Category Archives: BP Oil Disaster

Unseen Victims of the BP Oil Disaster

 

Floating mats of seaweed, known as sargassum, are home to a wide variety of ocean life. Credit: Steve W. Ross (UNCW), unpubl. data.

The daily count of sea creatures dying from coating with oil on the surface of the sea, or on the beaches, continues to rise.  We see sea turtles, sea and shore birds, and marine mammals, familiar creatures to us all.

As sad as these deaths are, the death toll is massively greater for animals not quite as visible, because they are small, living among marsh grasses, or under the surface of the sea, out-of-sight and thus out-of-mind.  The full litany of the dead is deeply disturbing.

Surface currents carry valuable life

The surface waters of a healthy Gulf swim with life, much of it too small to see.  Larvae of shrimp, crab, and other shellfish, and many familiar seafood fishes, spawned at sea, drift toward nurseries in coastal marshes and other shallow waters. Floating mats of seaweed, called sargassum, provide key habitats for babies of many species, now hopelessly contaminated. The interior and underside of these seaweed mats – under normal conditions – are wonderlands of life, as every offshore fisherman knows.

   
The evolution of the Gulf Loop Current from a strong downstream delivery phase on May 7 to a cutoff eddy phase on June 11, temporarily detaining oil pollution. Credit: NWS.

The Gulf Loop Current – a term now commonplace– is a superhighway in the sea for spawned babies of giant tunas, swordfish and other billfishes, groupers, snappers and other reef fishes, and even for hatchling turtles. These creatures ride the current —our version of Nemo’s East Australian Current— toward adult habitats, at risk as they pass through the 'kill zone' of oil in the northern Gulf.  

See an animation of the current loop here and see a video of the oil spreading here.

This figure represents the evolution of the Gulf Loop. Credit: NOAA.

Luckily, the chance development on June 1 of a cutoff eddy—a normal phase in the evolution of the Gulf Loop Current, where the current bends deep enough to interact with itself, ultimately cutting off a spinning gyre in the northern Gulf—has delayed the otherwise rapid delivery of oil pollution to the pristine coral reefs, mangrove swamps and seagrass beds of northern Cuba, the Florida Keys and beyond.  Delivery of oil downcurrent to those habitats remains likely, as the Gulf Loop redevelops.  In fact, the weathered oil currently held in the cutoff eddy will likely drift northwest towards the Texas coast.

The beauty, and now oil, down below

An actual track of a sperm whale diving through rich mid-water feeding zones (shown in green) from the northern Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Modified from Azzara, 2006.

Under the surface, hovering clouds of oil pollution drift with the currents, and threaten perhaps the least known elements of this magical world.  At middle depths, a profusion of life – shrimps, lanternfish, jellyfish and squids –create a layer of life so rich it appears as sonar returns to surface ships, earning the name “deep scattering layer” to scientists.  This rarely imagined world of the deep – key prey for surface diving whales, dolphins, sharks and tunas – is now being contaminated twice, as oil pollution rises to and through it, and as sinking particles carry toxicants back downward.  It is no surprise that sperm whales and other deep-feeding life forms we cherish are now numbered among the dead. 

Deepwater treasures contaminated

The Visoca Knoll coral reefs are near the Deepwater Horizon well and are home to a rich variety of life. Credit: Steve W. Ross (UNCW), unpubl. data.

On the bottom, the corals and worms get the short end of the slick.   The deep-origin oil spewing from the crippled well is polluting deepsea wonderlands that are just now being discovered, notably majestic and ancient deepwater coral reefs. The vast majority of the oil that remains in the sea will ultimately find its way to the seafloor, where worms and other sediment-eating life forms will ingest it, be ingested in turn, and continue contaminating food webs – and the very web of life – for generations to come. 

This spill impacts you, too

Put all together, every important part of the broader Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystem – upon which so many people rely for their income, and their way of life – is taking many potential knockout blows.  Productivity of key seafood species could be depressed for years if not generations to come.  Special care will be required to ensure that Gulf seafood remains safe.  There is plenty to cry about, both on the surface and in the unseen places in the deep.

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Somewhere Over the Gulf Coast: A “Glee” and BP Oil Disaster Mashup

As posted on EDF's Climate 411 blog by EDF Executive Director, David Yarnold.

