Tag: Bill Finch Gulf spill

Gulf Oil Spill: Building the Ark of Recovery

Written by | June 21st, 2010
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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 to protect the Gulf’s globally significant natural systems. Read all his posts, and see fresh images from the oil spill like the one above in this slideshow from photographer Bridget Besaw.

We all want to throw up our hands and cry “What now?”

Kill this gusher — that’s the first order — do it as soon as possible, and prevent it from doing any more damage.

But the Gulf has swallowed this oil. It’s now deep into the system, so much a part of the Gulf we can no longer imagine siphoning it all out. Even if we shut down this well immediately, the catastrophe will continue.

We know that we’ll be losing harvests of precious Gulf fish, we’ll be losing many clean Gulf seafood nurseries and habitats, and many of us will see our livelihoods and the loveliness of Gulf life wrecked in the process.

But we are not helpless. What we do have control over now is how long we must suffer this loss.

If we do nothing to help nurse the Gulf back to health, we may never see it recover, even after decades. But if we act now to kick-start a recovery of life, we could end this decade with a Gulf that is richer, more productive, more beautiful than what we had before this catastrophe struck.

Every egg, every young fish, shrimp or crab, every adult that survives this spill will now be precious. These will by the two-by-two creatures that we’ll need to load onto the ark of recovery.

We must be vigilant: We can’t afford to lose any more of the Gulf’s creatures to carelessness, greed or neglect.

But if we’re going to see a rapid recovery of our Gulf, we need to do more: We need to ensure that the struggling creatures that survive this spill have a place to come home to — clean marshes, clean reefs, clean seagrass beds, clean shores to raise new generations of Gulf life.

Birds, fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, turtles will be desperate for places to come home to. For generations, we’ve been wrecking the habitats they need to reproduce, grow and thrive. Louisiana continues to lose 40 square miles of marsh a year. In Alabama’s once highly productive Mobile Bay, we appear to have lost 70 to 90 percent of the bay’s original oyster, marsh and seagrass habitat.

We must act quickly to protect the clean habitats that survive. But we can’t repair the damage done by this oil spill if we don’t act just as quickly to repair more than 100 years of damage done to Gulf Coast habitats, rebuilding our lost reefs, marshes and seagrass beds. These new, clean habitats will be critical to kick-starting a recovery.

We can’t recover all that was lost at once, but The Nature Conservancy is already identifying areas all along the Gulf Coast where we can rebuild significant areas of lost habitat within 3 to 5 years, in time to spark a revival of Gulf life.

Here in Alabama, the threats posed by this oil spill are driving a new appreciation of the importance of recovering lost habitat. We’ve been rebuilding our lost oyster reefs at the rate of about a mile a year. These reefs, the architectural foundation of much Gulf habitat, have already begun to support an explosion of seagrass, marsh, fish and shrimp. But at the rate we’re working now, it would take us a century to recover what was lost.

We can’t afford to wait. The damage done by this spill demands that we ramp up our efforts as rapidly as possible.

We know we could be building 20 to 30 miles of reef a year, and promote hundreds of acres of seagrass and marsh recovery in the process. Within 3 to 5 years, we could complete 100 miles of oyster reef and at least 1,000 acres of seagrass and marsh habitat. That’s conservative — it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that a properly designed restoration could support 10,000 acres of seagrass and marsh.

Rebuilding such a system will have huge benefits beyond kick-starting the oil spill recovery:

  • If designed properly, oyster reefs will slow, and in many cases, halt the massive erosion that continues to carve into Alabama shorelines.
  • Reefs will help to filter the loose sediment that turns Mobile Bay a dark chocolate every time the wind blows.
  • Light-loving seagrasses return, tying down still more mud.
  • And in the quit eddies created by the reef, marshes will get a toe-hold and spread rapidly.

Best of all, re-creation of these reefs, seagrasses and marshes will result in an explosion of life. It won’t just be old timers who remember what it was like to go floundering in the seagrasses along the shores of Mobile Bay:

  • Harvest of white shrimp, once Mobile’s prized catch, will almost certainly rebound.
  • Crab habitat will increase dramatically.
  • Tens of thousands of young speckled trout, redfish, sheepshead and other Gulf game and food fish will once again find a place to grow and thrive.

None of this happens automatically. It’s a hugely ambitious plan that will require the support of many players. But it is precisely the kind of project that President Obama called for when he promised that this county would not only respond to the spill, but would develop a long-term plan for restoring the beauty and bounty of the region.

All of the Conservancy’s state programs are working on equally ambitious and concrete solutions, and the project in Mobile Bay is just one example among many that we’ll be highlighting in this space over the next several weeks.

One hundred miles of reef, 1,000 acres of marsh. Next time you’re feeling helpless because of the oil spill, wrap your hands around that thought and imagine the implications.

If we choose to think so heroically, we could be better off in 10 years than we are now, living with a healthier, more productive, more beautiful Gulf of Mexico.

