The Health of the Gulf: Fishermen and Oilmen Clash

With the oil industry shifting from friendly PR to legal battles, competing narratives about Gulf marine life have emerged


I have come to the conclusion that there must be two Gulfs of Mexico, one that oil tycoons and their new buddies within the Obama administration see, and another that scientists and fishermen who rely on the Gulf for their livelihoods confront.

Last week came the upbeat news from Bloomberg that the federal government had granted the first deepwater oil drilling permit in the Gulf of Mexico since the BP spill, whose anniversary will be marked on April 20. "Today's action sends a calming signal to operators, producers, and service companies that the long drought is just about over," Randall Luthi, the president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said.

But, on the same day, The Independent reported that more than 80 dead dolphins  --nearly half newborn or stillborn--had been discovered so far this year in the Gulf, more than 10 times the number usually found. "The number of baby dolphins washing ashore now is new and something we are very concerned about," Blair Mase of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration told the paper.

In February, Kenneth Feinberg, the head of the government's BP claims fund, said that research he had commissioned showed that the Gulf would almost fully recover by 2012. A few days later, Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia told the American Association for the Advancement of Science's prestigious annual conference that far more oil remained on the bottom of the Gulf than earlier estimates said should be there. "There's some sort of bottleneck we have yet to identify for why this stuff doesn't seem to be degrading," she said. Joye also showed pictures of dead crabs, brittle stars, and tube worms on the bottom.

James Cowan, a veteran researcher and professor at Louisiana State University's Department of Oceanography and Coastal Science, told me in an interview that the picture was just beginning to unfold for his team. The news is not encouraging. "We expect that if there is going to be a problem from the spill, it's going to be in reproductive biology," he said. Early signs suggest that the number of young white shrimp juveniles in estuaries has been reduced following the spill.

On the reefs further offshore, critical areas where red snappers and groupers live before migrating to deeper water, fishermen have reported dismal catches of red snappers in areas that have been productive in the past. "They are telling us that the reefs are just dead," Cowan said. "There's nothing there." The few fish that are being caught are at the tops of some underwater pinnacles, which makes sense, Cowan said, if the oil has migrated to the bottom.

More worrying, according to Cowan, is that a lot of oil lies buried under just a few centimeters of silt--just deep enough to cut off the oxygen that oil-destroying microbes need to work. For now, the oil remains intact, but it could be flushed back into the water should the bottom be disturbed buy something like a tropical storm. "That stuff is just waiting," Cowan said.

BP itself appears to have changed tactics, abandoning its public relations strategy to one more suited to courtroom battles. According to Mark Schleifstein, a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the oil giant has backtracked from promises made in November to funnel early payments to Louisiana to help rebuild oyster beds. In order to keep the oil offshore, the state flushed some beds with freshwater, which killed the oysters. Now the company is implying that it shouldn't pay for restoration because the damage was done by the state's freshwater, not BP's oil.

Sadly, the battle over oysters between the state and the company may be moot. Cowan said that one undeniable effect of the spill is that it has severely damaged the image of the Gulf Coast seafood industry. "Some of the oyster reefs didn't see any oil at all and still the oystermen can't sell their product. The damage to the brand may be the hardest thing for the fishing industry to overcome."

"Right now, with this new season beginning to unfold, we're likely to see more impacts," he said. "BP wants to settle, settle, settle. But people who study the Gulf and actually understand it know that the impacts will be felt in different ways for different species long after BP's liability will have been discharged."

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has issued a statement saying that more deepwater permits will be issued in "coming weeks and months."

I don't find that to be a particularly calming signal.

Image: Brian Snyder/Reuters