A Look Back at the Gulf Oil Spill


Time for a look back at the Deep Horizon oil disaster.  Here’s my old “Incite” column from Audubon.


No one has a clue what will befall fish in the biggest toxicology experiment in U.S. history.



Under the Sheen


by Ted Williams


As the Gulf oil disaster approached day 60 I joined some of my National Audubon Society colleagues in coastal Louisiana to check out damage to bird-nesting colonies on barrier islands.  Grim as the scene was, it didn’t compare with the devastation below.


Fish and invertebrates aren’t easily seen, and they don’t collect oil even when they’re killed by it.  So the media tend to ignore them.  Better to show as virtual logos the two oil-drenched birds from Grand Isle (you know, the pelican with its wings spread and beak open and the gannet whose head is vaguely visible through black mousse).


The Gulf of Mexico had been one of the most popular areas for recreational fishing in the United States.  About six million saltwater anglers used to make at least 45 million fishing trips to the Gulf each year, targeting such fish as speckled trout, redfish, sheepshead, snappers, groupers, tunas, mackerels, jacks, mahi, sharks, tarpon, snook, and billfish.  No more.  The spill has jeopardized some 2,300 bait and tackle stores in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.  And many guides are out of business for the rest of the year and maybe longer.  Before the spill about a quarter of the nation’s seafood came from Louisiana.


From Capt. Jeff Wolkart’s 24-foot Ranger Bay boat we saw blitzing speckled trout, cruising redfish, and bottlenose dolphins, all feeding under oil or where oil recently been.  Wolkart, a fishing guide who is normally booked almost solid from March through November, is desperate for work now that all his clients have canceled for the year.  So he was happy to take our party to offshore bird colonies.  He had light tackle on board and offered it to me when trout started blowing up around us, but my companions weren’t into fishing; and, for once, I didn’t have the heart for it.


In state waters you can still practice catch and release, but the feds have banned all fishing in a third of the Gulf.  They just don’t want any contaminated fish finding their way to public markets, and they need to be able to bust anyone they see without back-and-forths about stated intent.


Often, and especially in this case, what you can’t see is scarier than what you can see.  This from Dr. Russell Nelson, the Billfish Foundation’s chief scientist:  “Fifteen years ago, when I was head of fisheries for Florida, I was appointed by the governor to sit on a panel of scientists for the Minerals Management Service.  We had to figure out the dangers of offshore drilling.  We spent a year doing that.  Our worst-case scenario was a 100,000-barrel blowout, and we predicted savage results.  This thing spills that much every day.  The bottom line is we don’t know what this spill will do.  It’s going to be bad, and we haven’t even begun to see how bad.  If the oil gets into the loop current, we’re likely to see impacts all the way up the Atlantic along every cape--Canaveral, Hatteras, Lookout--everywhere the bottom extends further offshore and is shallower.  When the Gulf Stream goes by those capes it creates eddies that spin off and move inshore.”




What appears to be good for birds (at least for the short term) is not good for fish.  Consider dispersants--chemical cocktails of solvents, surfactants and other additives that are far more toxic than the oil itself.  While dispersants break up slicks, reducing immediate damage to shore habitat and nesting birds, they spread the pollution through the marine ecosystem the way grease from a soaped frying pan dirties dishwater.  Oil companies love dispersants because they sweep their messes under the rug.


The oil fouling the Gulf is different than the crude we’re used to hearing about--the stuff that leaks from ruptured tankers.  BP oil is so volatile that something approaching half evaporates almost immediately after it hits the surface; and in the intense heat of the Gulf other floating fractions are rapidly consumed by bacteria.


But dispersants, which were never designed or approved for undersea use but which EPA let BP spray directly into the gusher at its mile-deep source, mix some of the most volatile fractions with cold sea water where they can’t evaporate and where bacterial action is dramatically slowed.  On top of that, dispersants kill oil-eating bacteria.