(Image: Clouds of sediment colored the Gulf of Mexico on November 10, 2009, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this photo-like image. Image credit: NASA.)

Want to help? Explore three ways you can help Gulf restoration — sharing our stories from the Gulf, making a donation to long-term restoration efforts, or volunteering to help clean-up and restoration.

Gulf Oil Spill: Is There a Cure?

Written by | June 14th, 2010
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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 to protect the Gulf’s globally significant natural systems. Read all his posts, and see fresh images from the oil spill like the one above in this slideshow from photographer Bridget Besaw.

Everybody’s got a favorite solution to the oil spill that’s spreading through the Gulf of Mexico.

We can certainly hope that one of them might prove useful.

But because we understand so little about oil, and yet are so eager for solutions, we’re easy targets for snake-oil salesmen.

Consider the microbe cure.

You’ve seen folks on TV and the Internet hawking oil-eating microbes like they were the latest, greatest thing in fighting oil spills.

But before you bet the clean-up on canned bacteria, you should know that the Gulf of Mexico already houses and feeds what must certainly be one of the world’s largest and most diverse populations of oil-eating microbes.

There are oil-eating microbes in the marshes, oil-eating microbes in the water column, oil-eating microbes hovering around natural hydrocarbon vents in the deepest sections of the Gulf.

They’re all different, and they all have their dining preferences, but they’re all the same in the most important way: They greedily feed on the carbon compounds common in plant and petroleum oils.

The good news is, they’re already at work. In a way, this spill will be a rare feast. They’re working as fast as any oil-eating microbes in the world can work to break down and contain this spill.

But here’s the bad news: No matter how many oil-eating microbes you empty into the Gulf of Mexico, their appetites are going to be limited by how much oxygen, nitrogen and other nutrients they can find to aid in their digestion.

It’s likely, for example, that the Gulf is already beginning to suffer because these oil-eating microbes are siphoning off much of the limited oxygen in the water column. That’s one of the sad ironies of this disaster. Many creatures in the Gulf will die not because of the direct toxicity of oil, but because the oil-eating microbes are now in overdrive, sucking up all the oxygen and nitrogen they can find.

In the process of cleaning up the oil, those microbes are likely to create oxygen-deprived dead zones in the Gulf. Those dead zones will not only kill off the fish, they’ll cause the populations of oil-eating bacteria to crash, further slowing the recovery.

The same problem exists on shore. Because there are so many plant oils in marshes, marsh soils are rich in oil-eating bacteria — bacteria that would be just as happy consuming petroleum oils. Unfortunately, many of these bacteria will be suffocated under the thick gooey masses of petroleum that roll ashore. And the bacteria that survive will quickly run out of the nitrogen and other nutrients they need to digest the carbon-rich petroleum oil.

Couldn’t we simply fertilize the oceans to help our native oil-eating microbes get their fill? Not really. Adding nitrogen only magnifies the problem of oxygen loss, and creates a few other problems besides. And mixing sufficient oxygen into the Gulf would require something on the scale of a monumental hurricane.

Finding creatures that can digest oil is easy. Finding creatures that can digest massive, unnaturally large quantities of oil without wrecking the ecosystem in the process may be impossible.

I was recently cornered by an aspiring bioengineer, a sincere scientist, a nice guy. He wanted me to know that he was working hard to develop oil-eating bugs that were “better” than the bugs we already had. I tried not to worry too much — if such a thing were possible, I figured he was at least a few thousand test-tube generations away from creating it.

But let’s suppose he was somehow able to create a bug entirely new, without the normal limitations of the oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf, a superbug that could survive anywhere, chewing through oil regardless of whether there’s enough oxygen, nitrogen and other nutrients to go around.

What happens when these bugs get finished chewing through the petroleum oil in the Gulf of Mexico? If I were such a superbug, I’d start chewing on the marsh soils, with their rich and healthy accumulation of plant carbons and oils, the very oils that gave rise to petroleum in the first place.

And because I was a superbug, and didn’t need as much oxygen and nitrogen as other microbes, I’d eat deeper, eat faster into the marsh than all the plain old bacteria that have been around long enough to know it’s not wise to eat yourself out of house and home.

Here’s the terrible thought we’re all going to have to get used to: There’s no way to simply make this oil disappear.

We can and should stop the flow as quickly as possible, corral it where possible, skim it off the surface as quick as we can. But hundreds of millions of gallons of oil are already so well stirred into the Gulf’s systems and processes, there’s no way to call it back.

It won’t be BP or the Coast Guard or scientists in a laboratory cleaning up the Gulf. The clean-up will be done by the Gulf itself, slowly, violently and at great cost to all the creatures living there.

Our task — the most important human task — will be making sure that there are enough of these creatures and natural systems left to support a full recovery of the Gulf as soon as possible.

