Friday, August 13, 2010
- by David Ranier, Ala. Dept. of Conservation
For the past 40 years, Dr. George Crozier has been monitoring the amazing ecosystem called the Gulf of Mexico from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. He's witnessed the peaks and valleys, usually dished out by Mother Nature, but also from human interaction.
And, Crozier admits he played a role in what he now believes was an overreaction to impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The Gulf of Mexico, Crozier insists, is accustomed to dining on oil tidbits. However, when the well was not capped soon after the disaster, he feared the Gulf's capacity to deal with an influx of oil of this magnitude would overwhelm the ecosystem. Not to minimize the impact of the spill, he realizes now that restraint would have been the better course of response.
"This is not and never was the death of the Gulf of Mexico," Crozier said of the spill, estimated at 4.9 million barrels. "That's a simple fact. And I have to admit that in the initial stages of this I and everybody else contributed to the problem.
"We created the disaster beyond the bounds that it should have been articulated. Hindsight is as cheap as dirt."
For the last two months Crozier has been making presentations to groups like Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs and other groups and now is fully aware of the impact the media coverage created.
"I even went to Gulf Distributing, the beverage people," he said. "People all along the I-10 corridor are very concerned. They have seen problems with their business. I told them the weekend before for the first time in probably 15 years I drove from I-10 to Gulf Shores in less than 30 minutes. So don't tell me it hasn't had an impact on business on the Gulf Coast."
As anyone who has spent any time on Gulf beaches knows, tar balls wash up on the beaches from time to time, indicating oil seeps into the Gulf from the sea floor on occasion.
"Here's the beauty of what we've seen so far," Crozier said. "We know the Gulf, especially the north central Gulf has the capacity to deal with the oil spill. The most recent report indicates that the Gulf receives 500,000 barrels of oil every year from natural seeps at 600 different sites. So there is a microbial community out there and the Gulf of Mexico eats oil like we eat pretzels. We had the capacity to deal with it from the beginning. Ixtoc (Bay of Campeche) was a huge spill that impacted a 100 miles of the south Texas Coast. Most of the people who worked on the Ixtoc spill told us that within three years essentially the ecosystem was recovered in that period time."
Crozier, however, doesn't want to give the impression the oil spill hasn't had and will continue to have a significant negative impact on life in and along the Gulf of Mexico. Some toxic components will affect the Gulf for years and will have to be closely monitored.
"What we're looking at is possibly three to five years here," he said. "This is the goofy thing about scientists - in about a 30-second period of time, the local scientists will turn from a hair-on-fire, wild, environmentally concerned scientist to the curious scientist. You want to say you've got Jekyll and Hyde here. What we think we think we're dealing with is we've dodged a bullet, perhaps. But the north central Gulf of Mexico is not 500,000 barrels from 600 seeps all over the Gulf. It is one place in the Gulf, 60,000 barrels a day, poorly estimated and poorly understood.
"The second thing, this was some of the crudest stuff I've ever seen and there was methane gas. One of the clichés that came as a shock to me was 'water and oil don't mix.' That's true if it's vegetable oil. It's not true of crude oil. Crude oil is composed of three to four broad classes (of components) and the worst of them are soluble in water. As soon as the stuff hit the water 5,000 feet below the surface, benzene and other toxic materials in this family are going into solution the moment it hit the ocean 5,000 feet down. So a lot of that didn't get to the surface, so it wasn't measured at the surface."
Crozier said some of the toxic components disappeared in the water column on its way to the surface, but there is a great deal of uncertainty about how much is still out there and how that will affect the ecosystem in the future.
"The good news is the things that were soluble are not bio-accumulated," he said. "They will kill eggs and larvae. Dr. Bob Shipp (head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama) thinks we're going to have a hit on the snapper population before they enter the harvest. What we're assuming right now is we're going to have a limited harvest in 2012, because the babies are getting hit with these toxics in our part of the Gulf."
Crozier said ecosystem studies started when an LNG facility was proposed off the Alabama several years ago will help marine scientists better understand the impact of the oil spill. The research sites start in Mobile Bay and end 35 miles south of Dauphin Island.
