Laura Geselbracht is a senior marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
“Oh no, this could be a big one!” That was my first thought when I heard about the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. I worked for Washington state 17 years ago on natural resource damage assessment following major oil spills. So I know what havoc and destruction a spill that size can cause.
The news of the spill’s size and where it is headed hasn’t been getting any better. I was recollecting a few months ago how lucky Florida has been with respect to big oil spills, especially given the amount of oil transported around our coast.
In the few years I worked for Washington state, several large oil spills occurred in state waters. It was also the time of the Exxon Valdez. Sea birds, marine mammals and other species that spend time on the sea surface or must come to it for air are the most vulnerable. Oil spills can quickly change a species from common to in need of special management attention.
In addition, large oil spills into marine waters particularly hammered highly vulnerable seabird populations. As many as 19,000 common murres may have perished in one incident when the Tenyo Maru sank and released more than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil. Adding to the loss was the fact that the young birds come off their nests and spend time swimming with their male parent learning to fish before learning to fly.
I am always incredulous when I hear on the news that marine life will be able to avoid the spill area and therefore escape harm. How does anything avoid hundreds of square miles of floating and subsurface oil?
Then I recalled the images after both the Washington state oil spills and the Exxon Valdez — images of seabirds, shorebirds and otters being cleaned of oil. The sad news is that although some of these animals may be successfully cleaned of oil, it doesn’t mean they are good to go and will live long and prosperous lives. Most of the animals cleaned of oil have been highly stressed and will not live long in the wild, and it is usually not practical to keep them in captivity indefinitely.
There are other dangers to consider as well. Unwittingly, the sea otters cleaned of Exxon Valdez oil who were released into un-oiled areas of Prince William Sound carried a serious virus with them and infected the resident population.
Florida is home to several highly vulnerable marine species on the brink, many that must come to the surface to breathe. Oiling their homes could push them closer to the edge of extinction. Much of Florida’s vulnerability rests on whether the spill is picked up by the Loop Current, a Gulf of Mexico current that gets its name because it heads north from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico into the Gulf, then loops south before reaching the coast of Louisiana toward Florida.
The Loop Current then merges into the Florida Current that flows east just of the Florida Keys and merges into the Gulf Stream that heads north up the east coast of Florida. In other words, if the oil slick is picked up by these major currents, much of Florida’s coast and coastal resources could be impacted.
Vulnerable species include the 5 species of sea turtles that forage in state waters; the Florida manatee; American crocodile; smalltooth sawfish; several species of terrapin (an estuarine turtle that frequents mangrove areas); and several species of wading birds, such as Florida’s big pink bird, the spoonbill.
My marine scientist husband and I have seen some amazing things while underwater in Florida, like a manta ray swimming within reach, sailfish on the hunt, corals and giant barrel sponges spawning, manatees frolicking in a group, and schools of fish racing around in cyclonic formation to avoid being eaten. We have looked eye to eye at predatory species like sharks and barracudas in awe of their power and speed.
We both hope our 10-year-old daughter will be able to see these things as well.
(Image: Roseate spoonbill in Florida. Image credit: Pete Zarria/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)