Waking up to Save the Gulf
L. Scott Jackson
County Extension Director & Florida Sea Grant Agent
I have friend that went to sleep reading a book using his arm as a pillow. He awoke in a panic to find a cold rattlesnake wrapped around his head staring him directly in his face. Quickly, he grabbed the snake and with all the courage and might he could muster, he threw the snake across the room!!! Only there was no snake - his other arm had fallen asleep as the circulation was cut off. He had just thrown his sleeping arm out of its socket, which wrenched with pain.
While we would prefer to prevent it from reaching shore, oil on beaches is relatively easy to clean. Photo Credits: Andrew Diller
Often in life we find that “everything is connected”. Many times painfully.
Oil can kill emergent marsh grasses and is very difficult to remove. Photo Credits: NOAA
An oil spill can be a very scary monster. Like our nightmares, true reality gets lost in the hysteria of the first moments of awaking from a bad dream. We react without thought and often pay the consequences for not thinking through our response. America’s eyes are intently focused on the news media pictures of gushing oil from the bottom of the sea floor and oiled covered pelicans – but there’s another consequence of the oil spill scarcely reported.
Let's all work together to help save the Gulf Coast. Photo Credits: Andrew Diller
The truth is and always will be, “everything is connected”.
When we become hyper-focused on addressing one small portion of an environmental issue we can make things worse than if we had done nothing of all. When we have given our best efforts to remove oil and those efforts have failed we should consider letting natural processes take over. This is a much better approach than doing something that can cause more harm than good. We should not react just because we thought it was a good idea or our neighbor did it. This is especially true in salt-marshes.
The incident at Mississippi Canyon 252 is not the first time oil has spilled into our oceans. Ten years ago NASA scientists reported that the Gulf of Mexico naturally oozed enough oil to fill the equivalent of 2 Exxon Valdez sized vessels each year and has been doing so for thousands of years. This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to permit gushing oil to enter sacred estuaries and pristine oceans. However, our Gulf has been vaccinated with small doses of natural oil seeps for a very long time. Oil decomposing microbes are always present to break oil products in to less toxic forms. So, in some cases depending on oil condition and type of habitat, letting nature take its course is the very best response. In other situations and environmental conditions removing oil from ecosystems can be done with great success and it is the proper thing to do.
NOAA Office of Response and Restoration is one several responding government agencies involved in the Gulf at this moment. Their experience and studies enlightened me as I reviewed their website and literature. Based on current conditions written on the date of this article, and our location – The weathered oil conditions that might enter our salt marshes would generally be responded to very differently than nearby beaches. NOAA Response and Restoration has several targeted strategies based on oil type, habitat conditions, and the suggested actions are based on data collected over decades. Below are only two examples. Please refer to their website for additional information. http://response.restoration.noaa.gov
The beach is the easiest areas of the coastal shoreline to clean. In fact, as a last resort, oil is directed to beaches for removal. Machinery and personnel are deployed to an impacted area and in a relatively short period contaminants are removed. The goal of machine and man is to remove tar or oil and as little sand as possible. It is usually a very effective operation. It’s not an easy choice to allow or direct oil to land on a beach. However, it’s much better on a beach than in our bays and salt-marshes.
Salt marshes are more challenging to clean than beaches. Oil often coats the plants like cordgrass and needle rush, additionally; unlike beach sand, it’s nearly impossible to remove oil from the salt-marsh mud or sediment. Running crews and machinery in a salt-marsh is the worse possible response versus all other strategies, including burning. In fact, burning or allowing nature to breakdown the oil are often the best strategies because machines or boots mix the oil deeper into the sediment and prolong the impact of the spill.
The Wetlands Foundation and Dr Irv Mendelssohn, Louisiana State University School of the Coast and Environment, have released a YouTube video describing potential oil impacts and mitigation responses on salt marshes. He describes factors that determine whether the marsh will die and factors to consider when deciding what action, if any, should be taken to decontaminate marshes. http://www.youtube.com/user/thewetlandfoundation
Innovative responses should be well thought and planned. Ecological consequences should be investigated and at minimum mitigated. As we have already seen in some states, pumping sand sediment to create oil barriers can suck in fish, crabs, shrimp, and host of other animals causing significant impact. Similarly, creating beach berms, as we have seen in Florida and other states can damage bird nesting areas and rookeries. As a result of the berms, endangered sea turtles have double threat of seaward oil that can be ingested and a fence of sand limiting access to natal nesting. It’s hard to imagine how these species will ever recover when they are being squeezed from both land and sea.
I doubt anyone woke up this morning setting out to kill-off an ecosystem or endangered species – worsening the impacts of the oil spill. Surely, this is only a bad dream, if we can just wake up and react rationally.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” - John Muir