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The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Marine Mammals

In April 2015, the Commission and several other partners convened the Gulf of Mexico Marine Mammal Research and Monitoring Meeting in New Orleans. The objectives of the meeting were to:

  • Provide an overview of marine mammal stocks and human activities
  • Review marine mammal research and monitoring programs
  • Identify high priority, overarching marine mammal data needs for the next 5-15 years
  • Identify potential funding sources/opportunities for marine mammal research and monitoring stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other initiatives
  • Discuss options for collaborations to facilitate long-term research planning, information sharing, and capacity building

A summary of the meeting, as well as PDF versions of presentations and posters from the meeting, are available here. In the coming year, the Commission will be working with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, other federal and state partners, scientists, and stakeholders in the Gulf to refine research and monitoring priorities as part of a larger action plan for the Gulf.


On 20 April 2010 BPs mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon exploded, burned, and subsequently sank in the Gulf of Mexico 52 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. Eleven of the 126 workers on the rig were killed and, over the following 86 days, an estimated 206 million gallons (4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf (NOAA 2010, Federal Interagency Solutions Group 2010). This was the largest oil spill ever reported in U.S. history. In comparison, the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons (257,000 barrels) of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.

Chapter III of the Commission’s 2010–2011 annual report summarized in detail events related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It included a summary of response and containment efforts, preliminary investigations into the causes of the spill, the response to injured and oiled marine mammals (mostly cetaceans) and sea turtles, and the potential effects of oil exposure on marine mammals and the Gulf ecosystem. It also described the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, damage assessment activities initiated after the spill, and factors confounding efforts to assess oil spill-related injuries to marine mammals, including the ongoing bottlenose dolphin unusual mortality in the northern Gulf. The report discussed how the lack of baseline information on Gulf marine mammals would likely hinder a comprehensive assessment of injuries and the need for long-term monitoring to fully assess oil spill-related impacts and track the effectiveness of restoration efforts.

The 2010–2011 annual report also summarized the Commission’s "Assessing the long-term effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico: A statement of research needs," which outlined the legal mandates for assessing the spill’s overall effects and reviewed the likely impact of the spill on Gulf marine mammals. It characterized research efforts to date, highlighted the overall need to improve assessment and monitoring of marine mammals in the Gulf, and outlined priorities for future research and restoration efforts, stressing the importance of long-term monitoring studies on both individuals and populations.

Chapter V of the Commission's 2012 annual report addressed activities that occurred in 2012 in association with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including injury assessment and restoration planning activities, including efforts to identify and implement early restoration projects under the 2011 Framework Agreement between BP and the NRDA Trustees. Also included was a summary of the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act of 2012, which has the potential to increase significantly efforts to restore the Gulf ecosystem and recover marine mammal populations injured as a result of the spill. Included also were the Commission’s priorities for restoration planning for marine mammals in the Gulf.

Since 2012, the Commission has been working with scientists and managers across the Gulf to refine and promote restoration strategies for marine mammals to NOAA, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and other potential funding entities in the Gulf of Mexico (see Commission letters). The Commission has also identified the development of scientifically robust mitigation and monitoring measures to minimize impacts of offshore oil and gas and renewable energy activities on marine mammals as a Strategic Objective in its 2015-2019 Strategic Plan.

Websites For Further Information about Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon Restoration Planning, Oil Spill-Related Funding Programs, and other Research, Monitoring, and Conservation Programs in the Gulf Relevant to Marine Mammals

Gulf Spill Restoration, maintained by NOAA on behalf of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage  Assessment (NRDA) Trustees

Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012 (RESTORE Act) - legislative text

Department of Treasury RESTORE Act Overview

Department of Treasury RESTORE Act interim final regulations

State RESTORE Act websites (RESTORE Act "Buckets 1, 2, and 3")

Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE Act "Bucket 2")

NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program (RESTORE Act "Bucket 4")

Centers of Excellence (RESTORE Act "Bucket 5")

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Gulf Research Program

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Gulf Benefit Research Fund

Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GOMRI) - BP-funded research on effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and related topics

National American Wetlands Conservation Act Fund

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Gulf of Mexico oil spill-related marine mammal and sea turtle strandings

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Cetacean Unusual Mortality Event in Northern Gulf of Mexico (2010-present)

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Environmental Studies Program

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Gulf of Mexico Geological and Geophysical (G&G) Activities Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Reading Room

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Permits web site (whales and dolphins)

Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Permits web site (manatees)

Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA)

Deepwater Horizon Project Tracker - a tool developed by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance to track restoration, research, and recovery projects resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System

BP Gulf Science Data

Gulf of Mexico University Research Collaborative (GOMURC)

Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs

Environmental Law Institute Gulf of Mexico Restoration and Recovery

E&P Sound and Marine Life Joint Industry Program

Ocean Conservancy Gulf of Mexico Program

Gulf Restoration Network


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