Unfortunately, the most volatile oil fractions are also the most toxic.  Menhaden--eaten by most every scaled, feathered, and warm-blooded predator in the Gulf--are swimming through undersea plumes, mouths agape, then passing the poisons up through the food chain.


When SouthWings, a non-profit group of volunteer pilots who show journalists and resource managers insults to the planet, flew me over the Gulf I saw only light sheens.  That didn’t mean the oil had been cleaned up; it meant it had been pushed under the surface. 


“Unethical” and “hiding behind false shields” is how the National Wildlife Federation’s Dr. Douglas Inkley describes BP’s refusal to disclose the allegedly “proprietary” formulation of the dispersant with which it was saturating the Gulf.  “We’ve challenged BP’s entirely experimental sub-sea use of dispersant,” he says.  “They didn’t monitor for toxicity, only for oxygen, so EPA continued to allow it.” 


Dr. Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute, calls dispersant use a “PR stunt.”  “What it has done,” he told me, “is make a tremendous amount of dirty water which can never be cleaned.  You can’t extract the oil or separate it with booms; no parts can be burned.  It can’t evaporate.  I think it’s an attempt to hide the body.”


And Dr. Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation offers this:  “The dispersants being applied by BP are among the most toxic to marine life; the oil itself is made more toxic after being treated; and perhaps worst of all, the poisonous mix is being dispersed throughout the water column, the oil broken down to a size that is more easily ingested by creatures low on the food chain….  We know there are those in the industry, and even in Washington, who want this problem to go out of sight, out of mind; and rash decisions about the use of dispersants are being made to get the surface slicks off the evening news.”


The Obama administration didn’t get around to addressing the dangers of dispersants until late May.  BP balked at EPA’s directive to reduce usage but eventually complied.  Meanwhile, no one has the slightest idea how much damage the dispersants have done and will do.  “We’re watching the biggest ecological, toxicology experiment in our nation's history,” Dr. Ronald Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health in Lubbock, Texas, told the New Orleans Louisiana Weekly.




A little good has blown in with BP’s ill wind, as Capt. Wolkart observed:  “Some of these lodges run ten boats every day with three or four people in a boat.  Each boat kills perhaps a hundred fish [mostly redfish and trout] per trip.  Ten boats; that’s a thousand fish a day.  If we don’t have a bad fish kill, we just protected the resource for a whole year.”


As far as anyone knows the critically depressed western population of bluefin tuna spawns only in the Gulf and in the vicinity of the rig.  Fully developed fish are capable of fleeing dirty water; larvae are not.  Tuna eggs and larvae and, for that matter, eggs and larvae of most fish species float on or near the surface; and even the kind of light sheens I was seeing kill them.  So it seems likely that we’ll lose a year class of bluefins.


On the other hand, longliners targeting yellowfin tuna and swordfish, have been banned from the bluefin’s spawning grounds because of the spill; so a lot of adult bluefins that otherwise would have been killed as real and make-believe “by-catch” have survived.  Gulf longliners had been allowed to retain and sell up to three bluefins per trip.  And, because even a midsize fish can fetch big bucks on the Japanese market, longlining had become a directed fishery in disguise (See “Pelagic Plague,” FR&R, Jan. 2010).  What’s more, studies have shown that the survival rate of the bluefins longliners had been required to cut off after they’d retained their “by-catch” quotas is extremely low.


In the Western Atlantic the population of spawning-age bluefins is only 7 percent of an unexploited stock.  As Dr. Hinman has pointed out, “there is a very real danger of reducing the breeding population below a critical mass--the minimum population sufficient to sustain itself--resulting in a stock failure that’s irreversible.”  If the 2010 year class is indeed lost, a stock failure is likely, though less so than if the breeders had not been spared from longlining.  Yellowfin tuna, marlins, sailfish, and swordfish will also benefit from the longline ban.  So will sea turtles.  Still, longlining needs to be banned permanently and for the right reason, not temporarily for the wrong one.


