Tag: gulf oil spill TNC

Boots in the Water: Moving Forward in the Gulf

Written by | August 30th, 2010
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Yesterday marked the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The comparisons between Katrina and the oil spill are clear—both affected the people and the nature of the Gulf Coast, and full recovery will take a commitment of resources for years and decades. Even with BP rightly footing the bill for oil spill cleanup, the country still faces a huge challenge to restore and protect the productivity of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s useful to remember just how vital the Gulf is to the United States as a whole: Taken together, the 5 U.S. states bordering the Gulf have a gross domestic product of more than $2 trillion. Much of that is dependent on or related to the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal natural resources.

At the Conservancy, we’re focused on doing what we do best—working on the ground and in the water to restore and protect key habitats—to help the Gulf begin to recover as soon as possible.

The Gulf is not a new focus for us. We’ve worked along the coast from Texas to Florida for nearly 40 years, and since 2001, we have invested more than $9.4 million in restoring marine habitat here. That doesn’t take into account the tens of millions the Conservancy has invested in coastal forest restoration, as well as land acquisitions.

Recently our CEO Mark Tercek wrote a blog that outlined our Gulf 20/20 vision and the need for all willing partners to work together to restore the Gulf, including local communities, governments, the tourism and fishing industries, oil and gas, universities, NGOs and even people who have never set foot in the Gulf.

I’m heartened by the tremendous outpouring of help and support for the Conservancy’s initial $10 million fundraising goal for the Gulf.

Since early May, $3.5 million has been donated to our Fund for Gulf Coast Restoration, including nearly $750,000 from the CNN telethon for Gulf recovery, $350,000 from individual supporters and we just received a $2 million commitment from Chevron. All donations made to the Fund go directly to support the Conservancy’s long-term conservation and restoration efforts in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Across the Gulf, we are assessing the impact of the oil, and where we can, we’re getting back to our restoration work. In Florida, Mississippi and Texas, which seem to have been spared large-scale oiling, our conservation and restoration work continues. In Louisiana and Alabama, the states hit hard by the oil, we are working with our partners to develop and expand existing restoration projects to aid in the Gulf’s long-term restoration.

The week of September 21 we’ll be back in the water in Louisiana’s Vermilion Bay. Interrupted by the spill, this project—like all oyster reef restoration projects—will buffer the marsh from erosion and support clean nursery habitat that fish, crabs and shrimp will need to recover from the spill. The oysters themselves will ultimately help protect water quality by filtering about 1.7 million gallons of water every day.

In Alabama, we’ve recovered more than 300 feet of oiled boom and 12 bags of oiled debris at our project site on Coffee Island. We will restart our Alabama Recovery Act-funded project in early September, continuing the deployment of oyster reef breakwaters that began before the spill. Federal funds are allowing us to accelerate this work, part of Alabama’s plan to protect and restore more than 1,000 acres of coastal marsh by building 100 miles of oyster reefs. During the second week of October, we will begin expanding an oyster reef project as a first step that will, in the end, help protect more than 3 football fields worth of shoreline.

This isn’t glamorous work—anyone who has mucked around with oysters or worked long hours in a marsh can attest to that.  But, like laying the foundation for a sturdy house, what it lacks in mass appeal it more than makes up for in significance. I am especially encouraged by the young oysters that have begun to populate the newly created reefs in Alabama funded through the Recovery Act awarded to the Conservancy through NOAA.

While I believe strongly in the resilience of nature and the value of restoration, I am not a starry-eyed optimist. I’m a scientist and a native of New Orleans with years of experience in the Gulf, and it is that experience that makes me both hopeful and cautious. Hopeful because I believe this could be our finest hour, our opportunity to rewrite the future of the Gulf, and cautious because I know that beyond the obvious needs, restoring the Gulf will require patience, partnerships and grace on a vast scale.

Stay tuned for updates. And thank you—as a Conservancy staffer and a resident of the Gulf Coast—for your ongoing help, support and concern.

(Image: The Conservancy’s Jeff DeQuattro (right) works on an oyster restoration project in Alabama. Source: Mark Godfrey/TNC.)