(Image: The hand of NOAA’s Tim Olsen and a sample container after he collected water samples near Grand Terre Island, Louisiana. Image credit: Bridget Besaw.)

Want to help? Explore three ways you can help Gulf restoration — sharing our stories from the Gulf, making a donation to long-term restoration efforts, or volunteering to help clean-up and restoration.

Gulf Oil Spill: The Nature of Oil

Written by | June 9th, 2010
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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.

We’re going to be living with this slobbering beast in the Gulf of Mexico for a long time.

We can rage and cry and run in fear from any trace of it. Those of us on the Gulf have done all three.

But at some point we’ve going to have to look this monster hard in the eyes, and discover its strengths and its vulnerabilities. And if we’re going to devise a monster-fighting strategy that really works, we’re going to have to understand precisely why oil is a threat to us and the Gulf we love.

The problem isn’t the oil itself, exactly — it’s oil in the astonishing, overwhelming quantities now pouring into the Gulf.

After all, oil isn’t an alien from outer space. It is, as Rush Limbaugh enjoys reminding us, a product of good old Mother Earth, right out of a hole in the ground. If Rush knew a little more about oil and where it came from, he might even come to realize that we all have a deep, genetic attraction to it.

I’ll confess that I’m fascinated by the oils of nature. Not just the stuff we put in our cars — I hold my nose and learn to live with it just as you do.

But I go out of my way to brush up against the rosemary plant in the garden. I relish the odor of the volatile oils it releases. I salivate for the oils in blueberries and olives and other fruits and vegetables. I even like the rainbow sheen of plant oils as they spread out, very much like a miniature slick, in the blackwater swamps and sloughs of the Southeast.

In some ways, there’s not much difference between these oils and the petroleum oils out in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re all largely made of carbon compounds called phenols. In essence, phenols are nothing more than the essential molecules of life — oxygen, hydrogen and carbon — arranged in various patterns and chains.

And why should we be surprised? The oil that you’re using in your car, which is distilled from the same oil blowing out of the Deepwater Horizon hole in the Gulf of Mexico, comes mostly from plants and plant-like organisms.

In the case of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil stores, we’re talking 150-million-year-old plant remains — mostly from the tiniest and most primitive plant-like organisms, the phytoplankton. These plankton settled onto the floor of a shallow sea over millions of years, were buried under sediment, and have been gradually concentrated into a thick goo deep below ground.

But at its core, this goo is still, in many ways, chemically identical to common plant oils. Petroleum oils are so closely related to plant oils that we now reverse engineer the petroleum to produce beneficial compounds we once got directly from plants. The aspirin you take was created by modifying petroleum oil so that it is virtually identical to the salicylic acid we once extracted from willow trees.

So if it’s all so natural, why are we making such a big deal out of this spill?

Well, the first question you should ask yourself is why plants and plankton produce such an abundance of these complex natural oils in the first place.

The phenolic oil sheen I see so often in my favorite blackwater swamps seems to be largely a product of the great bald cypress trees that dominate those swamps. Old bald cypress wood is legendary for its ability to resist rot, which it does by producing and concentrating oily phenolic compounds that are highly toxic to fungi and insects.

If you were bold enough to eat enough of a cypress board, those compounds would likely be just as toxic to you (supposing you survived the indigestion).

Plants are amazing chemical laboratories, and they’ve been experimenting with these simple carbon compounds for many years, rearranging them into substances that can fight cancer or promote it, whet your appetite or take it away, nourish you or make you sick as a dog. Some compounds, such as chloroform, can even kill outright.

Petroleum oil is a stew of all these natural phenols and other carbon compounds. By some estimates, there are 1,000 or more phenolic compounds in the oil spill spreading through the Gulf of Mexico, some of them beneficial, some benign, some unusually toxic.

In natural settings, these toxic compounds are typically found only in relatively small quantities, and they’re usually deployed so that they target only the creatures that attack the plants.

The oils that naturally escape into the environment are typically cleaned up pretty quickly by exposure to air and water and the natural oil-eating bacteria that are abundant in the Gulf. The most dangerous compounds, the ones that are most toxic, are the ones that typically get cleaned up first.

The Earth has learned to live with and prosper from the small doses of oil that leak constantly into the environment, from many sources.

But when you start concentrating all these compounds over millions of years in vast stores of petroleum oil, and then you begin releasing them in millions of gallons per week into the nation’s most productive fishery, you’re unleashing toxins in quantities that the Gulf and its oil-eating bacteria aren’t prepared to deal with. This spill is so big, it even threatens to destroy the oil-loving bacteria that normally would clean it up.

That’s how we’ve made something as natural as oil into a monster.

But understanding this oil beast a little better will help us to devise solutions that work, and to reject those that don’t. In this space over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at how The Nature Conservancy is using its science and expertise to do that sifting. So stay with us.

