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.)