The Gulf Oil Spill: The Story’s Not Over

Written by | August 13th, 2010
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Fresh tarballs of oil found on absorbent booms on Coffee Island, Alabama, August 10, 2010.

After more than 100 days, the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is finally stanched. What a relief! As long as the crude spewed, the Gulf’s beaches, marshes, oyster
 reefs and fishing grounds ­and all of the people who depend on them ­remained under a withering assault.

That might be the end of the spill story at the well head. But it’s only the very beginning of the restoration story.

There’s been mounting talk that the Gulf oil spill story is over. No longer national news. No longer a crisis. No longer a worthy focus of our attention.

That sort of narrative seemed to be supported by a report issued last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which estimated that 74% of the oil has already evaporated, dispersed into tiny droplets, or been swept up. The report went on to say that the remaining 26% poses relatively little risk because it is continuing to break down.

End of story, right?

Not by a long shot. It’s certainly good news about the 74%, although many Gulf scientists dispute the definitive nature of that finding.

But even if we assume that the report is correct, stopping the gusher and sopping up some of the oil does not mean that the risks are gone and that
 the damage is fixed. It just means that the disaster finally isn’t getting dramatically worse every day, and that the clean-up phase is off to a good start.

The other 26% of the oil is still out there. That’s 50 million gallons — almost 5 times as much as was
 spilled by the Exxon Valdez. It’s already damaged hundreds of miles of coast, besmirching beaches, choking marshes and contaminating sediments. That damage still has to be repaired.

And now there’s evidence that those tiny dispersant-caused droplets are getting into the food chain that will feed next year’s harvest of shrimp, crab and other seafood. Contrary to suggestions that the risks have passed, I would say that the remaining oil still poses important risks that are not fully understood.

So the hardest work still remains — restoring the Gulf and the 
bounty of resources and benefits it provides. We need to help Mother Nature
 regain her strength. Beaches need to be cleaned. Marshes need to be
 replanted. Oyster beds need to be nurtured. Seagrass beds need to be restored.

The Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems have been being degraded by human activity for decades — and, while the Gulf is incredibly resilient, we can only knock it down so many times before it will struggle to get back up. The spill has highlighted both that resilience and that tenuousness. We have to act now to restore this globally unique natural wonder.

The gusher has been killed. Check. A remarkably large percentage of the oil has evaporated, dissipated or been cleaned up. Check. Now the story really begins, as federal and state agencies and the conservation community — led by the Conservancy — get on with full-scale restoration efforts, so that the Gulf once again 
teems with life. Check back here to follow our progress.

(Image: Fresh tarballs of oil found on August 10, 2010 on absorbent booms deployed on Coffee Island, Alabama, directly behind the Conservancy’s oyster breakwater project there. Image credit: Jeff DeQuattro/TNC.)

Bringing the Gulf Back to Full Health

Written by | August 13th, 2010
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Some good news is finally emerging from the Gulf of Mexico. The leak that spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf waters finally appears to be plugged.

The Nature Conservancy is now getting back in the water and back to work conserving the Gulf and its resources. But we—as a nation—cannot return to business as usual.

Success in the Gulf will require much more than just cleaning up the oil that has seeped into marshes, wetlands and estuaries. We must also address the neglect and damage that has threatened the region for decades.

The work may sound daunting, but it can be done.

For 40 years, The Nature Conservancy has collaborated with communities, fishers, businesses, conservationists, lawmakers and others to protect and restore the Gulf of Mexico. In the wake of the spill, we are now reaching out even more broadly, expanding our restoration plans and programs to help bring the Gulf truly back to health.

Among the priority actions we are now pursuing is a series of demonstration projects to show the potential for large-scale restoration of oyster reefs and the multiple benefits they provide people and nature. A single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day—improving the Gulf’s water quality—and oyster reefs act as natural barriers between coastal communities and storm surges, and serve as vital nursery grounds for many commercial and other fish species.

But oyster reefs are the most threatened marine habitat on Earth with 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs gone due to pollution, dredging, overharvesting and loss of habitat.

