Published: Apr 30, 2010 10:48 AM EDT

     MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER (AP) - Migrating birds and those
along the shoreline, nesting pelicans and even river otters and
mink along Louisiana's fragile islands and barrier marshes are the
first in the path of a massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill that was
starting to ooze ashore.
      The leak from a blown-out well a mile underwater is five times
bigger than first believed. Faint fingers of oily sheen were
reaching the Mississippi River delta late Thursday, lapping the
Louisiana shoreline in long, thin lines. Thicker oil was about five
miles offshore. Officials have said they would do everything to
keep the Mississippi River open to traffic.
      The oil slick could become the nation's worst environmental
disaster in decades, threatening to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez
in scope. It imperils hundreds of species of fish, birds and other
wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world's richest seafood
grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.
      "It is of grave concern," David Kennedy of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press
about the spill. "I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing.
And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about
it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."
      Oil clumps seabirds' feathers, leaving them without insulation -
and when they preen, they swallow it. Prolonged contact with the
skin can cause burns, said Nils Warnock, a spill recovery
supervisor with the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the
University of California. Oil swallowed by animals can cause
anemia, hemorrhaging and other problems, said Jay Holcomb,
executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center
in California.
      The spewing oil - about 210,000 gallons a day - comes from a
well drilled by the rig Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in flames
April 20 and sank two days later. BP PLC was operating the rig that
was owned by Transocean Ltd. The Coast Guard is working with BP to
deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and set
controlled fires to burn the oil off the water's surface.
      Protective boom has been set out on Breton Island, where
colonial species such as pelicans, gulls and skimmers nest, and at
the sandy tips of the passes from the Mississippi River's birdfoot
delta, said Robert Love, a state wildlife official.
      The leak from the ocean floor proved to be far bigger than
initially reported, contributing to a growing sense among some in
Louisiana that the government failed them again, just as it did
during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. President Barack Obama dispatched
Cabinet officials to deal with the crisis.
      Cade Thomas, a fishing guide in Venice, worried that his
livelihood will be destroyed. He said he did not know whether to
blame the Coast Guard, the government or BP.
      "They lied to us. They came out and said it was leaking 1,000
barrels when I think they knew it was more. And they weren't
proactive," he said. "As soon as it blew up, they should have
started wrapping it with booms."
      Government officials said the well 40 miles offshore is spewing
about 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, a day into the gulf.
      At that rate, the spill could eclipse the worst oil spill in
U.S. history - the 11 million gallons that leaked from the grounded
tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 - in
the three months it could take to drill a relief well and plug the
gushing well 5,000 feet underwater on the sea floor. Ultimately,
the spill could grow much larger than the Valdez because Gulf of
Mexico wells tap deposits that hold many times more oil than a
single tanker.
      The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was focusing on national
wildlife refuges on a chain of barrier islands.
      "We're trying to go for the ones where the pelicans are nesting
right now," said Tom McKenzie, the agency's regional spokesman,
adding that about 900 were on North Breton.
      About 34,000 birds have been counted in the national refuges
most at risk, McKenzie said. Gulls, pelicans, roseate spoonbills,
egrets, shore birds, terns and blue herons are in the path of the
      Mink and river otter also live in the delta and might eat oiled
carcasses, said Robert Love, head of the Louisiana Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries' coastal and nongame division.
      Bird rescuer Holcomb worked the Valdez disaster and was headed
to Louisiana. He said some birds may avoid the oil spill, but
others won't.
      "These are experiences that the birds haven't encountered
before," he said. "They might think it's seaweed. It's never
harmed them before."
      BP has requested more resources from the Defense Department,
especially underwater equipment that might be better than what is
commercially available. A BP executive said the corporation would
"take help from anyone." That includes fishermen who could be
hired to help deploy containment boom.
      An emergency shrimping season was opened to allow shrimpers to
scoop up their catch before it is fouled by oil.
      This murky water and the oysters in it have provided a
livelihood for three generations of Frank and Mitch Jurisich's
family in Empire, La.
      Now, on the open water just beyond the marshes, they can smell
the oil that threatens everything they know and love.
      "Just smelling it, it puts more of a sense of urgency, a sense
of fear," Frank Jurisich said.
      The brothers hope to get all the oysters they can sell before
the oil washes ashore. They filled more than 100 burlap sacks
Thursday and stopped to eat some oysters. "This might be our last
day," Mitch Jurisich said.
      Without the fishing industry, Frank Jurisich said the family
"would be lost. This is who we are and what we do."
      Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency so
officials could begin preparing for the oil's impact. He also asked
the federal government if he could call up 6,000 National Guard
troops to help.
      In Buras, La., where Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005,
the owner of the Black Velvet Oyster Bar & Grill couldn't keep his
eyes off the television. News and weather shows were making
projections that oil would soon inundate the coastal wetlands where
his family has worked since the 1860s.
      "A hurricane is like closing your bank account for a few days,
but this here has the capacity to destroy our bank accounts," said
Byron Marinovitch, 47.
      "We're really disgusted," he added. "We don't believe
anything coming out of BP's mouth."
      Mike Brewer, 40, who lost his oil spill response company in the
devastation of Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago, said the
area was accustomed to the occasional minor spill. But he feared
the scale of the escaping oil was beyond the capacity of existing
      "You're pumping out a massive amount of oil. There is no way to
stop it," he said.