Selected tags: dispersants

“Red Herrings” in the Gulf of Mexico – Part 1: It Ain’t the Oil

This is the first post in a four part series discussing the ongoing – and “cascading” – effects in the Gulf, not from oil, but rather its toxic components and their impacts on sensitive ecosystems. Read the rest of the series.

In recent weeks, nearly every discussion about the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has focused on the question: “how much of the oil from the broken well is left in the Gulf?” 

The answer is simple:  “None – it ain’t the oil, stupid!”    

For some time now,  the problem hasn’t been the oil in the Gulf,  it’s the complicated series of impacts caused by the diverse substances that made up the oil as they are degraded in stages, both biologically and chemically. Each step along the way – and even the final breakdown products – poses important threats to a different suite of living things.  The total damage done by this complex array of shifting impacts on the sensitive ecosystems  and the people of the Gulf remains largely unknown.


Sure, some elements of the complex ecology of the Gulf of Mexico may get off scot-free from the disaster.  But many others have been or will be heavily impaired, at least for some time.  Taken together, there will be a significant total effect on the ecological systems of the Gulf, including the productivity and safety  of seafood, and significant  bottom-line impacts will be felt  on human health and social and economic well-being. 

Oil or Not Oil?

From the beginning of the disaster back in April, as “Gulf Light Sweet Crude” oil spewed  into the depths of the Gulf, the components of that oil – a “toxic soup” of hundreds of different chemicals – have been subjected to intense physical, chemical and biological sorting and processing, and to transportation by currents both towards and away from shore. 

This is an underwater look at one of the oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico in late May. Click to watch the video.

By the time the well was capped in mid-July, a significant amount  of the approximately 200,000,000 gallons of liquid flowing from the broken well made it to the surface as recognizable oil.  But from the very beginning, the various “toxic soup” ingredients have followed radically different pathways through the complex oceanographic and living systems of the Gulf, spreading and being processed in different directions at different depths, and at different rates.

It is clear that all layers of the sea in a large zone around the well have been exposed, from bottom to top, as the spreading and rising cone (or “plume”) of oil-based materials spewed from the well. In contrast to a more typical oil spill on the water’s surface, where the transport and ecological fate of oil components are well-known, there are still many unknowns related to how the various chemicals have moved and are breaking down underwater, including the biochemical pathways and timetables.  Intense scientific investigation and complicated modeling are necessary before these complex relationships can be understood fully.

The addition of dispersants, both at the bottom and the top of the water column, has further altered the chemicals’ pathways through the ecosystem,  likely lessening some kinds of impacts and exacerbating others.It may well turn out that chemicals derived from oil spread over a much larger area because of the addition of dispersants, both at the bottom and the top.  The final accounting of the ecological and human winners and losers has yet to be made.

At the end of the day, the complex set of effects on the living systems of the Gulf from the oil and its chemical components will be understood, more or less.  The impacts on the human populations will be estimated, if not fully understood.  It is grossly premature to declare victory, though, until we understand the ways in which the basic fabric of the ecosystems of the Gulf has been altered, and what might be required to restore its weave.

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Deepwater Corals Are Out of Sight, But They Shouldn’t Be Out of Mind

Credit: Steve W. Ross (UNCW), unpubl. data.

Among the unseen and uncounted victims of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are the inhabitants of the ancient deepwater coral reefs that lie under the still-growing plume of oil.  Newly discovered, and still largely unexplored, these “rainforests of the deep” may become polluted and degraded before we even know exactly where they occur.

Deepwater wonders

Deepwater corals were first discovered in U.S. waters in the 19th century, during the early voyages of discovery, but only in the modern age of deepsea submarines and remotely operated vehicles did exploration truly begin.

Credit: Steve W. Ross (UNCW), unpubl. data.

As exploration has unfolded, scientists have been amazed at the extent and character of these underwater wonderlands, with new species being discovered with nearly every dive, including unknown forms with the potential to contain novel chemicals with pharmaceutical applications.  A cancer cure may lie in the darkness of the deep sea. 

Additionally, the branches of millennia-old corals have recorded in their layers an unequalled history of the recent life of the planet, including deepsea conditions that will allow ancient climates to be modeled.

 

Gulf of Mexico coral reefs

Credit: Geoplatform.gov

Credit: USGS

 Click images for larger view

The best-known deepwater reefs in the Gulf are located in the Viosca Knolls region, on the northern edge of the DeSoto Canyon, only twenty miles from the blown-out BP well, and on the edge of the Mississippi Canyon west of the blowout site.  In addition, there are known deepwater reefs off the West Florida Shelf and elsewhere in the Gulf.  Exciting research is currently underway in the Gulf, including the deployment of “lunar lander” data recorders for year-long stays on the bottom near the reefs, which could provide badly needed baseline information for pre-blowout conditions.

See a thorough analysis of coral reefs in the Gulf, Southeast and elsewhere here.

