Posted by: gulfofmexicomatters | July 1, 2010

Out of Sight – Out of Mind: The Unseen Disaster of the BP Blowout.

Scientists at sea and sampling the ocean on the scene of the blowout, are reporting plumes of oil throughout the water column for tens of miles from the blowout site, dead organisms are covering the surface near the blowout, and a dead sperm whale has now been found far from shore.  These reports raise the question: what is the condition of the ocean itself?  The answer is likely, not good.

Underwater clouds of oil and methane gas have now been confirmed as originating from the BP blowout after weeks of denial.  One of these clouds encompassed an area the size of San Francisco and 600 feet thick was found at 3,000 feet or more beneath the surface. Low levels of oil concentration (0.5 parts per million) have been found in this cloud and other samples are being evaluated.  High quantities of methane and very low oxygen levels were also reported in the cloud.  This means organisms in the sea are suffocating and explains why microbes that require oxygen to break down the oil are not cleaning the spill naturally. Worse, is that there are likely long-lived “dead zones” drifting through the Gulf and perhaps over deepwater ecosystems where recovery time can be centuries, or not at all.  Other, larger clouds have been reported and a large scale and coordinated effort is searching for more.

While much attention has focused on the pictures of oiled birds, marshes and beaches, the media is showing only the “tip of the iceberg” of the ecological disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.  Massive quantities of dispersants (1.28 million gallons by day 58 of the spill) are being used at both the wellhead (5,000 feet deep) and at the surface of the ocean.  Used effectively at the surface, dispersants can accelerate microbial activity and degradation of toxic elements of an oil spill.  We have no idea about effectiveness or impact when used at depth.  It is, as has been stated, a giant experiment.  It is a difficult choice and few would disagree that keeping oil out of the wetlands is a high priority.  However, beneath the sea surface is a toxic soup of oil, methane and dispersants, which is also killing many sensitive parts of the ecosystem.  Because this disaster is unfolding beneath the surface, it is occurring out of sight.  Its effects are likely more devastating to the Gulf of Mexico and the sustainability of the Gulf economy than those we have already seen.  These effects have been occurring since the beginning of the blowout, long before oil arrived on the shore.

As the oil emerges from the sea floor it immediately disperses into droplets, much like liquid being pumped by a sprayer.  These droplets, along with methane and possibly dispersants, form a plume that bends with the current, much like smoke rising from a smoke stack on a windy day.  This is a part of the breakdown of the oil and it helps it dissolve into the water.  So, as the oil rises, the entire water column becomes degraded.  Add dispersants to this, and you have a toxic stew killing millions upon millions of marine organisms.  As the oil reaches the surface, waves will mix it with water and air forming a “mousse.”  Crude oil is a complex mixture and the mousse allows the lighter components to evaporate into the air, leaving behind the heavier components.  As the heavier components mix with sediment and particles in the water it will form a tar-like like substance that will sink.  The net effect is an impact that reaches from the bottom to the surface of the ocean.

Light from the sun further breaks down the smaller oil molecules at the surface, and now the dissolved fractions of the oil can contain many toxic compounds that can be absorbed by phytoplankton (small one-cell plants) in a process called bioaccumulation.  Zooplankton (small floating organisms) can take up oil compounds and small fish can also absorb it through their gills.  The larger danger however, is biomagnifications through the food web.  While the concentration of the toxic compounds in the water is small, these compounds dissolve in fat and concentrate within organisms.  Zooplankton eat many phytoplankton, and small forage fish eat many zooplankton, thus the toxic chemicals quickly become concentrated in ever increasing amounts as it passes up the food chain.

Luckily, fish, birds, and marine mammals can metabolize the oil so that it does not biomagnify in the highest trophic levels.  There is a cost however, because animals will have to divert energy from reproduction to detoxify the oil, and they will produce less offspring creating long-term declines in populations.  Species like the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, which congregate and spawn practically in the middle of the spill zone, are especially susceptible.  We could, and we may, have already lost an entire year class of the population of this species which spawns only in the Gulf.  These magnificent giants are already under extreme pressure from overfishing and this spill could certainly be the tipping point in a downward and non-recoverable spiral.

While most deep sea habitats are primarily muddy bottoms, the Gulf of Mexico is unusual in that it has very complex bottom topography that includes many reefs, hard banks, and deep trenches called the Mississippi Canyon and the DeSoto Canyon.  These features are home to very diverse marine organisms.  One important feature in the area off the Mississippi-Alabama continental shelf is the Pinnacles habitat.  This area is like an underwater mountain range that supports deep sea corals, crustaceans, mollusks, sea-lilies, and many bottom fish.  As the heavy parts of the oil sinks it will endanger the bottom habitats by coating them with tar.  At the surface, are the pelagic fish such as tuna, amberjack, and ling, which will become tainted.  Dolphins and whales are plentiful in this region and will be coated with oil as the bob to the surface to breathe air.

To make matters worse, the area of the blowout and oil slick is the most productive part of the Gulf of Mexico.  This is because nutrients from the Mississippi River promote algal growth, which is at the base of the food chain.  This plankton (or swimming food) falls to the bottom creating the richest shrimping and fishing grounds in the Gulf.  There are two problems caused by the spill.  Not only are these organisms being killed, but the breakdown of the oil by bacteria requires oxygen, which will further increase the size of the dead zone off Louisiana this summer. The extraordinary quantities of methane are contributing to this problem. Researchers studyng the clouds have found concentrations of methane up to 10,000 times normal and oxygen levels depleted by 40%, over normal.