From a comfortable distance – in our classrooms, around our water coolers, through pictures on TV or newspapers – the BP oil disaster is depressing and horrific.

But up close where every breath you take fills your mouth, nose, and lungs with the toxic mix of oil and industrial chemicals, where you talk with resilient and proud locals and hear their frustration, anger, and concern, where the disturbing and unforgettable scenes of a precious and fragile ecosystem in crisis are just seared into your mind – all of it is just so bad, so repugnant, so wrong in the most profound way.

Two days in the Gulf of Mexico left me enraged – and deeply resolved. Both the widespread damage and the inadequacy of the response effort exceeded my worst fears.

Seeing terns and gulls sitting on the oil-soaked booms that were supposed to be protecting their fragile island marshes – booms that had been blown or washed ashore – may have been the ultimate symbol of the devastation unfolding in the Gulf.

Or maybe it was the lone shrimp trawler, aimlessly circling off the coast, dragging a saturated gauze-like boom behind it, accomplishing nearly nothing.

Or maybe it was the desperation of the fishermen whose livelihoods had been snatched away by BP’s recklessness – and yet want nothing more than to see the moratorium on drilling lifted so their economies don’t dry up, as well.

I’d spent a full day on the Gulf and we ended up soaked in oily water and seared by the journey into the heart of ecological darkness.

By Tuesday night, I was home. My throat burned and my head was foggy and dizzy as I showed my pictures and my flip-camera video to my wife, Fran, and my 13-year-old daughter, Nicole, on the TV in the family room.

Images of the gooey peanut-butter colored oil and the blackened wetlands flashed by. Pictures of dolphins diving into our oily wake and Brown Pelicans futilely trying to pick oil off their backs popped on the screen. And, out of nowhere, Nicole put on the music from the season finale of Glee.

With all these horrific images on the screen, she had turned on the show’s final song of the year, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” The song, a slow, sweet, ukulele and guitar-driven version, couldn’t have added a deeper sense of tragic irony.

I choked up. And then that resolve kicked in: I wanted anyone/everyone to see what our addiction to oil had done to the Gulf and to contrast that with the sense of hope and possibility that “Somewhere” exudes.

Long story short, last weekend, Peter Rice, Chairman of Fox Networks Entertainment, gave Environmental Defense Fund the green light to use the song. The pictures you’ll see were shot by two incredibly talented EDF staffers, Yuki Kokubo and Patrick Brown – and a few are mine.

The inspiration was Nicole’s. This is for her, and for all of our kids – and theirs to come.

David Yarnold is executive director of Environmental Defense Fund.

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NOAA Chief Promotes Transparency in Science Regarding BP Oil Disaster

Bob Dylan once sang that "you don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows."  But if you're the part of the federal government charged with conducting scientific studies of the biggest environmental disaster in the nations history, and what you say profoundly impacts millions of people's lives and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, then you probably DO want a weather man to say which way the wind blows.

Meanwhile, everybody – me included – is growing more and more outraged at the scale of this disaster.   We want information about what’s really happening out there: where’s the oil? How much is there? What’s the toxicity? How will the ecosystem respond?

Caught in the middle is NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco.  She has the unenviable task of conducting scientific studies in the middle of this mess and she deserves credit for promoting government transparency in the science around the disaster.  As soon as results were validated Tuesday, NOAA communicated and released to the public data from the recent scientific mission of the R/V Weatherbird II that tested Gulf water.  This was an important step to build public confidence in the government’s handling of the disaster.

Crisis situations like the BP oil disaster remind us all that the public has a right to know what’s going on. While I—and I’m sure many others—are frustrated that many of our questions haven’t yet been answered, transparency in the results gives me confidence that we are getting the full story.

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Vote on Massive Southeast Fishing Closures Passes

Today in Orlando, Florida, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) approved amendment 17A (17A) to the snapper grouper fishery management plan. Now it will go to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke for approval. 17A closes the red snapper fishing season throughout the Southeast. It also closes a 5,000 square mile area for additional kinds of snapper and grouper fishing from Georgia to South Florida. A short-term ban was put in place in January to prevent red snapper fishing, until 17A could be finalized.

