Rescuing Oiled Wildlife: Expensive and Ineffective

April 30, 2010

As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to be even more of an environmental disaster than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, people are scrambling to assess the damage, both economically and environmentally.

Footage of miles-long slicks snaking through the water is enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine. But perhaps the most heartbreaking scenes are those of hapless wildlife coated in sludge. Hundreds of volunteers have mobilized in Louisiana and other places, ordinary citizens offering to help clean oily animals.

Yet good intentions may not be enough. While no one wants to see oiled birds and wildlife left to die, the whole premise behind cleaning oiled wildlife has been called into question. Research has shown that it is both expensive and ineffective. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, 357 sea otters were brought in for treatment, and 197 were returned to Alaskan waters. Each survivor cost more than $82,000; radio-tracking studies of 45 of the released otters found that, eight months later, twelve were dead and nine were missing.

Around 1,600 sea birds were also captured, de-oiled, and rehabilitated. Half of them were returned to the sea at a cost of nearly $32,000 per bird. After assessing that effort, the Pacific Seabird Group of Stinson Beach, California, concluded that wildlife rehabilitation following oil spills is generally labor-intensive, costly, and has a low probability of success. (There are also health hazards for volunteers who might themselves suffer health problems from exposure to the oils while cleaning birds and other wildlife.)

The fact of the matter is that funds spent cleaning animals that are likely to die soon anyway could be much more effectively spent designing additional safety systems, investing in oil-containment research, or paying for additional emergency personnel to respond to spills. It’s not surprising that the public prefers the hands-on, emotionally satisfying method of rehabilitating individual birds, though in the long run such a method may cost more, both in animal lives and in dollars.

The desire to rescue endangered wildlife is admirable and noble, but the most obvious solution is not always the best one.