Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.
Don’t, my mother warned, go to bed chewing that bubblegum. I did it anyway, more than once. We tried soaping it out, combing it out, picking it out. But my mother always gave up in frustration, and dealt with it the only way she knew how. She cut off my hair.
I feel as helpless as a kid with gum in his hair when I contemplate cleaning this marsh.
The needlerush marsh along the northern Gulf Coast is so thick it’s black. Spartina patens, the marsh wire grass, lies like a luxurious green pelt. Marsh cordgrass is braided so tightly, it’s a snare for anyone who dares walk through it.
As Just Cebrian and researchers at Dauphin Island Sea Lab are discovering, these marsh grasses are one of nature’s most efficient traps. They capture whatever washes through them, sands, shells, seaweed, nutrients, plywood, plastic bottles, and weave all of it into the rich black earth of the marsh.
The marsh’s productivity, its growth, its survival as the rough ocean daily gnaws on the shoreline depends on the trapping efficiency of these grasses. Everything in the marsh, the bacteria, the fungi, the fish, the young shrimp, the nesting birds, depends on the marsh’s great catch.
As oil comes ashore in Louisiana marshes today, as it certainly will do on a wide swath of Gulf Coast when winds shift, we contemplate the possibility that the marsh’s own efficiency may kill it.
Oil will be so quickly, so completely woven into the fabric of the marsh, it’s almost impossible to imagine soaping it out, combing it out, picking it out. So as our frustrated mothers once did, we’ll consider desperate measures. Cutting it out. Burning it out.
But all of these remedies threaten to destroy the marsh’s livelihood, the key to its survival along the coast for eons. A bald marsh has no trap efficiency, and it dies.
In the early days of the spill, I found some optimism in imagining how the efficiency of the marsh might overcome this threat, entangling the black tide in its grassy rim, maybe within the first 15 to 20 feet from the shoreline. Maybe there’s a way to catch it there, clean it up the best we can, and all go home.
Now, it’s increasingly clear there won’t be one landfall of oil, but many landfalls over weeks and months. What happens when the next brown wave comes onshore, and the next, when storm tides lift it higher and throw it deeper into the miles of marsh?
If there is a key to recovery, it must lie in the marsh itself. If we can help at all, it will require an extraordinary effort to better understand better how the marsh survives in such a difficult environment, and how we can help it to digest and safely bury this toxic catch.
(Image: Dense marsh cordgrass (needlerush marsh) covers thousands of acres at the coastal Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve near Moss Point, Mississippi. Image credit: Mark Godfrey/TNC.)