"We will know, hopefully within a couple of months, if the samples we are taking are showing the impacts at those sites 35 miles south of Dauphin Island," he said. "We will be able to give some projections of the problem at that point in time.
"What we've seen on the island, Mobile Bay is going to be much more appreciated after this. The river flow, as little as it is right now, has protected Dauphin Island, Petit Bois Island and, to some extent, Horn Island. The water that exits the bay turns right because of the rotation of the earth. Even we haven't been able to screw up the rotation of the earth, yet."
Soon after the magnitude of the spill became apparent, BP started applying dispersant on the surface and at the wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. Crozier immediately expressed his concerns, which continue today.
"When it gets to the surface, the sun breaks down a lot of the components of crude oil," he said. "The microbial community that eats the oil has lots of oxygen to do that with. At the surface, a lot of good things can happen. We can boom it. We can skim it. If you boom it successfully, you can burn it. But if you use dispersant, and those who play poker will love this, you've gone 'all in' on the microbial community. The tools of skimming, burning and natural oxidation have been damaged. I will tell you that the science behind dispersant use is logical. The idea is that if you make little tiny droplets, the bacteria can get at it more easily. The concept here is going to lead and has successfully led to the rapid degradation of the oil.
"We seem to be over the hill on the surface. The problem I've had since they started applying dispersant 5,000 feet down, it formed a microscopically small droplet, but it became neutrally buoyant. So that means it's stuck somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. And no one has been able to tell me yet where are the toxic components."
Crozier said anyone who has ever had an aquarium knows that after detergent is applied, the aquarium must be rinsed repeatedly before the fish are reintroduced. He sees a correlation with the use of the dispersant Corexit.
"The detergent nature of the Corexit is as big a problem as any component," he said. "The membranes of the phytoplankton, the zooplankton and the eggs could be disrupted. It's always the eggs and babies that are always affected by this - the adults not so much. If the larval white shrimp don't show up in the grass beds in the Delta and the bays in December and January, we'll know there was a problem with the young. I don't think there is a problem with adults. It's always the eggs and babies that are vulnerable.
"But the ecosystem is very resilient. I hope I make that clear. The comparisons to Exxon Valdez are not valid. It's very cold up there. We have, obviously, a warmer climate so everything happens faster here. We also have an extraordinarily complex ecosystem. In other words, if one species was severely impacted, another one would take its place. We have a very resilient, very flexible ecosystem."
While the beaches can be easily cleaned, Crozier contends any effort to clean the marshes, grass beds and oyster reefs would be a big mistake.
"We'd better leave them alone and let the natural system do that," he said. "Beaches are dry land, at least at low tide. Mostly they grow tourists. And they will come back. I guarantee you that the beaches from the Panhandle to the Mississippi barrier islands will be fine next year."
Crozier does expect the Gulf's adaptation to the oil spill to take a significant amount of time.
"I think we're going to have to deal with enormous uncertainty over the long haul," he said. "We're going to see some impact on the young-of-the-year, whether it be shrimp or red snapper or whatever. There are going to be problems in a couple of years. We're going to see a diminishing of our normal catch. I think that is possible. We will be able to tell you within a couple of months. We will be able to make some semi-intelligent prognostications.
"The challenge for us - the community from the Mississippi River to Cape San Blas (Florida) - is we're going to have to do something to restore the confidence of the country in Gulf seafood. There have not been issues of fish kills from the oil spill. Fish are not stupid. Because the pressure is off, I expect fishing to be good everywhere. The issue of contaminated or tainted fish is a long-term issue of uncertainty that the scientific community and the government regulatory agencies will be struggling to deal with. Meanwhile, for the immediate future, there is simply no reason to be concerned about the fish."
In other good news, the catch-and-release restrictions in Alabama coastal waters north of Dauphin Island and west of Dauphin Island Bridge have been lifted. After fish, shrimp and oyster samples were collected and tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the normal bag limit was re-instated for fish and shrimp. The restrictions on crabs are still in place. The Alabama Department of Public Health reopened the private oyster reefs for harvest effective 6 a.m. on August 10. The public reefs remain closed to oystering by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for management purposes.