Toxins raining down on corals

The deepwater origin of the BP oil disaster, the use of dispersants at the wellhead, and the resulting development of sub-surface plumes of oil-based pollution floating and drifting with sub-surface currents, mean that Gulf deepwater corals are at serious risk of direct degradation from the broken well, including a wide array of materials that would likely prove toxic to them. Normally, at least some of the toxic substances from an oil spill would evaporate as oil sits on the ocean surface, but in this situation, many of the toxins remain dissolved, emulsified or otherwise entrained in near-bottom waters and middle depths, drifting with the currents and potentially exposing deepwater reefs.   Coral’s naturally slow growth rates and uncertain reproduction means that any damage would be difficult if not impossible to remediate or offset.

To make matters worse, oil that does make it to the ocean surface doesn’t stay there.  While some of the toxic material on the surface is burned or evaporated, much is again treated with dispersant chemicals, forming smaller droplets that easily stick to debris raining into the abyss.  In addition, a significant fraction of weathered oil also ultimately sinks back to the depths of the ocean. Although estimates vary widely, the best guess is that 25-30% or so of the oil from the 1979 Ixtoc 1 blowout in Campeche Bay in the southwestern Gulf sank to the bottom.

Credit: LUMCON

Another real threat comes from the decomposition of oil-based organic matter under water.  “Dead zones” are well-known in the shallower waters of the northern Gulf, driven mostly by nutrients and organic matter from the outflows from the Mississippi River.  In this case, underwater “dead zones” at a variety of depths are likely, and could add an additional punch to fragile ancient corals.

Protecting deepwater treasures

Credit: SAFMC

Ironically, as Gulf coral reefs face an uncertain future, thousands of square miles of reefs are being protected in a new program nearby in the Southeast Atlantic. I had the great privilege of chairing the panel responsible for this magnificent advance. 

Over the past decade, a unique collaboration of academic researchers, managers and fishermen have worked together to craft a landmark protection program for 23,000 square miles of deepwater reefs stretching from North Carolina to Florida.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approved these protections just this month, which will protect the coral reefs against fishing and many non-fishing threats.  While this designation by itself does not guarantee that oil and gas drilling could not occur there, it means that risks to those corals would have to be taken into account during lease sales and other project planning and design.

Two of the many researchers instrumental in securing these coral protections—Dr. Steve Ross from UNC Wilmington and Dr. John Reed from Harbor Branch—have each published their corals research online.

Corals in the crosshairs

The bottom line, sadly, is that ancient Gulf of Mexico coral reefs lie in the crosshairs of oil pollution from the BP oil disaster and it will be some time before scientists are able to begin damage assessments.  Research cruises scheduled for September may begin that process.

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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:

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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Oil Spill’s Impacts on Fishing Industry Varies for Inshore and Offshore Businesses

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is threatening inshore and offshore fishing industries, families and ocean life. Its long-term impacts are still unknown.   Here’s the latest:

  • Closed fishing grounds – about 7.3% percent of the Gulf – from the Mississippi River to Pensacola are closed, in addition to many inshore Louisiana waters that support family-run shrimping and oyster businesses.
  • Scientists and volunteers are searching for and helping recover oiled birds and other animals; several have been documented so far.
  • Dispersants, chemicals that break up the oil slick, are being used in the Gulf. They can harm offshore ocean life including fish, their spawning and feeding grounds, and other offshore habitat. 

Concern: Louisiana shrimpers and coast are hard hit

Red snapper and shrimp fisherman James Bruce from Cut Off, La. is concerned about the impacts of the oil spill on the Louisiana coast as it spreads.

James Bruce, a red snapper and shrimp fisherman from Cut Off, Louisiana headed out to catch shrimp earlier this week in the few open inshore shrimping areas in his area. He’s unsure how long the opening will last, but is taking advantage of the opportunity. He told us that very few fishermen are working now. “If the well doesn’t stop, we’re history,” James said. “But if the oil gets into the estuaries, we’re really history.” 

Good news: Large areas of the offshore Gulf are still open for fishing

Despite the uncertainty about stopping the spill and clean-up, there is some good news: Many federal fishing grounds are still open and offshore Gulf charter and commercial fishing is still safe.

Some more good news is that demand and prices for commercial fish caught offshore are stable so far, and the fishermen under an individual fishing quota program—one type of catch share management—are able to work around the problem for now.

Fishermen know that this good news could change quickly if the spill isn’t stopped soon.

Unintended consequences of media coverage

We learned last week while visiting the Gulf coast that news stories about the oil spill have hurt fishing businesses located in areas still unaffected by the spill. A few examples include:

  • Last week and this past weekend, we heard that while only a small percent of the Gulf is closed to fishing, charter fishermen told us that they have lost most of their clients for May and trips for coming months have also been cancelled.   
  • On Friday a city leader and seafood business owner in the Florida Panhandle reported that the media has created a “panic,” and that occupancy in some Florida panhandle hotels has dropped from 70 to under 20 percent. 
  • Several folks in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida told us that, regardless of the actual impacts, the general public will be scared to eat Gulf seafood or risk taking a fishing trip.

EDF is working to understand impacts of the spill

EDF is trying to understand the impacts that the oil spill is having on the oceans and fishing industry. We care because a healthy fishing industry and oceans are better able to support healthy fish populations.

Help us out by explaining how the oil spill is affecting you and your business. You can respond with a comment on this blog, or send us an email.

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