While today’s passage of 17A fulfills the Council’s legal requirements to end overfishing of red snapper, it does not provide an effective long-term strategy for a healthy fishery. In reality, it reinforces many other problems:

  • Commercial and charter fishermen going out of business;
  • Difficulty in finding local fish in restaurants and stores; and
  • Recreational fishermen – including tourists – not being able to fish as much, which hurts countless bait and tackle shops, boat dealers and mechanics, and tourist hotels and restaurants.

Catch shares allow fishing as fish populations rebuild
EDF believes that catch share management is the best option for the commercial and for-hire (charter and party boats) sectors of the snapper and grouper fishery. Catch shares could potentially replace 17A’s closures with fishing seasons and reduce closed areas while fish populations rebuild. Private anglers deserve an opportunity to catch red snapper too, and fishermen and the Council have an opportunity to improve the management by exploring new tools like a tagging program.

Growing numbers of Southeast fishermen agree that catch shares are the best way forward.

Catch shares set a scientifically-based limit on the total amount of fish that can be caught and then divide that amount among individual fishermen or groups of fishermen.  Studies have shown that catch shares bring fish populations back and benefit fishermen. With catch shares, fishermen have much more flexibility on when to fish, are held individually accountable for what they catch, are no longer forced to waste tons of fish by throwing them overboard, and fishing can be more profitable.

A looming disaster: Effort shift
When 17A is implemented, fishermen will focus on other kinds of fish, instead of red snapper. This can damage other fish populations or underwater habitat. Also, the uncontrolled BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may push Gulf fishermen into Southeast waters. Both situations will increase the amount of fishing pressure on an already distressed fishery. Catch shares reduce the need for season and area closures and the chance of damaging effort shift in fisheries.

Catch share success is proven
Successful catch share management is in place in the Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper, grouper and tilefish fisheries and hundreds of other fisheries worldwide. Just three years after the red snapper catch share in the Gulf of Mexico went into place, the amount of wasted fish was reduced significantly, fishermen made higher profits, and fish populations were rebounding. With the BP Oil Disaster, the flexibility of catch shares allows fishermen in areas closed to fishing to sell or lease their shares of fish to fishermen in open areas.

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As Attempts to Plug Spill Continue to Fail, Use of Dispersants Will Likely Grow

A plane unloading dispersants passes over an oil skimmer near the site of Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Tuesday, April 27 (Source: Associated Press)

As attempt after attempt to plug the BP Oil Disaster fails, and the ability to drill relief wells lies months in the future, BP may spread many more dispersants into Gulf waters in the near future. Read this week’s Wall Street Journal article on this topic.

EDF’s goal for the Gulf of Mexico is to ensure that people can enjoy fishing, run profitable and safe fishing businesses and eat fresh Gulf seafood, while conserving a healthy ecosystem for the future. Dispersants are a direct threat because scientists don’t know much about how the droplets of oil and dispersant chemicals that float around will affect fish habitat or the marine food chain.

EDF senior scientist Richard Denison asks several basic questions about dispersants on his Chemicals Blog, including:

  • Why aren’t we using the safest and most effective dispersants in the Gulf?
    Richard reports that of the 18 different dispersants the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tested, the two dispersants of choice— Corexit® brand— ranked only 13th and 16th in effectiveness. Read more.
  • What part of "contingency plan" did we not understand?
    Richard and others takes a look at the federal government’s contingency plan for dispersant use in oil spills and find that several simple questions remain unanswered, including: Read more.

    • Do the dispersants actually work to reduce the impact of the oil?
    • Is it better to disperse the oil or leave it undispersed?
    • Is the mixture of oil and dispersant more or less toxic than the oil by itself?

The bottom line is that scientists have little understanding of how dispersant chemicals will affect the Gulf and marine life. If their use is allowed to continue, BP should use the safest and most effective products available, and make a long-term commitment to support research that evaluates their ecological and human-health impacts.

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Cuba’s Marine Life and Coastal Communities at Risk from BP Oil Disaster

Surface Horitzonal Current - NOAA/National Weather Service May 23rd

Surface Horizontal Current - NOAA/National Weather Service May 23rd

This week, federal regulators increased the size of the Gulf fishery closure to 37% percent of federal waters.  As the disaster continues, concerns are spreading across international boundaries, including to Cuba where the U.S. closure already abuts 250 miles of that nation’s waters. 

