Tag Archive | "oil spill"


Minnows in the Marsh: The Gulf’s Canary in the Coal Mine?

Several weeks ago, researchers published a seminal study on how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has harmed fish in coastal marshes.  To date, most studies on wildlife affected by the spill focus on acute and direct effects.  But equally important are sub-lethal effects, such as impaired reproduction and embryonic development, which are far more difficult to observe.  Indeed, sub-lethal effects are “critically important for predicting longterm population-level impacts of oil pollution,” according to the researchers.

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The study tracked the effects of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis) during the first 4 months of the spill.  At one of the study sites, researchers found that although sampled water and fish tissue did not show abnormally high levels of oil, there were “significant biological effects” on the fish and an increased risk of health problems.  For example, juvenile fish had genetic evidence of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can lead to cardiac impairment in adulthood.  The researchers also found that the spill contaminated marshes at a time coinciding with “the spawning season for many marsh animals, including killifish, and reproductive effects are predictive of long-term population-level impacts from oil spills.”

This study has several important implications.  It shows that although seafood from the Gulf of Mexico may be safe for human consumption, affected wildlife may continue to suffer population declines.  As a result, it could be a long time before the public is “made whole” again following an oil spill, as required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  Last year, we had questioned whether the government was properly assessing how the spill may have harmed many coastal marsh species.  In particular, we saw no evidence that the protocols created to assess natural resource damages resulting from the spill were comprehensive enough to cover the Saltmarsh topminnow (Fundulus jenkinsi), a species endemic to Gulf marshes and now being considered for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, in part because of the spill.  It’s easy to lose sight of these inconspicuous, non-iconic animals, which is why this recent study is especially important.

Another underappreciated aspect of the Gulf spill is that if it results in species being listed under the Endangered Species Act, the public and other business will bear the cost of listing and recovering the species, as well as complying with the restrictions of the act generally.  This cost should be shifted to the companies responsible for the spill as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

Journal reference:
Andrew Whitehead, Benjamin Dubansky, Charlotte Bodinier, Tzintzuni I. Garcia, Scott Miles, Chet Pilley, Vandana Raghunathan, Jennifer L. Roach, Nan Walker, Ronald B. Walter, Charles D. Rice, and Fernando Galvez. Science Applications in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Special Feature: Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. PNAS, September 26, 2011 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109545108

Gulf Killifish. Credit: USGS

Saltmarsh Topminnow. Credit: Joseph R. Tomelleri

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National Research Council Spill Study Draws 150 Scientists

More than 150 scientists were nominated to serve in the twelve vacancies on the National Research Council’s Gulf spill committee to advise the government on the best techniques with which to value natural resources damaged by BP in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  The first public meeting of the committee is likely to occur in January or February of 2011.  NOAA and other agencies continue to make summary data available to the public on the analyses and assessments they are leading.  This diagram produced by NOAA gives a quick summary of the ongoing science to carry out the assessment of damages to America’s Gulf ecosystems.

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Graph showing miles of shoreline impacted by oil over time, from April 20, 2010- October 27, 2010

Months Later, Oil Still on Gulf Shores

There was a collective sigh of relief when the BP Deepwater Horizon well was finally declared dead in mid-September. Without oil spewing into the Gulf in visible black plumes it’s easy to think that the worst oil spill in U.S. history has officially ended. But it hasn’t.

The well was first temporarily capped on July 15th. However, even though the ‘tap’ was turned off, there was still so much oil circulating in the Gulf that more miles of beach and shoreline were oiled later in July.  In its report this week, the government reports that there are still nearly 600 miles of shoreline throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida that are experiencing impacts from oil.

Graph showing miles of shoreline impacted by oil over time, from April 20, 2010- October 27, 2010

Data compiled from weekly and daily updates from Restore the Gulf: http://app.restorethegulf.gov/response/current-operations

Although oil is still coming ashore, the government is making the transition from response to recovery. On September 28th, the Obama Administration released its recovery plan for the Gulf coast, focusing on ecosystem restoration, economic impacts and human health. On one hand, the plan is optimistic, focusing on the opportunity to address some long-standing environmental problems through spill-related restoration efforts. The restoration plan recognizes that for new efforts to be successful, they must address existing threats to the Gulf’s ecosystem such as coastal erosion, loss of wetlands, imperiled fisheries and climate change.

On the other hand, the report readily admits that we simply don’t know what the long-term ecological impacts of the oil spill will be, let alone the best ways to address those impacts. The amount of time needed for sensitive coastal wetlands to recover depends on a number of variables, including water depth, the damage to the underlying sediments, and the type of wetland. For example, mangrove swamps are particularly vulnerable because of their aerial root systems.

The Obama Administration’s recovery plan doesn’t attempt to resolve these uncertainties. Perhaps the real challenge that the recovery plan poses is: can we make lemonade out of this disaster and take on much needed restoration work? I’m all for making the best of a very bad situation, but we should not forget that the shores of the Gulf are still being damaged and America’s wildlife heritage is again in harm’s way with each new high tide in the Gulf.

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National Research Council Assessing Deepwater Spill

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment process (NRDA) is part of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The Oil Pollution Act was passed after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska, spilling at least 11 million gallons in Prince William Sound (critics believe this Exxon-provided spill estimate is a significant underestimate).  The NRDA process is designed to “make the public whole” after an oil spill or hazardous substance release by precisely calculating damages to environmental services and developing a plan to rehabilitate, restore, replace or acquire the equivalent environmental services.

One of my biggest concerns with an oil spill as large as the 204 million gallon Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, is that the types and complexity of short and long-term environmental impacts will prevent public agencies from making a complete assessment of damages.  Essentially that the public – and especially the environment – won’t be made whole.

This was one of the reasons Defenders of Wildlife worked closely with Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) and Senate offices to secure funding for the National Research Council to help ensure Deepwater damages get measured correctly.  As part of Emergency Supplemental Disaster Relief signed into law on August 2nd, a key amendment was passed that provides the National Research Council with $1 million from the Department of Commerce budget.  This funding is being used to bring together scientists expert in resource assessments and ecosystem services evaluation who will form a Committee to advise agencies on the best methodologies and technologies with which to assess difficult to quantify damages.  Knowing that timing is important, the Committee’s first report will be available within 6 months.

A second phase of the Committee’s work will take place over 2 years and is a more comprehensive effort to actually provide a second set of estimates of natural resource damages, also using the best existing and new science to accurately measure the damages caused by BP’s Deepwater well blowout.

This month NOAA and the National Research Council (NRC) agreed on a ‘scope of work’ for the study which you can find here.  Now that the scoping document has been finalized, the Ocean Studies Board of the NRC is taking nominations of expert scientists to serve on the 12-member Committee that will implement this study.

If you are an expert in ecosystem service valuation or know one who would be willing to be nominated, please consider participating on this Committee whose work will have a lasting influence on the restoration of Gulf ecosystems.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.