Just How Badly Have We Screwed Up the Gulf Ecosystem?

As media crews pack up and head for home, the wild animals that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico still have a long battle ahead of them. According to recent adjustments of official estimates, this spill has become the second largest in history. With around 75 percent of the total oil spilled now dispersed throughout the environment, it may take a while to understand the full extent of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It's time to start figuring out how badly we messed up the Gulf ecosystem, if it will recover, and what we can do to help.

How bad is it?

A government panel of scientists called the Flow Rate Technical Group has estimated that 4.9 million barrels or 205.8 million gallons of Southern Louisiana crude have been released into the Gulf of Mexico throughout the 87 days it flowed. According to a newly released government report, 25 percent of the oil has been removed from the gulf via direct recovery from the well head, burning and skimming. This still leaves 154.35 million gallons of the oil out in the environment in one form or another. That's 234 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of oil freewheeling in the Gulf ecosystem.

With many major news outlets reporting that the oil slick is largely gone from the Gulf, a whole new set of problems arises: 154.35 million gallons of oil has not disappeared. It has been dispersed throughout the water column and into the air. Nearly two million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants were dumped into the marine environment along with the oil. These chemicals break up the oil and force it to disperse (hence the name) into the subsurface waters. This takes a two-dimensional problem that we know how to deal with and turns it into a three-dimensional problem we do not have the ability to solve.

The fact that the oil spewed up from a deposit of unknown volume along with the use of dispersants to push the oil below the surface has made it all the more difficult to get an accurate estimate of the spill. This serves BP well, as it is financially liable for every gallon it can't recover.

The haves and have-nots

What can we deduce from all these numbers? Things are bad, really bad and that may spell disaster for wildlife.

Sea turtles and birds seem to have garnered comprehensive support throughout this disaster. The decision made by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NOAA and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to excavate a large number of turtle nests along Florida shores was a bold conservation maneuver that may have been those turtles' only chance at survival. Of the five species of sea turtles present in the Gulf of Mexico, two species are threatened and three are endangered.

Birds have received a large amount of media attention, although conservation efforts in their favor were not as aggressive. Brown pelicans, Louisiana's state bird, were removed from the endangered species list only last year and are still considered threatened. The state has spent millions of dollars and over 40 years working on the recovery of its brown pelican population. Although the largest pelican rookery islands in the southeast are off the coast of Louisiana there was no motion to remove eggs and hatchlings from rookeries despite the eminent arrival of devastating amounts of oil. Capture and rehabilitation protocols have been questioned by many experienced biologists but Fish and Wildlife and Louisiana State Wildlife and Fisheries have stuck to their guns and maintained their hands-off response strategies.

Marine mammals have garnered some support throughout the spill but due to their aquatic agility and elusive natures, recovery of oiled dolphins and whales is nearly impossible with current techniques. If a marine mammal is hindered enough to be captured, the odds are slim that it will be successfully rehabilitated.

As for the rest of the Gulf-dwelling creatures, there is little we can do at this point to protect them from this devastating mixture of oil and dispersant that has been dumped into their habitat. As land dwelling creatures, we humans have a very limited capacity to monitor and capture animals that don't come ashore.

How bad could it get?

The larger implications for the Gulf of Mexico stretch to all aspects of the ecosystem. Poisoning of the food chain from the bottom up has the potential to create a huge breakdown of ecosystem function.

Much of the oil that made it to shore has managed to coat the stems of vegetation on many of the protective barrier islands along the Gulf coast. This vegetation is the very thing that keeps the islands from washing away. Once the protective flora succumbs to oil exposure its stems and roots will die thus leaving nothing to hold the islands together. Many of these islands serve as important wildlife habitat as well as form barriers that create protected coastal waters, which are valuable habitat for several other species.

Birds migrating from the northern ends of the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways are in for a rude surprise when they reach the Gulf and its surrounding marshes. Many birds either winter in the Gulf or use it as a stopover en route to more southerly destinations. After traveling for thousands of miles these migrating birds are tired and hungry and count on the Gulf region for sustenance and safety. Neither of these necessities will be in large supply this fall or even next spring when they make their return journeys north. As endangered whooping cranes prepare to head to Gulf shores for the winter, they are facing a double whammy after the Kalamazoo River oil spill in Michigan has contaminated a portion of their northern range.

The loss of much of the world-renowned Gulf of Mexico shrimping industry will surely prove to push North American shrimp consumption more toward shrimp farmed in foreign waters. This has the potential to increase mangrove and marsh habitat destruction to make room for more shrimp farms in Southeast Asian and Central and South American coastal waters as demand increases.

What can we do to help?

Although much damage has been done to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem we can help fight for its restoration and take action to keep things like this from happening in the future.

  1. Make responsible choices. We all share the blame in this to some degree, so petroleum products need to become a smaller part of our daily lives. Drive less, buy products manufactured or grown as close to your home as possible, and make energy efficiency a larger part of your daily life.
  2. Be an advocate. In a recent TED talk Dr. Susan Shaw of the Marine Environmental Research Institute said chemical corporations are, "allowed to keep trade secrets so they don't even have to give the ingredients out. Plus they don't give health and safety data so consequently they cannot be regulated before they go to market. So it's a case of innocent until proven guilty." Write to your senators and ask them to fight for stronger regulation of the oil industry and any regulation at all of the chemical industry. We can't leave the criminal in charge of the crime scene as we have by leaving BP in charge of this cleanup and recovery effort. Ask your senators to endorse the Safe Dispersant Act. This piece of legislation introduced by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg will require that chemical dispersants used to break up oil after a spill be tested for their long-term effects on the environment and human health.
  3. Support small organizations that are working in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Here is a short list of organizations that are being very effective and comprehensive in their coverage, research and restoration efforts of this disaster and others like it:

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