COASTAL BAYS Oil is the Gulf’s most unwelcome guest

By Cristy Layton
May 11, 2010, Delmarva Daily Times

Two days before the 40th anniversary f Earth Day, the BP Deepwater Horizontal exploration oil rig platform, 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. The incident cost 11 human lives, for which there is no price tag. We should also ask what will be the cost to the local fish, birds and wildlife.

Kerry St. Pe’, the director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in Louisiana and the previous head of Louisiana’s oil spill response team for 23 years, said: "This isn’t a finite amount of oil that has boundaries. This is much, much worse. It’s a river of oil flowing from the bottom of the Gulf at the rate of 210,000 gallons a day that officials say could be a constant flow for months."

The Louisiana coast is one of the nation’s most fragile ecosystems and has the world’s second largest dead zone. A dead zone is an environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that cannot support living aquatic organisms. This dead zone occurs every year at about this time after nutrients from farms and cities wash down the Mississippi River and spark enormous algal blooms that die, sucking oxygen out of the water as they sink to the bottom and decay. The oil could intensify the problems surrounding the dead zone.

The Gulf Coast is one of the world’s richest seafood grounds. It supplies almost a third of the seafood, and almost half of the shrimp, eaten in this country. Devastation to the local economy and tourism may be catastrophic.

The local estuaries and bayous are nursery grounds for most of the fish population in the Gulf area. Shrimp, oysters, mussels and crabs, critical to the economy and to the Gulf Coast’s ecosystem, feed on plankton and detritus found in the estuaries. If the oil smothers the plankton, they cannot eat, disrupting with the food chain.

Once the toxic oil gets to land, it will affect wildlife near the shore as well. The oil will suffocate everything in its path. There is a serious threat to more than 400 species of fish, birds, plants and other animals, many of them already endangered or threatened.

Wildlife threatened by the spill in the open water are bluefin tuna, bottlenose dolphin, sperm whale, sharks, sailfish, West Indian manatee and Gulf menhaden. Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found in the Gulf of Mexico. The world’s most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s Ridley, only nests in the western Gulf.

More than 500 million birds enter the United States along coastal Louisiana and Texas each spring. Hundreds of species of migratory songbirds move across the Gulf from late April to early May. Several important bird and wildlife management areas and one of the largest nesting seabird colonies on the Gulf face immediate threats from the oil. Beach-nesting terns and gulls, large wading birds, marsh birds and ocean-dwelling birds are also at risk.

The brown pelican, state bird of Louisiana — which was removed from the endangered species list last year — faces a serious new threat from the slick. Any disruption to their breeding cycle can have serious effects on their population.

This could be one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history, wiping out entire generations of wildlife. Opposition to oil drilling is getting stronger mainly because of this spill. In March, President Obama announced plans to open a large area in the Atlantic Ocean to both oil and natural gas drilling. One cannot help but wonder: What if?

Layton is the administrative specialist for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program