Written by: Holly Troupe
Nearly two years after an explosion on the British Petroleum (BP)-leased Deepwater Horizon platform killed 11 workers and spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP is releasing an ad December 26th updating the nation on its efforts to restore the Gulf Coast to ecological working order. Like the previous ads which featured BP’s Head of External Relations Iris Cross, the tone is optimistic; the narrative focuses on the continuing cleanup efforts and economic recovery. But, with disparate assessments of the damage done to the ecosystem and fishing industries, are predictions that the Gulf will recover by 2012 valid?
Tourism seems to be back on track. All Gulf water fronts are now open to the public. Persistent advertising for holiday weekends and vacations, paid for in great part by BP funding, helped to drive rental occupancy rates up to nearly 100 percent during the months of June and July. As for the concentration of oil currently in the costal waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that by August of 2010 a significant percentage had either dispersed or dissolved. Independent researchers from Texas A & M University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California, Santa Barbara concurred with these findings, adding that microbes had consumed much of the remaining methane and oil.
However, Dr. Samantha Joye, from the University of Georgia, found the oil the other scientists were missing: on the seafloor. The bacteria digesting the oil had to excrete it somewhere, and the heavier oil-saturated waste fell to the depths below. “In the places we sampled, it was devastating. Often you saw this oily mucus, blanketing everything,” Joye told the New York Times. “Typically, the seafloor is teeming with invertebrates sticking out — little animals with tubes, with shells, anything that filter-feeds. Well, the tubes were still there, but the animals were dead.”
There is evidence to suggest that even Gulf marine life that doesn’t dwell in highly contaminated areas is affected. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that killifish exposed to trace amounts of the oil pollutants exhibited signs of developmental problems that may adversely affect their ability to breed. Andrew Whitehead with Louisiana State University took tissue samples from killifish and found liver abnormalities that show evidence of reproductive impairment. Many Gulf organisms, including red-snapper, rely on killifish as a food supply. “Though the fish may be ‘safe to eat’ based on low chemical burdens in their tissues, that doesn’t mean that the fish are healthy or that the fish are capable of reproducing normally,” said Whitehead. “Early life-stages of many organisms are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of oil and because marsh contamination occurred during the spawning season of many important species.”
So, what about the fishing industries? Gulf coast shrimpers are reporting 80 percent lower yields than in previous years. According to Dean Blanchard, a New Orleans seafood processor, fishermen are pulling oil-slicked seafood out of the water regularly. Blanchard also told Fox8 News of a disquieting new phenomenon: shrimp with no eyes. “We’re seeing shrimp with no eyes that are still alive,” he said. Oyster crops diminished tremendously as well. In Mississippi, the BP spill reduced the crop to roughly 35 percent of its usual volume according to Mike Voisin, a New Orleans oyster processor. “This will be our lowest oyster year in a very long time, probably since the late ’80s,” he said. The lingering fear that Gulf seafood is a vessel of toxins has harmed the industry as well. In districts where crop volume is normal, sales have depreciated significantly. Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama wants to reassure the public that Alabama’s oyster harvest is healthy, but doubts linger. “I’ve never seen any storm hit us like BP did,” he said. “It got our reputation. People lost their clientele and closed. BP hurt our reputation so bad.”
Unlike a fire or an earthquake, where damages can be assessed largely according to logistic criteria, it is almost impossible to foresee the manifestation of ecological damages. Cleanup crews exposed to the crude and chemical dispersants are experiencing respiratory problems; marshlands that house local wildlife are dying; shrimp are swimming around with no eyes. The BP ad campaign, set to be released on television, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, will stress the $20 billion in funding BP has allotted for Gulf Coast economic and environmental redevelopment. Nevertheless, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser told a Colorado Springs homeland security symposium, “We are continuing to see a deterioration of the marsh from the oil spill of April 20, 2010, and I still can’t tell you who is in charge of the cleanup.” Even with vigorous cleanup efforts, Dr. Samantha Joye is dubious of a 2012 recovery.
“There has been a lot of energy and effort put towards beating the drum of everything is wonderful, everything is going to be fine by 2012,” Joye says. “ It’s not OK down there. The system is not fine.”