In 2010 and less than a month before the spill the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted down a proposal to place bluefin tuna on its endangered list and thereby ban international trade.  Japan aggressively lobbied clueless nations, calling in economic chits while the U.S. and European Union, which at least voted right, sat on their hands.


Unforeseen disasters like oil spills are precisely why species flirting with extinction need to be protected with international and/or national endangered status.  So on May 29 the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to list Atlantic bluefin tuna under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the model for CITES.  No-kill sportfishing could be allowed with threatened status.  Endangered status would shut it off. 


It’s not clear if yellowfin tuna enter the Gulf to spawn or feed or both.  But yellowfins and billfish won’t get hit as hard as bluefins.  Blue and white marlin spawn on the shelves off Florida and Texas which, at this writing, are still pretty clean.  And anecdotal evidence suggests that billfish and other species are fleeing the contamination.  In late June participants in the Houston Big Game Fishing Club’s tournament (one of the few that hadn’t been canceled) reported unusually large concentrations of billfish.  And blackfin tuna and big sharks are being seen in shallow waters where they rarely venture. 


Reef fishes that don’t move much, such as snappers and groupers, won’t be so fortunate.  Nor will the corals and shellfish that sustain many of them.  That’s tragic because Gulf red snappers, overfished and mismanaged for decades, had finally started to rebound.


The Billfish Foundation’s Dr. Russell Nelson is especially worried about Sargassum--the genus of floating marine plants that support large communities of crustaceans, mollusks, baitfish, juvenile and adult fish, and turtles.  “That’s a major loss,” he says.  “And there’s this whole deepwater community of fish--angler-types, these funny looking critters that have lights on them.  In the day they live down at three or four thousand feet.  But every night they migrate to the upper levels and feed and get fed on.  They’re going through oil plumes every day.”




Who is to blame for the worst ecological disaster this nation has ever faced?  Well, BP blames its drilling contractor, Transocean.  Transocean blames BP.  The president blames BP for “recklessness” when his and past administrations have been no less reckless.  With good reason Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the president blame shoddy oversight by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) which, even before the corruptive influence of Dick Cheney, had been a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil industry.  But they also blame the person they had recently hired to clean up the agency and who was making remarkable progress at that task--MMS director, Liz Birnbaum, an effective and unyielding champion of fish and wildlife who had served with distinction as President Clinton’s Associate Solicitor for Mineral Resources.


I closely followed Birnbaum’s nine-month career with the Obama administration because she’s a friend and former colleague with whom I worked closely when I served on the board of American Rivers and she was our general counsel.  Decent federal oversight might have prevented the worst of the spill, if not the explosion which clearly was caused by human error.  But the Obama administration excused BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig from environmental review via “categorical exemption” before it hired Birnbaum.  Then, to get the critics off his back, Salazar fired her after her brief but brilliant, tenure, fibbing to the American public that she had resigned “voluntarily.”


Pundits like James Carville blame Obama for his failure to “rage” (and thereby achieve all the success of, say, King Lear).  There’s scarcely anyone Billy Nungesser, the portly president of Plaquemines Parish bloviating nightly on national TV, doesn’t blame--even the Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife Service which are performing heroically and, as often than not, working 15- to 17-hour days. 


Few Americans--and, as far as I have been able to determine, none of the enraged residents the Gulf Coast--blame themselves.  But they and the rest of us bought into Big Oil’s lie, facilitating its wanton disregard for the safety of fish, wildlife and people.  And, even as the oil and methane gushed, Gulf Coast residents were castigating Obama for trying to place deepwater drilling on hold until his administration could figure out how to avoid more blowouts. 