Both the water-column and bottom-dwelling organisms and food webs in and around the spill area are being affected by the spill.  The large, long-term danger may be from the oil that is stranded on the bottom.  The deep sea is about the same temperature as your refrigerator, so bacteria will not be able to break down the oil, and we can expect tar balls to emanate from this area for decades to come.  This also means that the disaster will continue for a decade or two as the oil within the environment continues to breakdown, dissolve, and move back into the surface waters.  Even though smaller amounts will be released in the future, it will still have population-level effects because the juvenile stages of all marine animals are much more sensitive to toxins than adults.  The lost juveniles will have a ripple effect throughout marine populations because there will be fewer adults in future generations to reproduce and replenish the lost animals.

Unfortunately, this blowout is the perfect object lesson about an ecosystem and what it truly means – a community together with its environment, functioning as a unit.  Out of sight does not mean no concern.  There is nothing but bad choices in a situation like this.  However, because you cannot see it, does not mean it can just be ignored and sacrificed.

Posted by: gulfofmexicomatters | March 11, 2010

Can we Save the Gulf?

With the many major initiatives occurring since President Obama took office, the interagency Ocean Policy Taskforce may have been overlooked.  The President charged the heads of executive departments and federal agencies to develop a national policy recommendation to ensure the protection, maintenance, and restoration of oceans, our coasts and the Great Lakes. Led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, participation included senior leadership of federal agencies with significant ocean responsibilities. The Taskforce took to the road and held hearings around the country to gather input. They were well attended by both the senior taskforce members and the public.

The hearings were open to public input. In addition, a number of individuals were asked specifically to testify before the Taskforce and working group. I was privileged to be asked to provide input on the concept of marine spatial planning (MSP), a central theme for the draft policy, as it might affect the Gulf, and again on Gulf fisheries issues. I believe I was the only individual to have two shots at informing the Taskforce.

The possibility of a true national oceans policy holds great promise for the future of our oceans. The fate of oceans, like the Gulf of Mexico, is important to us all, because what happens in, and to this marine environment, affects the economic and environmental health of our nation. The latest data on U.S. ocean sector industries reveals that more than 2 million jobs and over $128 billion in GDP annually results from just ocean tourism, recreation and fisheries. The Gulf of Mexico contributes over 90% of our nation’s offshore energy production. The offshore petroleum industry in the Gulf employs 55,000 workers and is the economic underpinning of many coastal communities. At the same time the Gulf yields 69% of the shrimp and 70% of oysters caught in the U.S.

Over 41% of the U.S. drains into the Gulf via the Mississippi River and contributes to the annual creation of a “dead zone” that can extend up to 7,000 square miles. Gulf coast states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) make up four of the five top states responsible for the greatest surface discharge of toxic chemicals. Even with these stressors the Gulf annually produces more finfish, shrimp and shellfish than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England areas combined. Additionally, Gulf recreational fisheries generate $5.4 billion annually in economic benefits. Recreational fishing added 1,000 new jobs a year to the Texas economy from 2001 to 2006, according to USFWS reports. The Gulf of Mexico is a place where economics and the environment both coexist and contend.

That balance of economic and environmental health and productivity we now enjoy is not sustainable. The Gulf of Mexico is basically a shallow subtropical sea, and as such is this country’s most vulnerable body of water to the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, warming temperatures, ocean acidification and stampeding invasive species, exacerbated by growing populations and expanding resource demands, will overpower even the Gulf of Mexico’s remarkable resilience, unless we change the paradigm of management. The current tangle of more than 140 different and sometime conflicting laws and regulations, administered by twenty federal agencies is not a recipe for success. The draft national policy calls for the formation of a National Ocean Council to coordinate the various agencies. If this can be more than just another layer of bureaucracy and actually break down traditional walls between federal agencies, it will be of benefit. If a National Ocean Council tries to implement a one size fits all policy over our diverse ocean regions, it will be an unmitigated disaster. There exist regional models of ocean governance that hold great potential to achieve the stated goals of a national ocean policy. The Gulf States Alliance is one such model that has been emulated in other coastal regions and is the ideal means to both craft national polices into regionally effective ones, and then implement those polices to the  benefit of us all.

Marine spatial planning is a central concept of the draft policy. It is a process for analyzing and managing ocean space for specified commercial, recreational and environmental purposes. MSP alarms many of the key stakeholders in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and gas interests are concerned it will be used to preclude their activities. Fisheries interests are concerned that it will be used to establish no fishing zones. These fears are not unfounded, but they do not have to be realized. MSP can be a valuable tool to assure both the economic and environmental health of our coastal oceans if it is regionally directed to assure all stakeholders a place at the table and if the process recognizes that economic and environmental health are inexorably linked. The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies was formed around these very concepts and is the reason I am both supportive and cautious regarding the emphasis of MSP by the Taskforce. The recently issued interim MSP guidelines, issued by the Taskforce on December 9, appear to provide for regional input.  

A national ocean policy can be the framework to guide us through an unsure future and help assure the economic and environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico. Like many issues the devil is in the details, but both the Harte Research Institute and I are more optimistic about our oceans future because of this effort. You should be as well.