Coverage: Gulf Coast Oil Spill
More science is needed, and urgently, to guide what will be a years-long mission to save the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil spill, scientists meeting for a strategy session in Sarasota this week say.
Some 40 scientists from academia, government agencies and nonprofit groups attended an oil spill symposium at Mote Marine Laboratory co-sponsored by Mote, the National Wildlife Federation and the University of South Florida.
A formal report is expected in January, but scientists reported Tuesday that a consensus appears to be forming about how to study the spill’s ripple effects in hopes of avoiding a second disaster.
“Then all of a sudden we’ll be saying, ‘Oh, we should have seen that coming,”’ said Michael Crosby, senior vice president for research at Mote. “We need to learn from history here.”
By history, Crosby means 1989. That’s when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. Five years later, the region’s herring fishery collapsed, at least in part because of the oil spill, scientists said.
“We need information to act sooner, not later, not 10 or 20 years downstream,” Crosby said.
Resource managers could use the information to make better decisions about whether to put in place more protective fishing rules or where to focus restoration projects.
Among the questions on the table this week in Sarasota is whether the spill is pushing large open-ocean predators closer to shore, throwing off balance the coastal ecosystem and fishermen that depend on it.
The same effect could be happening from the bottom up. The oil spill might not kill keystone species but could slow their reproduction and reduce commercial fisheries further up the food chain.
The Deepwater Horizon well exploded off the coast of Louisiana in April, killing 11 rig workers. An estimated 200 million gallons of oil spilled before the blow-out well was capped in mid-July and permanently plugged in September.
Despite government claims that most of the oil from the spill has vanished — eaten by microbes, dispersed by chemicals, evaporated or burned off — scientists have found unsettling signs of an ecosystem in crisis.
Last week, scientists using an underwater robot snapped ugly pictures of dead or dying deep-sea coral near the well site, where clouds of microscopic oil droplets had been detected this summer. The corals were coated with a brown ooze scientists suspected to be rotting tissue.
On Monday, researchers reported that non-toxic components of oil already have made it up the food chain from oil-eating microbes to plankton that are an important food source for fish.
Some scientists at the symposium say the spill could be the tipping point for top predators, like sharks or bluefin tuna, that already were on the ropes before the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
The oil disaster coincided with spawning season for bluefin in the northern Gulf, one of the species’ two breeding sites in the world. The other is in the Mediterranean Sea.
Scientists working for BP and the federal government already have collected valuable data about the spill’s effects, but too much of it is being kept secret as attorneys prepare to do battle, symposium organizers said.
They said they hope the symposium will encourage the two sides to be “as open and transparent as possible.”
“We are concerned there may be actionable data that is being collected (in the damage assessment process) that might not be getting into the hands of the public and organizations that may be prepared to act on it,” National Wildlife Federation regional executive director John Hammond said.
The symposium is about more than science; it’s also about money.
BP has pledged $500 million over the next 10 years to study the fallout from the oil spill. Billions more is expected in fines levied against BP and other companies found to share the blame for the blowout.
Having a research program ready to go will help make sure that money stays in the Gulf of Mexico, symposium sponsors said.