(Image: Heavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on Thursday, June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude at The Fort Jackson Wildlife Care Center in Buras, LA. Image credit: IBRRC/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

Gulf Oil Spill: The Forecast and Petit Bois Island

Written by | June 3rd, 2010
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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.

Down here on the Gulf Coast, the rainiest region of North America, we’re used to waking up each morning to look at the weather.

These days, we forget to worry about whether we’ll get wet. Many of us start each morning, first thing, looking to see where the wind will drive the oil today.

The spill, painted in soft, pleasant blue on the official government trajectory maps, spreads to cover a larger and larger area of my computer screen each morning. Watching it metastasize day by day would be mesmerizing, like watching clouds turn into butterflies or beasts — if not for the little red x’s marking shorelines that will be slathered in oil.

The blob is mutating now, spawning new blobs that spin off each in their own direction. It’s even harder to predict which shore on the map will be struck with red crosses. But as the spill progresses, the certainty is that every shore, from western Louisiana into the central Panhandle of Florida, will be struck.

The quiet coastal island we call Petit Bois was hit yesterday. We say “Petty Boy” in our best Gulf Coast English. But the old French name must refer to that “little woods” of old slash pines that shelter the center of the island. Looking at it from a distance across Mississippi Sound, it looks like a clump of forest has broken free from shore and is adrift in the ocean.

Petit Bois wasn’t large enough to ever attract a bridge or development, so it has always seemed new and unexplored, no matter how often you visit. Long stretches of white beach are held together with flowering vines and turquoise dune grasses, surrounded with a thick beard of marsh and rippling underwater beds of manatee grass. The footprints belong to long-legged birds, turtles and an occasional raccoon.

I’m not ready to see it yet, but the folks who went out yesterday say the beaches of Petit Bois weren’t draped in black. They’re covered in a layer of deep rusty red, a dirtier version of the red crosses on the NOAA map. I’m told the stuff spreads sixty feet up the beach in places.

Describing this disaster and its unexpected impacts has become a macabre exercise. Even the tar balls don’t look like tar balls. One scientist walking Dauphin Island this week said she thought she was looking at big, spongy piles of fresh dog poo on the beaches. It was that thick, that consistency, that color.

They’ll clean the poo off the Dauphin Island beaches before the tourists return. The slobbering mess on Petit Bois will have to sit until someone remembers to look for that quiet, remote island on the edge of Mississippi Sound.

The outer islands of the Gulf Coast — Petit Bois, Dauphin, Horn, the Chandeleurs — do what they have always done for the mainland. They sacrifice little pieces of themselves, deflecting the muscle of the Gulf before it can smash into the big shore.

Petit Bois was hammered by Katrina. Many of the old pines died, and stand skeletonized on the horizon. But the marshes survived, and the underwater beds of manatee grass actually seemed to spread, as if the bottom of Mississippi Sound had been refreshed by that blow. The young pines grow. The islands, given time, recover — shoveling and reshaping the streams of coastal sand, ready to capture new gusts from the Gulf before they hit the mainland.

I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like this red stain on the beaches of Petit Bois. One hopes the island’s latest sacrifice won’t be too much.

(Image: Petit Bois Island. Image credit: B-Rich/Wikipedia through a Creative Commons license.)

Gulf Spill Update: The Numbers Don’t Lie

Written by | May 26th, 2010
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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.

In Louisiana last weekend, oil flowed under booms, it went around booms, it found miles of marsh where booms were never deployed.

Jeff Dequattro, our oyster project director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, watched it happen, even as he was setting out more booms to help protect a major new Conservancy oyster restoration project along Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Out in the middle Gulf, immense pools of oil are wrapping around the sea of sargassum weed — which was, after the marshes, the Gulf’s most important nursery for fish.

All the donated human hair and animal fur that has been flown around the country to staunch the flow has now been deemed a waste of time and fuel oil.

And the hole in the floor of the Gulf keeps spewing oil at a rate that the oil industry seems fearful of calculating.

A sickening sense of helplessness has set in, even among scientists.

“We get it,” one frustrated reader wrote. “Now what do we do?”

Once the damage in the Gulf is assessed, there will be much the American community will need to do, and can do, to repair some of the damage there.

Meanwhile, most of us console ourselves by blaming the companies, blaming the regulators, blaming the slow response, even as we continue to participate in that great conspiracy — every time we fill up our cars with Gulf Coast gas.

If you want to do something right now, do it with these numbers in mind:

  • 59 gallons: Average volume of motor vehicle gasoline used, per person per year, in Europe.
  • 428 gallons: Motor vehicle gasoline used, per person per year, in the United States.
  • 620%: Percentage by which U.S. gasoline usage for vehicles exceeds that of Europe.
  • 9.989 million barrels: Amount of oil used for gasoline each day in the United States.
  • 1.8 million barrels of oil: Amount of oil saved each day if U.S. gasoline consumption were only 500% greater than consumption in Europe.
  • 1.75 million barrels of oil: Amount of oil produced each day by all offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, great: We could eliminate the equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil production if we reduced our driving so that we only used 5 times, rather than 6.2 times, as much gasoline for motor vehicle travel as Europeans do.

