The recent BP oil spill in the Gulf is, simply put, a disaster. If you haven't been keeping track of the ultra-depressing news, here's what's happening: A BP rig exploded, caught fire, and sank. An oil spill ensued. Federal officials estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil are leaking each day. But what's most worrying is that the growing oil slick is expected to make landfall on the Louisiana coast by Friday, with Alabama and Mississippi expected to have oil on their shores as well by Sunday. For the fragile Louisiana coast—home to 40% nation's wetlands—this could mean an ecological mess.
A number of animals are at risk when the slick hits land, according to CBS, including sea turtles, sharks, brown pelicans, and dolphins. "The fisheries, nesting birds, the barrier islands, the birds of the delta of Louisiana—all of the areas are very sensitive," explained Sidney Coffee, the senior adviser to America's WETLAND Foundation. "This is a huge estuary. Up to 90% of marine species in the Gulf of Mexico spend part of their life in these wetlands."
The oil slick won't just affect animals—it will also have an impact on local fisheries. If a strong southerly wind pushes shrimp into the slick, the flailing shrimp industry could be devastated, especially since fisheries are already being challenged by cheap imports. And if wildlife habitats are oiled up, fisheries could face long-term problems.
The tourist industry won't be immune either. Consider this: Alabama raked in $2.3 billion from beach tourism in 2008. That cash supported 41,000 local employees. If the oil slick hits Alabama, those jobs will be in jeopardy. And if the disaster succeeds in eroding the wetlands, Louisiana's potential for major storm surges increases—and that in turn increases the potential for flooding, which can further hurt tourism (among other things).
Nevertheless, the Louisiana Coast isn't a stranger to oil disasters. After Hurricane Katrina, oil tanks overturned, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the wetlands. But that was nothing compared to what might be coming. "The oil wasn't in the barrier islands or anything like that," Coffee said. "That was a whole different scenario."
We certainly hope that damage is minimal, but the whole debacle serves to teach us a powerful lesson: We need to respect our wetlands. Or else. "The nation depends so much economically on this relatively small Gulf coastal region, it's just incredible," Coffee noted.