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The dwarf seahorse, which grows to be about 2.5 centimetres long, lives in flowering seagrass habitats underwater only in the Gulf. ((Shedd Aquarium Chicago))

As tens of thousands of dwarf seahorses flounder in the oil-infused Gulf of Mexico, a University of British Columbia researcher says their plight is a cautionary tale in the debate over permitting Big Oil's tentacles on the West Coast.

The tiny creature is under threat of extinction after the massive BP oil spill last April, and isn't being helped by abrasive cleanup methods underway, said Amanda Vincent, director of the international Project Seahorse conservation group.

BP spent nearly three months plugging the leak that caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and authorities are still mopping up the mess.

Their methods of oil removal are having an adverse impact on the unique seahorse species, which live in flowering seagrass habitats underwater only in the Gulf, Vincent said.

Quirks & Quarks

Quirks & Quarks will air a feature documentary this Saturday looking at the environmental impact of the Gulf oil spill at just what happens when you mix oil and water.

Listen on CBC Radio One on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 12:06 p.m. or visit the Quirks & Quarks website afterward to hear the interview or subscribe to the show's podcast.

"Imagine if you took one of our lovely wilder meadows and you threw a sheen of oil over it and then you decided to burn it and then you decided to throw chemicals on to try and get rid of the oil," she said.

Dwarf seahorses, already vulnerable because of their 2.5-centimetre size, were in the height of breeding when the well blew up in the Gulf, Vincent said.

The impact of oil toxins was fierce because they have highly structured social lives and live in small, patchy populations that can't migrate long distances. Males, who actually carry the offspring, only produce a small number of young.

Skimming preferred

Project Seahorse advocates for authorities to use booms to isolate oil and then skim it away, contending it will do less damage to the seahorse and many other species of fish with similar habits, Vincent said.

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Project Seahorse advocates for authorities to use booms to isolate oil and then skim it away, contending it will do less damage to the seahorse and many other species of fish. ((Sean Gardner/Greenpeace/Reuters))

"If we get it right for seahorses we'll be doing an awful lot for the other fish and invertebrate species," she said, while acknowledging the boom method is more labour-intensive.

Seagrass is the fish nursery for many commercial fisheries and other wildlife.

Vincent said Tuesday that her group is "concerned that some lessons be learned for Canada from this fiasco."

Should a spill happen in the Pacific, marine animals — including the pipefish, which is a close relative of the seahorse — would be disturbed. Cleanup would be extremely difficult because of coastal topography and wind patterns, Vincent said.

While a federal and provincial moratorium against oil exploration off B.C.'s north coast stands, environmental organizations and First Nations have waved red flags about the risks of a proposed oil pipeline.

The Calgary-based Enbridge project would transport crude from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., mostly for export to Asia.

Late last month, a Senate report found that Canadian regulations governing offshore drilling are sufficiently stringent. It noted only one project, off the coast of Newfoundland, is underway in Canada.