But we wouldn’t want to set a goal for ourselves that would require real sacrifice, would we? So how painful would it be to reduce our gasoline consumption by 20 percent?

Look at these numbers:

  • 190 miles: Average miles driven, per person per week, in the United States.
  • 5.4 miles: Average number of miles per day we’d have to reduce our driving to eliminate dependency on oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • 38 miles: Average number of miles per week we’d have to reduce our driving.

Some drive more, some less. Watch your odometer to see how many miles you drive, and what your 20 percent cut looks like.

But a significant number of Americans could eliminate America’s reliance on Gulf of Mexico oil production simply by carpooling to work with one other person 2 or 3 days per week. Those who have good access to efficient public transportation could make a giant contribution. I can almost eliminate my dependency simply by hopping on the bicycle for a pleasant 10-minute ride (2.5 miles) to my office.

Many of us would claim we can’t possibly reduce gasoline consumption because we have no choice but to drive our cars to work. Fine.

So review these calculations from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey: No matter how you look at it, only 20 to 30 percent of the average American’s car miles are devoted to commuting to work.

The biggest single chunk of travel — nearly one-third of the total, or about 60 miles per week for the average person — was purely for socializing and entertainment (that doesn’t include trips to school and church, family business such as doctors trips, or shopping). The biggest percentage increase in travel over the past several decades has been the result of shopping trips: Our mileage there has almost doubled, and accounts for nearly 15 percent of travel.

Do you care enough about what’s happening in the Gulf to combine shopping trips with the commute to work?

Of course, where you live in relation to your work and your favorite social spots can play a significant role in how much gas you use. Would the collapse of the Gulf’s fishing industry matter enough to you that you’d consider that next time you bought a new house?

Reducing our gas usage doesn’t prevent anyone from drilling for oil anywhere, but it sure reduces the incentives for it. More than 70 percent of the oil used in the U.S. goes to transportation, and U.S. oil consumption is nearly three times higher than any other country, so our driving exerts a whopping influence on world oil prices.

In the absence of higher prices for oil, it’s hard to imagine oil companies would be making tremendously expensive, risky and controversial decisions to drill for oil miles beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s no consolation for the damage already being done to our beautiful and once productive Gulf.

BP and others involved in the Deepwater Horizon project are responsible for the spill. But if we can’t reduce our driving by 5.4 miles a day, I think we need to look at our own responsibility, too.

Figures used in this article were obtained from the United Nations International Energy Agency, Statistics Division; the World Resources Institute; the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook; the U.S. Federal Highway Administration; and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Comparisons of per capita gasoline usage reflect 2005 data, which can be compared across all countries. Per capita usage based on ISIC Divisions 60, 61 and 62.

(Image: Oil hitting the shores of Grand Isle, Louisiana last Friday, near The Nature Conservancy’s field station there. Image credit: Jeff DeQuattro/TNC.)

Gulf Oil Spill: The Slick We Didn’t See

Written by | May 17th, 2010
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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.

Nothing could be uglier and more immediately gut-wrenching than a slick onshore. It would be a godsend for the evening news: There’d be hours of eye-catching footage of a black tide drifting over blue water, birds coated in oil, black goo clinging to the beaches and marshes. The spill would be most visible right where most of us ankle-deep sea lovers can see it best.

You get the sense that a lot of the folks out trying to tame the spill know that, and they seem to be doing everything they can to spare us such a spectacle.

The fact that the oil has to bubble up through a mile of water before it hits the surface has helped, but it appears the dispersants are working exactly as advertised: They’re burying this slick under the waves where none of us on shore can see it, where measuring it and predicting its path will be extremely difficult, where all the oil-catching booms and Dawn detergent in the world will be beside the point.

By nearly every reckoning now, the oil that didn’t go ashore has been stirred into the Gulf, until the waters are dark as black tea thousands of feet below the surface. Because it hasn’t been exposed to the air, as it would have been had it risen to the surface, it hasn’t lost its most volatile and toxic compounds. Somehow kitchen metaphors come to mind when describing it: One scientist refers to giant plumes with the consistency of salad dressing, miles long, miles wide, several hundred feet thick.

Finally, it’s becoming obvious to all of us, scientists, fishermen, lovers of the Gulf: We should have worried first about the slick we didn’t see. Because what matters in the Gulf isn’t what you can see standing on the balcony of a beach condo. What matters is what’s happening in the deep space where few of us ever go — that plunging realm of seawater that supports the life of the Gulf and the livelihood of all of us who depend on those waters.

By dispersing this oil so efficiently, we have in effect multiplied the contact zones, assuring that all life at every level of the Gulf will feel the impact.

