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