DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
An injured sea turtle rests in a tub at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., Saturday, May 1, 2010. The institute is gearing up to help marine mammals that may be injured by the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists say the worst is yet to come for Gulf Coast animals exposed to the devastating oil spill.
The full extent of the devastation won't be seen until the oil has washed ashore, which could happen Sunday or Monday.
So far there have been no confirmed animal deaths, but that won't last, said Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network in California, who traveled to the Gulf Coast to oversee wildlife rescue teams.
"We hope the number is not catastrophic," he said. "We're hoping for the best but planning for the worst."
The animals threatened most by the spill are blue fin tuna, sea turtles, brown pelicans, shrimp and sharks.
Oil seeps into birds' feathers and impairs body insulation, exposing them to cold and making it difficult for them to move. They also wind up ingesting oil, which tears up their digestive tracks.
"There are certain songbirds and shorebirds that are going through their peak migratory period," Ziccardi said, pointing out that the spill came at a terrible time of year. "There are other birds for which this is a nesting and egg-laying period."
Turtles are also in the process of nesting in the gulf, he said, and blue fin are in the early stages of the spawning season.
The world's most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp's Ridley, only nests in the western Gulf. One of their major feeding grounds is in the area of the oil spill, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
"Kemp's Ridley turtles' numbers have been reduced over a long period of time, and here they are being battered again," said Richard Page, an oceans campaigner with the environmental group Greenpeace. "It's the most endangered species of sea turtle that there is, and they'll be ingesting oil and toxins. I'm sure there will be deaths."
But until oil reaches the shore, all scientists can do is wait.
"It's really only going to be clear in the coming days because there are a lot of unknowns," said Paul Kelway, a regional manager of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, which sent a team to Louisiana.
"All we can do is prepare these rescue facilities and get staff trained and be ready to help," he said.With News Wire Services