Consider the flea-sized creatures that would have been your crab supper, your blackened redfish, your fresh Gulf shrimp platter a year or two from now. It’s the big spring rush of reproduction in the Gulf. Fish and shellfish in the marshes are sending off tiny eggs and fry for the long journey offshore; fish and shellfish in the depths of the continental shelf are giving up their young to the currents, hoping they’ll make it back to the marsh.

These helpless creatures don’t swim: They trust the motions of the Gulf to take them where they need to go. Those are the same motions that carry clouds of what we now like to describe as the toxic salad dressing of the spill. A dolphin might have the fins and sense to swim the other way. The new generations of Gulf Coast sea life can only move where the Gulf and all it carries takes them.

Here’s a picture for the evening news: Imagine milky clouds of eggs and larvae, from crabs, shrimp, redfish, from virtually every sea creature you’ve ever heard of and then a thousand species more, floating suspended in the deep waters of the Gulf. On the wind-like currents that rise and fall in the open seas, they drift like dandelion seeds.

Then imagine another cloud, 10 or 15 miles long, several hundred feet from top to bottom, and 3 to 4 miles wide, a rusty emulsion of oil that clings to everything it touches. Now imagine these two clouds merging in the currents of the Gulf. A good photographer, if he didn’t mind swimming through toxic salad dressing, could even capture the poetry in the way they meet, those big-eyed young of crabs, shrimp and fish, quietly dispatched with each kiss of oil.

Frame that picture in your mind, because it will explain a lot about what you won’t see over the next few years – the crab cakes that won’t be on the menu in your favorite restaurant, the redfish, mackerel and snapper sports fishermen won’t be bringing home, the jobs and businesses that won’t be there because they depended on the bounty of the Gulf, the shore birds that simply starve because they can’t find food to eat.

(Image: Shrimp boat on the Gulf of Mexico off Biloxi, Mississippi. Image credit: Casino Jones/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

Alabama: Return to the Rail’s Nest

Written by | May 14th, 2010
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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.

The rail’s nest in Grand Bay marsh is empty.

Seeing it was a jarring reminder of how much time has passed — as if I were watching my own children leave home.

It’s been almost two weeks since Sergio and I first found eight speckled eggs beneath the tent of dried marsh grasses, just above the tide in Alabama’s Grand Bay. We wondered then whether mother rail could hatch the eggs before the oil moved on shore.

We didn’t dare imagine then the spill would still be pouring into the Gulf, that every morning we would wake up anxious, half-wishing it would never come, half-wanting it to come and be done, so we wouldn’t have to wish again.

The momma rail had other anxieties. She had laid her ambitions for the spring more than a month ago, a few days before the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon.

Then, it was a simple spring, as simple as a spring can be these days along the Gulf of Mexico. She had prepared the best she could for all the usual perils rails have faced for eons on the coast — marauding racoons, spring storms, disease, competition for a daily meal of snail or fiddler crab. If half a brood survives two months, she’d be as successful as a momma rail could hope to be.

She faced other perils a rail might not be prepared to contemplate. For decades now, there have been fewer and fewer places for a new year’s crop of rails to go. The coastal marshes where rails nest — and where most of North America’s seafood harvest is produced — have been disappearing at a stunning rate.

Some marsh is filled outright, some choked with runoff and waste. The rest is squeezed — between the houses competing for a picture window view and the seas that have been rising steadily, about a foot in the last century. The retreating marsh has few places left to go, and neither does a sturdy cohort of young rails.

The rail lets out a yelp. What’s troubling her right now is the six-foot shadow looming over her nest, and all the attention she’s been receiving in the last two weeks.

Rails are secretive birds. They slip beneath the thick marsh grasses, announcing their presence, but not their location, with a raspy, wooden clack. They rarely fly and never far. The chicks, black balls of fluff, hit the ground running, piling out of the nest and into the shallow water of the marsh within a day or two of hatching.

The rail’s not calculating how much oil is gushing uncontrolled, maybe uncontrollably, from a hole in the Gulf. She only sees the great disaster in front of her nest, a conspicuous pool of bare muddy earth, where film crews and scientists drawn here by the spill have trampled out a bull’s eye in the thick cordgrass.

Every day it doesn’t come ashore, there’s a chance for a miracle. My friend Ben says that when I ask him what he thinks will happen next. I was surprised to hear him say it. We never talked about miracles before.

My best guess is that rails don’t expect miracles. They just want some privacy and enough marsh left to raise their young.

(Image: Clapper rail in New Mexico. Image credit: jerryoldenettel/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

Alabama: The Spill’s Potential Effects on Gulf Seafood

Written by | May 11th, 2010
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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.

I guess we can’t be absolutely sure who first had the idea of mixing fresh-picked crabmeat with vinegar, oil, onion and spices and calling it West Indies Salad. But the founder of Bayley’s Restaurant near Alabama’s Fowl River makes the best claim, and Bayley’s was the first place many on the Gulf Coast enjoyed this famous delicacy.