Big Oil’s lie is that the industry and fish, wildlife and people sustained by the sea can all live together not just harmoniously but symbiotically if only Big Oil is allowed to do whatever it pleases.  Built on that 63-year-old lie is the movie “Thunder Bay” in which Jimmy Stewart plays the ex-Navy oil engineer who developed the first oil platform off Louisiana in 1947.  Stewart’s character is confronted by Cajuns who make their living fishing and shrimping and who are convinced that offshore oil development will eventually poison Gulf food chains.  Things get ugly.  But after only one year fish and shrimp swarm around the platform’s legs, and the watermen reap a bonanza beyond their wildest dreams.  One almost expects the cast to break into the song of Pish-Tush from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado: “And we are right, I think you'll say,/ To argue in this kind of way;/ And I am right, And you are right,/ And all is right--too-looral-lay!”


With the spill almost two months old I heard Louisiana fishermen still repeating the wives’ tale that just because fish congregate around oil rigs, the oil industry has been “good” for fish.  But easy fishing and healthy fish populations are two very different things.


Most fish in the Gulf depend on wetlands for spawning and nursery habitat or depend on forage that spawns and matures in wetlands.  But to get its rigs and vessels to the Gulf the oil industry has sliced wide swaths through delta marshes, allowing waves and saltwater intrusion to destroy still more wetlands, wiping out spawning and nursery habitat and exposing coastal communities to flooding and oil spills. 


At the same time, supposedly to protect the public and the oil industry from flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers built levees--lateral, river-side dams that constrict the Mississippi River and shoot its marsh-building sediments past the delta and out over the lip of the continental shelf.  People and businesses (including refineries) then moved confidently onto the land the Corps proclaimed safe.  Because that land was originally soggy floodplain, it has subsided eight feet below the level of the Gulf, creating highly vulnerable, reverse goldfish bowls.


When the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina the media and the Bush administration called the flooding a “natural disaster.”  It was about as “natural” as BP’s oil spill, to which it is linked.  That’s because the wetlands that would have protected fish, wildlife and humans from flooding also would have protected them from oil. 


Every 2.7 miles of marsh grass between a point of land and the sea reduces storm surge by one foot.  But now--thanks to the oil industry and the Corps--the Gulf is 30 miles closer to New Orleans than it was in 1932 when Army and oil-industry engineers started manipulating the Mississippi’s floodplain.  Since then Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands.  And, with that wide buffer destroyed, surviving wetlands are that much more vulnerable to current and future oil pollution which, along with increased flooding, will jeopardize wetlands further inland.




One lesson anglers should learn from the oil-spill devastation (compounded by wetland loss) is that they need to spend less time agitating about imagined “rights” to kill fish and more time supporting and participating in a genuine effort at ocean planning. 


That effort, in which the angling community has basically been a no-show, began about a decade ago with the Pew Oceans Commission.  Its subsequent report found that our oceans and the life forms they sustain are in desperate trouble, that fisheries management has failed, that the Corps of Engineers needs to stop destroying habitat and start restoring it, that fish farms require strict regulating, and that cruise ships must be restrained from festooning the seas with their refuse.


Then the George H. W. Bush administration established the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which produced similar findings but expired in 2004 without effecting serious change.


Finally, in June 2009 President Obama established an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, that will design a national policy to restore our oceans, shorelines and Great Lakes and build a framework for coastal and marine spatial planning. 


Spatial planning is a tool for bringing together ocean stakeholders--such as the oil industry, conservation groups, anglers, boaters, commercial fishermen, and government agencies--so that intelligent and coordinated decisions can be made on managing marine resources.  Up until now anglers have scoffed at spatial planning, dismissing it as another “anti-fishing” plot to strip them of their “rights.”  Had they been involved, they could have at least weighed in on BP’s categorical exemption.


Maybe the most important lesson anglers, politicians and the general public can take away from the spill is this: Of all who attempt to prevent and remediate damage to the natural world none are less qualified than those who abuse the natural world with such major manipulations as deepwater oil rigs and levees.  Yet we have traditionally allowed them to call the square dance--with the results that we now see in the Gulf of Mexico.


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--from Audubon