The Gulf of Mexico, however, is a place where investments in oyster reef restoration can make a real difference.

In Louisiana and Alabama, the Conservancy is constructing interlocking rectangular cages made of welded steel and filled with mesh bags of recycled oyster shells collected by volunteers and staff. These structures are placed along the coast where they attract oyster larvae that rebuild degraded or destroyed reefs.

In Florida, the Conservancy is laying hundreds of mesh mats tied with oyster shells in shallow lagoon waters, creating a massive “welcome mat” that free floating larvae settle on and grow to produce the backbone of a healthy new reef.

The Mississippi Sound represents the entire Mississippi coastal area and its health is important to neighboring states and the wider Gulf as well. To help protect and restore this important resource, the Conservancy is expanding seagrass and oyster reef restoration projects in the Sound, as well as continuing investment in coastal land preservation.

In Texas, the Conservancy will soon begin creating three-foot high reef structures with barge-loads of loose rock that will attract oyster larvae to restore the historic Half Moon oyster reef.

In addition to expanding these and other on-the-ground actions, the Conservancy is bringing in top scientific experts who have worked on marine protection, biodiversity and climate change to develop new strategies to help the Gulf.

And we’re developing new technology to interactively combine social and ecological information to support decisions on Gulf-wide recovery and restoration and help decision-makers understand where and how we can conduct restoration work.

To achieve all of this, we have launched the Fund for Gulf Coast Restoration, with an initial goal of raising $10 million. We’ve also developed a comprehensive Gulf restoration vision—the Gulf 20/20 report—to guide how that money will be invested.

We have seen a tremendous outpouring of support over the past few months from individuals and foundations, and we hope that the corporate sector will also contribute to this critical work in the Gulf.

Everyone who draws from the Gulf’s rich resources—especially those stakeholders who have contributed to its degradation—must play a part in its restoration. Everyone—from oil and gas companies to seafood businesses to shipping firms to the tourism industry to non-profit organizations to government at all levels—must work together to restore and do what is needed to ensure this national treasure will survive—and thrive—for future generations.

The Gulf is arguably the nation’s greatest natural resource—a place where a healthy environment is clearly linked to healthy communities and a healthy economy. The Gulf’s waters supply us with more than 1.3 billion pounds of seafood—valued at $661 million—each year. Tourism and recreation around the Gulf generate more than 600,000 jobs with $9 billion in wages each year. Half of the nation’s domestic oil and gas is produced in the Gulf region.

BP has said it will fund the immediate clean up of the oil, but that will not be enough to reverse decades of decline.

In addition to private fundraising efforts, federal and state governments have an important role to play. The CLEAR Act, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, would provide long-term funding, safety and action needed to ensure the health and resilience of the Gulf. It is imperative that the Senate follow suit and pass similar legislation this fall.

The tragedy of the oil spill placed a spotlight on the Gulf and sparked international concern for its wildlife, natural systems and people. Now that the leak is capped, we cannot once again turn our backs to the ongoing threats that are slowly destroying the Gulf.

We must all join forces and get back to work in the Gulf. But for all of us who rely on the Gulf and the vast resources it provides our nation, we cannot return to business as usual.

(Image 1: Mark Tercek. Image credit: Erika Nortemann/TNC. Image 2: Jeff DeQuattro, NOAA-ARRA project manager in Mobile, Alabama, looks out over the ReefBLK installations aloog Coffee Island. Source: Beth Maynor Young/TNC))

Gulf Health Report: A Lesson in Resilience

Written by | July 26th, 2010
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I spent the last day of the long July 4th weekend sitting in the Emergency Room with my almost-11-year-old son and his mangled, bloody finger.* I wasn’t thinking about the Gulf of Mexico until the nurse came in, looked at his laceration and started firing off questions about his health.

Does he have bleeding disorders? No. Immune deficiencies? No. Chronic infections? No. Any underlying health concerns at all? Thank goodness, no, no and no.

“Good,” she said. “This will be straightforward. Dermabond, splint, antibiotics. No other complications to manage. In 10 days or so, he’ll be good as new. Healthy kids are very resilient.”

