The Gulf Oil Spill, Two Years Later
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By Debra Atlas
Two years have passed since Deepwater Horizon, the environmental disaster that coated the Gulf of Mexico in oil. The huge oil slicks are gone, as are the heart-wrenching pictures of dying seabirds and littered wetlands. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed and beaches look pristine once more.
Chris Macaluso, Coastal Outreach Coordinator for the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, says there is a misunderstanding that folks should stay away from Louisiana because everything is covered in oil. You can go to public beaches or go boating, and you will not see the effects of the crude. There are areas where there are a lot of good fish, and last year was a good duck hunting season.
“There are a lot of places, really good recreational opportunities, that we want people to come and take advantage of,” says Macaluso.
Yet much is unresolved in this large, ecologically diverse area that was the site of environmental mayhem two years ago. And while some beaches do not show it, many ecosystems and animals are still suffering.
Wrangling continues between the government and BP as to how much oil was actually spilled on April 20, 2010. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Coast Guard, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) all analyzed how much oil was released. Government scientists estimated that 62,000 barrels of oil shot out a mile below the surface and 50 miles from the Mississippi River delta each day. That puts the final figure at about 5 million barrels (200 million gallons) of oil. BP disputes these figures, and this courtroom dance will likely end in arbitration.
The Louisiana coast, the surrounding Gulf, wetlands and marine life, tourism, and the regional economy are still feeling the repercussions of the disaster.
“There’s no getting around the bad,” says Macaluso.
Some of the shoreline is still oiled. The actual number of miles where there is still heavy oiling is about eight to ten percent of Louisiana’s total coastline, according to Macaluso, and the impact is visible.
Take for instance the Barataria Basin, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, with a span of over 100 miles. It lies between the existing track of the Mississippi River and the outflow of Bayou Lafourche.
Within this huge basin lie tupelo gum and cypress trees, hardwoods, freshwater brackish marshes, as well as the saline marsh leading down to the barrier islands. The Basin, along with Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, provides extensive habitat for over 5 million migratory waterfowl each year on their way to South America. It also hosts a large population of brown pelicans, terns, and other tropical birds. Many endangered or threatened species call these wetlands home.
Three marine species are particularly vulnerable, according to Michael Jasny, Senior Policy Analyst for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC): Byde’s whales, sperm whales, and dolphies.
Bryde’s whales are the only whales able to live in the Gulf. Fewer than 50 of these creatures live just one canyon over from the epicenter of the 2010 oil spill, and they have no ability to filter out oil. The Mississippi Canyon is a nursery for endangered sperm whale mothers and their calves.
Bottlenose dolphins live directly off Gulf shores and only travel in a limited range. Their very small communities may be demographically independent of each other, and it is likely that they are genetically distinct.
“We know so little about them or how many are still left,” says Jasny.
Lately, there have been an unusually large number of dolphin strandings and deaths. Jasny, an expert in marine mammals, says that the deaths has mysterious causes. The numbers are astounding.
- 675 bottlenose dolphins have been stranded in the BP spill region since the disaster, with roughly 95% found dead. Comparatively, roughly 74 dolphins are found stranded each year in the northern Gulf;
- Stillbirth or newborn dolphins represented almost half of the estimated 175 dead dolphins found during the early part of 2011; and
- A recent study of bottlenose dolphins in heavily-oiled Barataria Bay showed bottlenose dolphins were underweight and anemic, with suppressed immune systems and signs of liver and lung disease.
The elephant in the room, says Jasny, is the role Deepwater Horizon played. He compares this to the surprising findings regarding the Exxon Valdez spill’s continuing impact on marine life.
“What we’re seeing is unprecedented in its magnitude and duration,” he says.
23 years after the devastating spill in Prince William Sound, clams, mussels, sea otters, and killer whales populations are still recovering, and the Pacific herring population, which was commercially harvested before the spill, has not increased.
One of the important lessons of this was that marine life damage didn’t emerge for years afterwards, according to Jasny.
“We’re watching a tragedy unfold,” he says.
Trying to figure out how many animals have actually died offshore is no easy feat. Since the whales live offshore, they are less likely to beach. The average that NOAA has come up with is that for every animal you see on the beach, there are approximately 50 deepwater whales dead in the water. The figure for bottlenose dolphins may be much lower, but it is hard to put a number on it.
Although the oil hasn’t gone away, the bigger question is where all the offshore oil is, according to Scott Madere, Communications Director for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. One place it has shown up is in the coral reefs off the Louisiana coast. Coral viewed along the sea floor near the well was covered with brown, oil-like material. A scientific study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the sea coral as far as seven miles away from the oil spill appeared to show signs of tissue damage.
Another disturbing trend has been reports by Gulf of Mexico fishermen, scientists, and seafood processors about mutated shrimp, crab, and fish that appear to be deformed by chemicals released during the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. Increasing number of eyeless crabs and shrimp are discovered in the Barataria Bay, along with fish with oozing sores and underdeveloped blue crabs lacking claws. Perhaps this is the result of the 1.9 million gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants poured into the ocean to sink the oil?
One thing we have to keep an eye on is the long-term impact on wildlife, communities, and businesses, says Madere. There are still areas where the fishing isn’t as good, but this could be due to a variety of factors, including land loss.
Restoration is a long-term project, and will likely continue for years. Read Restoring the Gulf Beyond Deepwater Horizon to find out what efforts are being made to ensure the Lousiana coast and its magnificent wildlife do not disappear.
For related articles, see:
The Gulf of Mexico: The Crude Truth
Virgin Islands Lose Oil Refinery: Opportunity for Green Energy?
© 2012 SCGH, LLC.