Waiting for BP’s tarballs

by Ken Kelley

NOVA SCOTIA—”BP has done ruined all those people’s lives down there,” said my friend Bill, a Nova Scotia lobsterman in his seventies, as we talked about the fate of Louisiana fishermen the other day.  Many are Cajuns, descended from French Acadian settlers who once lived along this very coast, prior to their expulsion by the British in the 1750s.

Having worked on the sea all his life, Bill said sadly: “We ain’t seen nothing yet.  I don’t care how you look at it, that oil is coming up here.”  Remarking on swordfish and tuna, which winter and spawn in the Gulf but are caught by Canadian fishermen in the summer, he noted that “fish swim, but that oil will kill every fish egg it touches.”

Although the focus of the environmental impacts of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been primarily on the devastation of the coastal wildlife, marshes, and beaches of the Gulf Coast, the impacts will be felt all along the Atlantic coast, as well.  With the spill, now in its third month, spewing oil into the ocean at the rate of at least 60,000 barrels a day, it’s clear BP CEO Tony Hayward’s claim that the environmental impact would be “very, very modest” could not be farther from the truth.

Oil has inundated the coastal marshes of the Gulf of Mexico, which 98% of all Gulf marine species depend upon.  These are prime habitat for oysters and are utilized as nursery grounds by shrimp, blue claw crabs, and various fish during their early life stages.

And while images like oil-coated pelicans and oil-saturated coastal habitats are most visible, the hidden effects of the spill further out in the Gulf could equally be devastating.   Despite Hayward’s insistence for weeks that there was “no evidence” of underwater plumes of oil in the Gulf, scientists have now documented several—some up to 20 miles long—almost 1000 feet below the surface.

One reason for the subsurface plumes is the massive use of chemical dispersants both at the leak site and along the shoreline.  The dispersant, Corexit—itself highly toxic to marine life—causes the oil to break up and sink into the water column. Scientists fear the underwater plumes could poison sea life and disrupt the whole marine food chain, starting with the microscopic phytoplankton which form the basis of the system.

Fish like marlin, swordfish, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, which are highest on the food chain, were in the middle of their annual spawning cycle in the Gulf when the spill began.  Scientists found oil sheens and globs on tuna spawning grounds in May, and have expressed concern that the eggs or larvae may not survive the oil.  Even if some survive to hatch, they still may starve if the plankton they feed on are gone.  The future impacts on tuna and swordfish stocks, which migrate along the East Coast as far as Canadian waters, are unknown.

Even the largest and most highly evolved forms of marine life have not been able to escape the effects of the oil spill.  Scores of dolphins have washed ashore dead, probably from ingesting oil when they came up to breathe.  The discovery of a dead sperm whale south of the spill site in mid-June may indicate that even these leviathans of the deep are not immune, as they feed and live at depths where underwater oil plumes are now present.

Of great concern is the fate of five of the world’s seven sea turtle species found in the Gulf, all of which are endangered.  These creatures, some of which are the size of a small car and which make annual migrations of thousands of miles, primarily feed on jellyfish just below the water’s surface.  Scientists have found jellyfish immersed in the syrup-like mixture of oil and dispersants produced by the spill, and, as a result, turtles with mouths full of oil resembling a thick mousse. While many oil-coated sea turtles have been rescued and are being nursed back to health, dozens have washed ashore dead, and others may have died and simply sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Perhaps one of the strangest spectacles has been the response of sea life trying to escape the spill, as seen on TV newscasts showing hermit crabs and blue crabs, which only live underwater, clambering onto marshland in an effort to flee the oil-coated water.  Dolphins, sharks, rays, and other fish normally found in the now toxic offshore waters have been reported as forming large schools in the relatively cleaner coastal waters in parts of Alabama. Larry Crowder, a Duke University marine biologist studying the unusual phenomena, remarked: “A parallel would be wildlife running to the edge of a forest fire.”

Even if a relief well were able to stop the leaking oil, the earliest that could happen is August. BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill will therefore probably surpass Mexico’s Ixtoc I blowout, which spewed 138 million gallons of oil into the Gulf for over 9 months in 1979.  Just as likely is that this massive spill, which has now entered the Gulf Loop Current, will find its way around Florida and—once it is taken up by the Gulf Stream—deposit its tide of toxic tarballs along the U.S. East Coast and even Atlantic Canada by the fall.  Other countries, especially Cuba, will bear the brunt of oil washing ashore for months to come.

Predicting the full impact on Gulf waters is difficult, especially while the spill continues.  But with oil now immersed in vital coastal wetlands and coating large parts of the ocean bottom, it may take decades for the area to recover.  The $20 billion BP set aside to settle claims for people affected by the oil spill does not remotely suffice to compensate those on the Gulf Coast who can no longer make a living from fishing or tourism.  As my friend Bill asked: “How can you pay someone enough for destroying their whole way of life?”

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