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Silent Summer: How Oil Disaster Impacts Biodiversity

Joseph Ingoldsby

Residents from the Gulf of Mexico report that schools of fish, manta rays, sharks, dolphins and sea turtles are fleeing the plumes of oil and solvents to the shallow waters off of the coasts of Alabama and Florida. Marine biologists from Duke University state that that the animals sense the change in water chemistry and try to escape the contaminated water dead zones by swimming toward the oxygen rich shallows. Here, they could be trapped between the approaching plumes of oil and the shoreline. Scientists warn of a mass die off.

Death comes in the spawning and nesting season within the Gulf of Mexico's bio-diverse ecosystems. We have witnessed the immediate impact of oil on the threatened brown pelican, the egrets, the laughing gulls and other shore and migratory birds, grounded with oiled plumage as they try to rear their spring nestlings. This is also the time when the endangered Kemp Ridley turtles migrate through the Gulf of Mexico to spawn, and when loggerhead turtles drag themselves up on the Gulf sands to lay their eggs. Their hatchlings face an uncertain future as they return to the polluted Gulf of Mexico to begin their life's journey. This is also the time when the endangered manatees leave their winter gathering spots in warm springs to migrate to their summer range along the Gulf coast and the time when Gulf sturgeon congregate in coastal waters for upstream migration exposing them to harm.

We do not readily see the impact to the diverse marine fisheries of the Gulf and Atlantic. The Gulf of Mexico is the nursery for a host of marine species, including the embattled western Atlantic blue fin tuna. The Gulf of Mexico is the principal spawning ground of the migratory Western Atlantic tuna. Their spawning coincided with the Horizon oil disaster. The larval and juvenile fish are most vulnerable to the toxic effects of oil and dispersants documented within their spawning ground. Scientific analysis of the viability of the 2010 spawning is necessary to determine the future health of the tuna population. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Atlantic blue fin tuna population has fallen 90% since the 1970s and the species faces a serious risk of extinction.

With the loss of the fisheries and the shrimp and oyster operations, go the fishing communities and a way of life on the bayou. Fishing is often familial and multigenerational. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and sinking may have broken the familial transferal of working knowledge between father and son and from son to grandson. No one knows how many years it will take for the Gulf of Mexico to heal from the deadly infusion of oil, methane and toxic dispersants.

The tragedy on the Gulf Coast galvanizes public attention as images of the slow demise of brown pelicans, sea turtles, dolphins, sperm whales and sea birds covered in oil flood our television screens. We are looking at the expansion of eutrophic dead zones; the contamination of the entire water column in the Gulf of Mexico- killing deep-water corals and giant squid to the black skimmers feeding on the surface; the tragic loss of species and biodiversity; and the potential disappearance of the fishing cultures of the Gulf. This will be the "Silent Summer" that could last for years. The poisonous mix of oil, methane and dispersants will be the final nail in the coffin of these vanishing landscapes and endangered species.

We know from past oil spills that the toxic effects continue decades later. Long time residents of New England may remember the grounding of the oil tanker, Florida, which broke up on the rocky shoals off Old Silver Beach, West Falmouth on 16 September 1969 spewing 189,000 gallons of #2 fuel into Buzzards Bay. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution documented the damages to the marine ecosystem and coastline over the ensuing years. Their observations are helpful to codify the environmental damages to sensitive coastal wetlands by oil contamination. To this day, toxic oil remains in the sediment layers of the marshlands ringing the Falmouth shore and oil continues to inhibit growth and colonization of the subsoil by the marsh grass roots, fiddler crabs and other organisms. The vertical burrows of the fiddler crabs veer horizontally avoiding the oil stained layer of soil. The marsh grass roots stop above the oil and spread horizontally, 41 years after the Buzzards Bay oil spill.

Retired Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Marine biologist, George Hampson has observed the daily impact of oil on the sensitive estuary since that unprecedented day in 1969. He spoke of animals coming out of the sediments because the oil was saturating the flats and marshlands All of the clams rose to the surface and extended their long necks trying to escape the oil along with invertebrates which floated to the surface. Soon the tide pools were filled with life, where they slowly died. This was called the "Silent Fall" because all of the birds and animals were gone.
Now along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico we see the "Silent Summer" of dead and dying animals trying to escape the poisonous mix of oil and the dispersant Corexit combined with the oxygen depleting methane gas. Video footage documents crabs climbing out of the water as a toxic sheen approaches the shore. In the morning the crabs are floating belly up in the water. The air is laden with chemicals wafting up from the water, which has become poisonous to marine life and the fumes dangerous to the long term health of those who breath it.

According to scientific studies, the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 resulted in profound physiological effects to fish and wildlife. These included reproductive failure, genetic damage, curved spines, lowered growth and body weights, altered feeding habits, reduced egg volume, liver damage, eye tumors, and debilitating brain lesions. Reports document that oil cleanup workers exposed to hot water beach washing of the toxic oil and dispersant mix in 1989 filed compensation claims for respiratory system damage, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Many have debilitating medical complications 21 years later. These ailments include respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders. History repeats itself.

The only hope is that this unnatural disaster will galvanize the public's attention and give the President and members of Congress the courage to protect Nature's biodiversity; and to promote and substantively fund alternative energy sources and clean, green technologies for our future. We are at the tipping point of peak oil and technological change. Now is not the time for equivocation. We must embrace the future or be damned by the next generation.

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Joseph Emmanuel Ingoldsby writes and exhibits on issues relating to biodiversity. Recent publications include Vanishing Landscapes and Endangered Species, The Science Exhibition: Curation and Design, Museum Press, UK, 2010; Vanishing Landscapes: The Atlantic Salt Marsh, Leonardo Journal, 42-2-2009, MIT Press; and Requiem for a Drowning Landscape, Orion Magazine, 4-2009.  Environmental articles are compiled within Joseph Ingoldsby’s blog site, Earth Elegies.

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