CSU Voices and Views

Gulf Recovery in Murky Waters

By Sean Anderson
Assistant Professor
Environmental Science and Resource Management
California State University, Channel Islands

CSUCI Assistant Professor Sean Anderson stands in the marshes of Louisiana.

CSUCI Assistant Professor Sean Anderson stands in the marshes of Louisiana.

Soon, my CSUCI students and I will return to Louisiana to continue wetland restoration and community service that we began along the Gulf Coast in the immediate wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  For the past five years, our restoration efforts and research have focused on the bottomland hardwood forest in Plaquemines Parish.  When in Louisiana, my students spend about half their days working on wetland restoration and half on building sustainable food systems and community food gardens in and around New Orleans.

In the still unfolding aftermath of BP’s catastrophic Deep Horizon oil spill, we’re not sure what to expect this coming year.  Anytime oil and seawater combine in large quantities, there are immediate and long-term political, economic, social, natural and scientific consequences. 

Simple questions – like “How much oil spilled into the gulf?” – get murky in a hurry.

The unprecedented application of nearly two million gallons of oil dispersants makes any impact assessment even more difficult.  Dispersants help turn oil into minute droplets in water to lessen the apparent visual and surface water impacts.  This may result in fewer images of oiled marshes and wildlife, but does not necessarily reduce the overall impact to the Gulf.  The toxicity may have simply shifted to the open and deep sea.

Unseen, less-concentrated oil will continue to harm the ocean and coastal environment for many years to come, and, with less dramatic images, there’s a good chance the public’s attention will wane.  Large surface-dwelling animals (turtles, whale sharks, jellies, dolphins, etc.) will likely take a major hit right now, face reduced populations and individual health compromises for several years, and then recover.  Fisheries spawning in the northern Gulf amid these fouled waters may appear relatively normal for a few years with negative effects only becoming evident when larvae and young fish fail to develop and when their absence becomes conspicuous. 

How long will it take the Gulf to recover ecologically?  That’s a complicated question.  It depends upon the organisms and communities involved – and whether nature is truly left only to its own devices, uninfluenced by overfishing, the restriction of natural sediment flows, and other human activities.  My colleagues in the field right now suggest that coastal marsh communities may recover soon, while deep and open-water marine communities might well need decades to recover, if they ever truly do.

Generally the best approach in coastal marshes is to do nothing or to stimulate bacterial growth. In short, let nature take its course, perhaps with a strong nudge.  The Exxon Valdez spill showed us that cleaning the rocky beaches damaged them as much – or even more than — the spill itself did.  Facing the scale and complexity of the Deepwater Horizon spill, restoration planning and implementation will only be effective with a comprehensive, coordinated data collection, analysis and sharing effort.

Without broad changes in societal, economic, and political views toward energy use and production, restoring the Gulf this time will be like the cap on the well itself: a stop-gap measure.

My students and I return to Louisiana this school year hopeful, yet tempered by realism.

Note: The CSU Council on Ocean Affairs, Science and Technology (COAST), a system-wide collaborative, exists to advance knowledge of natural coastal and marine resources and the processes that affect them.

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  • donna tart

    i have family members that live on th gulf coast. i wanted to know what impact it will have on them for years to come. i have a elderly mother with health problems. Thanks alot, Former gulf coast resident…..

  • Erik Fallis
  • Sean Anderson


    At this point the answer is we just don’t know. A few hints are beginning to surface however. First and foremost is the added mental strain this spill is foisting upon the people of the Gulf, many of whom in Louisiana and Mississippi are still recovering from Katrina and Rita in 2005. My friends along the Gulf Coast are reporting dismal financial situations: fishermen who can’t or haven’t fished, tourism that evaporated with the looming oil, etc. From what I have seen so far the physical health effect on people are likely to be minimal (save possible acute problems folks reported who were near the aerial application of dispersants). The real threat is the mental health of residents looking again into an uncertain future. At least one recent suicide of a fisherman is directly linked to the spill. Ecologically, the Gulf is looking at an uncertain future. A group I am chairing is looking into this. For now we can say there will likely be a significant impact, but on which species and to what extent we will need a bit of time to figure out. We are all working as fast as we can with limited resources and too big an ocean to survey.

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