Crab is harder to find these days, and the spill may be the final blow for many who serve traditional Gulf seafood. Bill Bayley let it be known this weekend that he would shut down his family’s historic restaurant before he had to resort to serving “foreign” catch.

No one seems to salivate at the thought of West Indies Salad made with farm-raised Asian catfish.

At another favorite local seafood shop — with handsome views of one of the Gulf’s most productive estuaries — we stopped by for our ritual Sunday evening meal. No crab. The waitress apologized for the sudden jump in the price of oysters. Their locally harvested white shrimp — a closely guarded Gulf Coast secret, plumper, sweeter, fresher than the frozen Gulf shrimp shipped around the country — was still on the menu. I thought I’d better ask: Turns out the latest batch of “local white shrimp” was pond-raised and frozen for the long flight from Asia.

The Gulf Coast produces 40 percent of the seafood catch in the lower 48. But only 20 percent of the nation’s seafood comes from national waters.

A lot of folks worry we may be too dependent on foreign oil. But isn’t it odd: Even as doctors are touting the benefits of seafood for longer and healthier life, and even as more Americans are demanding it, we’re content that 80 percent of our seafood harvest now comes from foreign countries.

The decline in the availability of fresh Gulf seafood started long before the oil spill. We’ve been burning that candle at both ends for a while, harvesting more and more from the ocean, even as we wreck, fill in and generally ignore the health of the marshes, oyster reefs and other habitats that produce the harvest.

Now, we’re almost entirely dependent on marshes, reefs and fishermen in distant seas we have no control over, on shores we could not make more productive if we wanted to.

There’s no evidence the overseas harvest will hold up any better than ours has, and we’ve about run out of new oceans we can strip bare. You might remind your doctor of that next time he promises you’ll live ten years longer if you’ll just eat more seafood.

I don’t know that the Gulf could ever completely satisfy the nation’s growing appetite for seafood. But there’s little doubt that these waters were once far more productive than they are now. Louisiana alone is losing 30 square miles of marsh each year, and has been doing so for decades. How many fish, shrimp and crab disappear each year with the loss of so much of their nursery habitat?

Globally, the acreage of oyster reefs has declined about 85 percent, and only two small oyster harvest areas in eastern North America can claim to have 50 percent or more of their original reefs. One of those, in Mobile Bay, is right in the path of the spill.

It’s not clear what has happened, over the past year or so, to the Gulf Coast blue crabs that once made Bayley’s West Indies Salad such a treat. Maybe the local harvest was on the road to recovery, but the tiny, big-eyed baby crabs that will supply the harvest for years to come are now floating in the Gulf in a chocolate mousse of spilled oil.

For a long time, Gulf Coast blue crabs helped Chesapeake Bay restaurants guard a dirty little secret: The Chesapeake crab harvests had crashed from overharvest, pollution and habitat loss. Maryland’s famous crab cakes were made with Gulf Coast crab meat. I hate to think what Maryland will stuff its famous crab cakes with if the Gulf crab harvest meets the same fate.

The spill will further erode our ability to deliver fresh American seafood to American tables. It may already be too late to halt the immediate impacts. But the long-term security of our nation’s food supply requires that we pay a lot more attention to what’s coming out of our coastal marshes and reefs, and much more attention to what’s going into them.

(Image: Blue crab. Image credit: Erika Nortemann/TNC.)

Alabama: What This Spill Could Do to Coastal Marshes

Written by | May 10th, 2010
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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.)

Alabama Gulf: Having Great Data, Making Hard Choices

Written by | May 8th, 2010
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Oyster beds and oil protection boom at The Nature Conservancy's Coffee Island oyster restoration project in the Gulf of Mexico just off the Alabama coast, south of Bayou La Batre.

Judy Haner, The Nature Conservancy’s marine program director in Alabama, tells us the latest in boom deployment efforts off the Gulf Coast of Alabama, talks about why oyster reef restoration is so important for the Gulf’s coastal habitats, and says that the Conservancy and its partners might soon have to make hard choices together about which habitats to save. Read all our posts from the front lines in Alabama, including those of Bill Finch, our director of conservation in Alabama.


Q: What’s the latest from the Alabama coast on preparations for the spill?

Judy Haner: First, there’s great news for Coffee Island, where we have one site in our Alabama oyster reef restoration project. The Coast Guard has tied their booms into the booms we put out earlier in the week and they’ve encircled the entire island with booms.

We actually now have booms everywhere on the coast. We have booms along the frontline barrier islands, all along the secondary islands, and all along our inland tributaries. It’s really impressive how all the coastal communities of the Gulf are coming together to accomplish this three-line defense. It’s been amazing.

Q: About Coffee Island — that’s where the Conservancy and its partners are building a “living shoreline” where erosion has eaten away at the island’s shore. What’s a “living shoreline”? And what’s critical about this project?

