BP-hired environmental consultant kneels as he has done many times on the Louisiana coast, assessing the damage in a task now taking on new importance as the world's attention turns from the ubiquitous images of gushing oil to the daunting task of restoration.

He dips his hand, covered in a blue rubber glove, into the muddy ground. It comes up streaked brown with crude. "You've got sheen throughout," he says, and calls out his findings to a government scientist: Oil covers about 95 percent of the grass, reaching about 15 feet inland.

Both men nod, agreeing to add this stretch to the growing and painstaking census of the dead from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. About 40 BP-government teams are cataloguing seemingly everything touched by the oil, from poisoned plankton and fish to lost marshes and stained beaches.

BP PLC will eventually be given two options: Restore everything itself, or pay the government to do it. Before a final bill is written, however, those tallying the damage must still account for things they can't see — from contaminated fish eggs that never hatch to impacts that may take years to show.

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Some experts worry BP could exploit the uncertainty to minimize its responsibility.

"If you end up with a bunch of dead fish five years from now, it becomes very hard to prove BP killed them," said Mark Davis, director of Tulane University's Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.

BP spokesman John Curry declined to detail any potential challenges his company might make regarding wildlife and habitat claims.

"We're not trying to run and hide from the situation," he said. "Bottom line is we want to know exactly what the impact is, too."

So far, about 4,000 birds, more than 700 sea turtles, dozens of dolphins and one whale have been found dead, or alive but oiled. Oil has hit some 600 miles of shoreline and at least 44,000 square miles of the Gulf. The count doesn't include the hundreds of oiled birds left in the wild to avoid disturbing their nesting grounds.

Pinpointing damage beneath the Gulf's surface, however, is turning into an even bigger problem.

"It's a 3-D challenge," said Tom Brosnan, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's assessment and restoration division. "It's not just on the shoreline, it's at depth, down to 5,000 feet in the Gulf."

Video: The BP oil spill, as seen from a sub

The government is deploying remotely operated submarines to get snapshots of what is happening in the deep, as well as collecting water samples to assess the populations of plankton and other small organisms.

Computers will use the information gathered to produce estimates of how many plankton, fish or shrimp are killed based in part on how much habitat is ruined.

Gauging the consequences could take years and require some calculated guesswork to account for wildlife that dies or suffers unseen.

Federal officials haven't said whether they've assigned a cost to everything.

In some cases, however, arriving at a cost can be as straightforward as similar efforts during the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 in Alaska. The state priced each seagull at $167, eagles at $22,000, harbor seals at $700 and killer whales at $300,000.

The scope of the latest census is enormous — the Gulf spill has so far unleashed between 91 and 179 million gallons of oil — and the cost of that tally will likely prove expensive in itself.

In the case of the Valdez, $125 million has been spent on scientific research since the spill in Prince William Sound, said Stan Senner, Alaska's restoration program manager following the spill and now director of science for the Ocean Conservancy.

Exxon settled with the government for its restoration costs in 1991, for $900 million. Another request 15 years later for $92 million more is pending.

In what could be a cautionary note for those working the BP spill, the settlement with Exxon never addressed a major impact tied to the Valdez by some scientists — the collapse of the Pacific herring population. That's in large part because the collapse came two years after the settlement.

BP executives have pledged to "make things right." But they have disputed some scientific findings, including claims that plumes of oil stretch for miles in the deep waters around the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which blew up April 20 and unleashed the nearly three-month-long oil geyser.

The issue of the plumes first arose in late May, when BP chief executive Tony Hayward was asked about them in an Associated Press interview. His reply: "What plumes?"

Acknowledging the plumes would have amounted to an admission of responsibility, said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University.

And the company's advantage increases as more time passes, said Tulane's Davis. "We may all be in this together, but we're not in this for the same reasons. (BP's) duty to their shareholders is to make money."

Once the field teams collect their information, BP and the government will analyze the data separately and reach their own conclusions on damages.

Even if BP disputes scientists' findings, the 1990 Oil Spill Pollution act puts the burden of proof on the company in any disputes over liability and how harm is calculated. BP's obligations go beyond wildlife and habitat to include what's lost to humans: each visit to the beach denied by oily sands, all the Gulf fishing trips that will never be taken.

Back along the coast, where a steady parade of boats were being loaded with cleanup workers, Venice, La., charter boat fisherman Peter Young scoffed at the effort to track the damage.

"They're basically spitting in the wind," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Oil spill could spell doom for bluefin tuna

  1. Transcript of: Oil spill could spell doom for bluefin tuna

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We're back with more now on the gulf oil disaster and its impact. Tonight, we focus on one of the amazing creatures found in the waters there, the giant bluefin tuna . They can weigh up to 1500 pounds and live more than three decades. But their numbers, as you may know, have dropped sharply due to overfishing. And now some are actually worried this oil nightmare could end their time on Earth . Our report tonight from our wildlife and science expert Jeff Corwin .

    Mr. JEFF CORWIN: Veteran charter boat captain Greg Sears setting off from Scituate , Massachusetts , at first light in hot pursuit of the giant bluefin tuna .

    Mr. GREG SEARS: Hey, you going to fish the spot you talked about yesterday?

    Mr. CORWIN: On this day Sears is going to try to put me in position to pull one in myself.

    Mr. SEARS: Just look at the tuna jumping right there.

    Mr. CORWIN: It won't be easy. These fish are tough to spot. But four hours into our trip, the fight is on.

    Mr. SEARS: Get that main safety line on him.

    Mr. CORWIN: Even though we're 1200 miles from the Gulf of Mexico , that environmental catastrophe can directly impact the survival of this incredible fish. Scientists believe the majority of bluefin tuna found off the New England coast actually spawn in areas of the Gulf of Mexico hit hardest by the oil spill . And that is a major concern.

    Mr. SEARS: Keep his head up. Get that door open.

    Mr. CORWIN: After a 45-minute battle...

    Mr. SEARS: Get him?

    Mr. CORWIN: ...the crew and I reel it in. The fish is measured.

    Mr. SEARS: Six-foot 10, full length.

    Mr. CORWIN: It weighs 250 pounds. Then this giant is tagged by a scientist on board...

    Mr. SEARS: Swimming right out the back door.

    Mr. CORWIN: ...and returned to the ocean where marine biologists can track its every move. Bluefin travel in extensive migration from the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine to Nova Scotia , and then eventually to the Gulf of Mexico , a journey of more than 5,000 miles. Right here in the Gulf of Mexico is where the majority of the breeding takes place each year. With the amount of oil flowing into these waters, it has scientists very concerned. Researchers collect samples of bluefin larva from the spill areas, searching for answers.

    Mr. BRUCE COMYNS (University of Southern Mississippi): If a lot of the spawning grounds were severely compromised then there certainly could be some very detrimental effects to the bluefin tuna population.

    Mr. CORWIN: But experts don't know yet just how much damage has been done.

    Ms. MOLLY LUTCAVAGE (University of Massachusetts Amherst): If bluefin eggs and larvae encounter oil, they're going to die.

    Mr. CORWIN: It could be several months before scientists can understand the data that's been collected. But what we do know is, with some of these waters, a natural nursery for bluefin, now contaminated an entire generation of this iconic fish may be at risk. Jeff Corwin , NBC News , off the coast of Ocean Springs , Mississippi .

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