Modeling population effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a long-lived species

Lori H. Schwacke*, Tiago A. Marques, Len Thomas, Cormac Booth, Brian C. Balmer, Ashley Barratclough, Kathleen Colegrove, Sylvain De Guise, Lance P. Garrison, Forrest M. Gomez, Jeanine S. Morey, Keith D. Mullin, Brian M. Quigley, Patricia Rosel, Teresa K. Rowles, Ryan Takeshita, Forrest I. Townsend, Todd R. Speakman, Randall S. Wells, Eric S. ZolmanCynthia R. Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill exposed common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Barataria Bay, Louisiana to heavy oiling that caused increased mortality and chronic disease and impaired reproduction in surviving dolphins. We conducted photographic surveys and veterinary assessments in the decade following the spill. We assigned a prognostic score (good, fair, guarded, poor, or grave) for each dolphin to provide a single integrated indicator of overall health, and we examined temporal trends in prognostic scores. We used expert elicitation to quantify the implications of trends for the proportion of the dolphins that would recover within their lifetime. We integrated expert elicitation, along with other new information, in a population dynamics model to predict the effects of observed health trends on demography. We compared the resulting population trajectory with that predicted under baseline (no spill) conditions. Disease conditions persisted and have recently worsened in dolphins that were presumably exposed to DWH oil: 78% of those assessed in 2018 had a guarded, poor, or grave prognosis. Dolphins born after the spill were in better health. We estimated that the population declined by 45% (95% CI 14–74) relative to baseline and will take 35 years (95% CI 18–67) to recover to 95% of baseline numbers. The sum of annual differences between baseline and injured population sizes (i.e., the lost cetacean years) was 30,993 (95% CI 6607–94,148). The population is currently at a minimum point in its recovery trajectory and is vulnerable to emerging threats, including planned ecosystem restoration efforts that are likely to be detrimental to the dolphins’ survival. Our modeling framework demonstrates an approach for integrating different sources and types of data, highlights the utility of expert elicitation for indeterminable input parameters, and emphasizes the importance of considering and monitoring long-term health of long-lived species subject to environmental disasters.

Article impact statement: Oil spills can have long-term consequences for the health of long-lived species; thus, effective restoration and monitoring are needed.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13878
Number of pages13
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number4
Early online date16 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2022


  • Dolphin
  • Expert elicitation
  • Health assessment
  • Marine mammal
  • Oil spill
  • Population model
  • Slow-living species


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