Judy Haner: We’ve got accelerated erosion along the northern Gulf Coast for potentially several reasons. Is it climate change? Is it sea-level rise? Is it development upstream diverting river flow? What we do know is that the Mississippi River delta is second in land loss per year only to the Nile River delta in Egypt — and Mobile Bay is part of that larger system.

In some areas of the Bay, we’ve got 10 feet or more of erosion per year along our saltmarsh communities, which are a critical coastal resource. That erosion also puts a lot of turbidity or sediment in the water column, and that causes problems for submerged marine resources such as oysters and seagrass, which want to have clear water.

If you were to walk up to one of the Bay’s islands from the Gulf, you might come across an oyster reef, a vertical relief of oysters coming out of the water — and one thing that oyster reef does is knock down the Gulf’s waves. Behind that reef, if you were to keep walking, you’d come into an area of calm water — an area where seagrasses grow and proliferate, providing essential nursery habitat for blue crabs, shrimp, speckled seatrout and flounder, to name a few.

But with the erosion and the decline of the oyster reef and other submerged habitats, this coastal area just gets pounded by waves. The saltmarsh, which holds soil in its  roots, starts to break off, impacting the seagrasses. There’s almost a negative feedback loop here — more turbidity causes fewer oyster reefs and seagrasses, which causes even more erosion and turbidity.

Q: So that’s why the Conservancy is doing oyster reef restoration in the Gulf?

Judy Haner: Yes. We’re looking at ways to repair these systems on multiple levels — but we need to first mitigate the shoreline erosion.

The first step involves making breakwaters. We’re conducting experiments with three types of materials:

* Oyster reefs made out of bagged oyster shells;
* Reefballs — a concrete composite with rough exteriors that allow oyster larvae to attach; and
* ReefBlks — Rebar structures that are packed along the edges with bagged oyster shells.

We’re examining each of those three types of materials for how they function to protect shoreline and how they function as a settlement substrate — something for the oyster larvae to attach to and grow. We’re also looking at them as fish habitat. The question we’re trying to answer is: Which treatment functions best across those three variables — shorelines, fisheries and oysters?

And we’re looking at this in two places — Coffee Island, which is part of Mississippi Sound, and Alabama Port, on the western shore of Mobile Bay. 61% of the Coffee Island site has been deployed since we started in mid-April, while 25% at Alabama Port is deployed. We will have a mile installed at each site as part of this project, so we’re making significant progress.

Q: Both of these efforts were funded with NOAA stimulus funds, correct?

Judy Haner: Yes. And the really great thing that’s happened — because of the injection of funds from the stimulus package into this project, we were able to start to get preliminary data on these habitats back in December and January,  collecting all sorts of shoreline data and fisheries data as a baseline.

Q: When you find out which of the three treatments is best, can that knowledge then be used elsewhere in shoreline protection?

Judy Haner: Absolutely. If we find another area that needs shoreline protection, we’ll know which of these treatments works best for a particular variable — fisheries, etc. Eventually we want to say: We know what’s going to work.

And this knowledge will be applicable in other areas outside the Gulf. For instance, the Mediterranean has a huge oyster population and significant reef areas. If an oil spill event were to happen there, this information could be very valuable to them.

Q: So the data you’re collecting would also be valuable in recovery and restoration from other oil spills?

Judy Haner: Right. Since we have all this great data, we can look at the environmental response depending on how bad the oil is, whether it’s just a sheen, whether it comes ashore in tarballs, or whether it comes ashore as a slick. Because we already have this reef restoration experiment going, it’ll give us several tools in the toolbox with which to approach restoration of these systems.

For example — if oil reaches into marsh areas, and we decide that fire might be an approach to removing that oil, we can study the results of a burned marsh for restoration rather than leaving it to do it on its own and what that recovery comparison would be. And we’ll know what works because of the baseline data we’ve collected.

Any of those types of tools we could test effectively through the footprint of the project to use in the Gulf Coast and in other areas. One of the things lacking with the Exxon Valdez spill was baseline data on the ecosystem. We have 10 years or more of data on these systems.

Q: Now that the booms are secured, what other work are we doing?

Judy Haner: We’re going to Grand Bay tomorrow morning to look at the salt marsh, salt pans and clapper rails that are nesting there.

These are sad days. We may lose some things. So the questions we will soon have to answer are: What is it that we do save, and what is it that we don’t save? We’re working with our partners — state and federal agencies and local officials — to define what that is. Do we choose an area with nesting clapper rails to save over a coastal salt marsh — which do we choose? What are the ecological priorities?

The partners are all working together on what our response is going to be when the oil comes ashore. And we’re also asking: “What is the research that we will need to know?” Because while we may lose some things, we want to learn as much from this as we can.

(Image credit: Mark Godfrey/TNC.)

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