It was the word “resilient” that made me think of the Gulf and how the oil spill is a profound injury made worse by the Gulf’s underlying health conditions. It also made me think that if there were a nurse to take the Gulf’s health history in the ER the day of the spill, it would have been a pretty sobering conversation.

Bleeding disorders? Well, in a sense. The loss of steady freshwater flows to the Gulf over the years contributes to the alarming pace of erosion of coastal wetlands.

Immune deficiencies? Yes, but not as bad as it could be. Even though oyster reefs are in extreme decline around the world, the Gulf – before the spill – had some of the healthiest reefs remaining in the world. Oysters are important for all the functions of a healthy Gulf coast. They purify water, stabilize sediment and help prevent erosion. In the Gulf, they are also important to the economic foundation of many coastal communities.

Chronic infections? Well, the flow of nutrients from fertilizers and other runoff into the Gulf and the resulting Dead Zones are unfortunately chronic right now.

Taken together, these issues add up to a Gulf with some serious underlying health conditions that – if ignored, or left untreated or unmanaged – will compromise and hamper its ability to recover from the injury of the oil spill.

From this perspective, it’s very clear that recovery for the Gulf of Mexico must go beyond just responding to the oil spill to restoring the whole system, from rivers to oyster reefs, seagrass beds to marshes. We need to restore the sources of the Gulf’s resilience.

It won’t be easy or quick. Certainly it will take much more than Dermabond, antibiotics and a splint. And it’s not something one organization can do alone, but it can be done.

Last week, the Conservancy released a report with our latest thinking on the Gulf and our eagerness to work with others to begin the long process of recovery. We believe in restoration and renewal.

Nature is incredibly resilient. As a mother, I’m blessed to see that resilience in my generally healthy, but occasionally emergency room-prone children. As a writer for the Conservancy, I’m privileged to work on stories of nature’s resilience on an almost daily basis.

I’ve waded through frigid water to help scientists monitor restored oyster reefs in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. I’ve hiked the edges of a wetland in Illinois that was cut off from the river, drained and farmed for 80 years. When water was finally returned to the land, seeds that had lain dormant for all those long decades leaped back to life.

All nature needs is a fighting chance.

* For the curious, my son’s laceration was the result of an illicit indoor baseball game with this little brother that ended abruptly with a shattered picture frame, an index finger filleted to the bone and our aforementioned trip to the emergency room. The younger son said it was the older one’s fault because “he ducked.” The older one maintains that the whole episode wouldn’t even have happened if he was “still an only child.”

Cara Byington is a senior conservation writer with The Nature Conservancy.

(Image: a brown pelican and chicks nesting in a mangrove forest rookery in Barataria Bay along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Source: Bridget Besaw)

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.)

Conservancy’s Laura Huffman on the Gulf Oil Spill and What’s Next

Written by | June 7th, 2010
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Right now, the focus on the Gulf of Mexico is planted squarely in “today.” While work continues to stop the flow of oil, the response teams are mired in the basics of containment and cleanup: booms are still being set, dispersants are being spread and oiled animals are being gathered and cleaned.

But we need to start thinking about tomorrow, as well. We need to take stock of what’s left in the Gulf and how conservation and restoration projects in less-affected areas are now critically important to the future of this invaluable resource.

Read Nature Conservancy in Texas State Director Laura Huffman’s June 5 op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on how the restoration process can draw on Conservancy projects in Texas as a model. Among Huffman’s points:

  • Texas’ coastal waters “stand to become a ‘marine bank’ for the rest of the Gulf, providing for long-term, large-scale restoration of critical marine systems such as oyster reefs, wetlands and seagrass beds.”
  • Because much of the Gulf is now closed to fishing, Texas’ fisheries could “easily become exhausted.” But the balance between increasing production and maintain fisheries’ health is already underway in Texas gulf waters — with lessons learned for future Gulf restoration efforts.

(Image: Laura Huffman. Image credit: TNC.)

Gulf Oil Spill: A View from Florida

Written by | June 3rd, 2010
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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.)

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.)

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