Most at risk is the ecologically rich northwest coast of Cuba, home to coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests.  These ecosystems are breeding, nursery and feeding grounds for fish, sea turtles, sharks and manatees.  At the same time, these systems protect coastal communities from hurricanes and storm surges.  Like the U.S., this disaster threatens important economic activity and livelihoods from commercial fishing to eco-tourism.

EDF’s Cuba program is sharing information with Cuban officials, scientists, and conservationists, helping the country keep a watchful eye on the path of the oil.   Unfortunately, the political differences between the U.S. and Cuba means there are no official mechanisms to communicate and cooperate on the crisis. 

I recently spoke at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., calling on the Obama Administration to work with Cuba.  EDF also supports similar recommendations in a report from the Brookings Institution entitled, Coping with the Next Spill: Why U.S.-Cuba Environmental Cooperation is Critical. 

For half a century, a political gulf has divided our two countries.  Finding ways to collaborate to respond to the BP oil disaster is in our mutual interest—to help Cuba prepare and respond to the worst, and to develop a strong foundation for the future to protect our shared environment.  It is time for a pragmatic approach.

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As oil-related fishery closures quickly grow, EDF supports Senator Nelson’s Florida fishery disaster designation request

NOAA 6/2/10 Fishery Closure Map

Click the map to learn more about the current fishery closure covering 37% of the Gulf (6/2/10).

Yesterday, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) requested a fishery disaster designation for the state of Florida to assist fishermen, their families, and associated businesses who are feeling the impacts of the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a closure of 37% of federal fishing waters, many along the coast of Florida. Just yesterday, 31% of the Gulf was closed and on Monday 26% was closed. These extensive and growing closures are already impacting the Gulf’s multi-billion dollar fishing and tourist industries.

EDF supports Senator Nelson’s request, which will provide federal assistance to affected Florida fishermen and communities, and encourages U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to make this designation.

On May 24, the Department of Commerce made a disaster designation for Gulf of Mexico fisheries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

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Senate Approves Help for Fisheries Impacted by BP Oil Spill

Although the oil spill in the Gulf continues to worsen, there’s a bit of good news for Gulf fishermen and fishing-related businesses.  The Senate last night approved an amendment by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) that would devote $26 million to support fishermen and to improve fisheries science because of the spill. 

The House still has to vote on the measure, so more critical funding could be added before its finalized and sent to the President. Earlier this week EDF signed a letter to Congress and the President with the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance and the Gulf Fishermen’s Association that advocated for at least $100 million in funding for direct assistance to adversely affected commercial and recreational fishermen and fishing communities, to improve fisheries science, and to make fisheries more resilient to harm caused by human activities.  Because of the size of this disaster, we see this as just a good start, and we are working to expand the scope and increase the amount over the long-term. 

 The amendment includes $15 million for fisheries disaster assistance, $10 million for stock assessments, and $1 million for a study on the impacts from the spill on the Gulf ecosystem.  Here’s the specific language.

 (1) FISHERIES DISASTER RELIEF.–For an additional amount, in addition to other amounts provided in this Act for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $15,000,000 to be available to provide fisheries disaster relief under section 312 of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (16 U.S.C. 1861a) related to a commercial fishery failure due to a fishery resource disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that resulted from the Deepwater Horizon oil discharge.

 (2) EXPANDED STOCK ASSESSMENT OF FISHERIES.–For an additional amount, in addition to other amounts provided in this Act for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $10,000,000 to conduct an expanded stock assessment of the fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico. Such expanded stock assessment shall include an assessment of the commercial and recreational catch and biological sampling, observer programs, data management and processing activities, the conduct of assessments, and follow-up evaluations of such fisheries.

 (3) ECOSYSTEM SERVICES IMPACTS STUDY.–For an additional amount, in addition to other amounts provided for the Department of Commerce, $1,000,000 to be available for the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the long-term ecosystem service impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil discharge. Such study shall assess long-term costs to the public of lost water filtration, hunting, and fishing (commercial and recreational), and other ecosystem services associated with the Gulf of Mexico.

 IN GENERAL.–Of the amounts appropriated or made available under Division B, Title I of Public Law 111-117 that remain unobligated as of the date of the enactment of this Act under Procurement, Acquisition, and Construction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $26,000,000 of the amounts appropriated are hereby rescinded.

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