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Gulf oil spill's wildlife toll: sharks near shore, turtles incinerated

The Gulf oil spill has killed local wildlife not only with oil but also in cleanup efforts. It may have changed the behavior of some animals, too. But its hard for scientists to draw a direct link.

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Deepwater Horizon Unified Command reported on Thursday that 240,000 barrels of oil (10 million gallons) have been burned at sea in hundreds of "burn boxes" spread out over the spill's surface.

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Boat captain Mike Ellis described what he had seen at sea in a YouTube report. "They drag a boom between two shrimp boats and whatever gets caught between the two boats, they circle it up and catch it on fire. Once the turtles are in there, they can’t get out," Mr. Ellis said.

Shirley confirmed those reports. "We know it's happening, and it's a bad thing, but I don't know any other solution" to getting rid of the oil, he says.

The importance of an accurate total

Indeed, simply leaving oil on the surface – even far out at sea – can harm other animals, like porpoises, who breathe in "this stuff ... where they break for air," says Shirley, adding that it is directly toxic.

The oil can have an indirect knock-on effect, too. Scientists reported this week that nearly 50 turtles had died after getting caught in shrimp nets and dragged on the bottom – most likely in the days before about one-third of federal Gulf waters were closed to fishing and fishermen were racing to make money.

Animal rescue teams have notched some significant successes. This week, agents released 62 cleaned-up pelicans and a northern gannet at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast – the largest such release to date.

The wildlife toll so far pales in comparison with that of the Exxon Valdez, where at least 35,000 sea birds died. In the Gulf oil spill, that number is only about 1,000 – primarily because the spill is 50 miles from shore and a mile deep.

But determining the number of animals killed and the cause of death is important. Federal laws makes BP liable for up to $50,000 per dead animal on the endangered species list, such as a Kemp's Ridley turtle.

IN PICTURES: Sticky mess: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature