Five years ago today, just before dawn, I was kneeling in the pristine white sand of a beach in the Florida panhandle, digging up a loggerhead sea turtle nest. Normally this sort of thing is discouraged. After all, most sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act and it is a federal crime to disturb their nests. Federal and state wildlife officials go to great lengths to protect these nests from harm by hapless beachgoers and their pets. But on that morning five years ago I was part of a team working to systematically locate as many sea turtle nests in the Florida panhandle as possible and translocate their precious contents to a storage facility halfway across the state.
As I gingerly lifted each individual egg out of the nest and slowly, carefully lowered it into a specially designed cooler, it was hard to wrap my mind around the necessity of disturbing this beautiful and intact habitat. But 200 miles southwest of me, oil was gushing into the ocean from a well underneath what remained of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The explosion that cost eleven people their lives and would ultimately unleash over 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico had taken place one month earlier on April 20, 2010. Nobody knew when the well would finally be capped.
Neither, at that time, did anyone know how far the oil would spread. The Louisiana Coast was already being blackened by it and some models were predicting it could spread as far east and south as the Florida Keys. It was feared that if the oil made it to the Florida panhandle, it would suffocate sea turtle nests or coat hatchlings as they emerged and struggled towards the surf. There was a real risk that the spill would wipe out an entire generation of Gulf Coast leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles.
For loggerheads, which are genetically distinct from their relatives on the east coast of the US, the loss of all or most of a generation could have had serious effects on the broader population. State and federal wildlife officials decided that the risk to the species was too great, and mobilized an unprecedented effort to translocate as many of the marine turtles as possible from their nests on the panhandle to a release site off of Cape Canaveral. So there I was.
The Deepwater Horizon well gushed oil for 87 days before it was finally capped. Oil did eventually wash up on the beaches of Pensacola and a bit farther east, but mercifully much of the panhandle was spared the worst effects of the spill.
Nevertheless, the environmental impacts of the spill and dispersants used in subsequent cleanup efforts are stunning in their breadth and scale. Over a thousand miles of coastline were ultimately oiled. Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands were choked by it, causing death of trees and grasses that sped up the already rapid erosion of the Louisiana coast. Oiled birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were collected for rehabilitation by the thousands. Fish die-offs on scales never before reported were documented. In the years since the spill, deformities and birth defects have been noted in almost every commercially consumed fish and crustacean species and studies have found high levels of carcinogens and other toxic substances in the bodies of dozens of marine species and the eggs of coastal birds.
Yet despite the unprecedented ecological destruction caused by the spill, much remains unknown about the scope of current impacts and the risk of future harm that could result from the millions of gallons of oil and dispersants still floating in the Gulf or resting on the sea floor. In the most recent congressional hearing on the effects of the spill held on April 29, scientists testified that the research conducted to date is not nearly sufficient to fully assess the effects of the spill. Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts said, “Today, I can’t say how much oil is still on the Gulf of Mexico floor. I can’t say how toxic it is. And I can’t say whether or not it’s negatively affecting the Gulf.”
The scientists called for more baseline ecological studies of Gulf habitats to better understand the impacts of the spill, as well as more research into the environmental effects of the dispersants used in the cleanup. They noted that financial support to meet important research needs was critically lacking and that both government and the private sector should direct funds towards these efforts in order to help repair the ecology of the Gulf and to increase preparedness in the event of a future spill. They also pointed to a need for increased communication between scientists and incident responders in future spills.
Just last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a searchable online tool containing data from every different environmental study conducted in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill. It’s called DIVER– Data Integration, Visualization, Exploration and Reporting, and it contains thousands of downloadable datasets on individual species, water chemistry, habitats, soils, and much more. The goal of this massive data source is to help provide scientists, managers and officials responsible for recovery with the information they need to help restore the ecosystems of the Gulf Region. New data will be added to the site on a continuous basis. DIVER is an impressive resource, but as scientific experts repeatedly claimed, it is not enough.
Recovery from the worst marine oil spill in history is far from complete, and its impacts will stretch far into the future. Evidence of oil leaking from parts of the original well structure was reported as recently as January 2013 and apparently no one can say with certainty that the well is capped for good. Yet just this past April, almost exactly five years after the spill started, federal regulators have granted a Louisiana-based oil company permission to drill a new well just three miles from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Five years later tar balls still roll up onto beaches around the Gulf. Five years later, former marsh ecosystems and coral reefs remain lifeless and population numbers of many marine species have yet to recover. Five years later, much remains to be done, and cannot be done successfully if funding and support are not made available to continue and strengthen research efforts in the Gulf. Government and those responsible for the spill have a responsibility to support that research so that five years later, the Gulf of Mexico can really begin to recover.
For more information on similar issues, please visit the Society for Conservation Biology’s website.
By Kat Diersen, The Society for Conservation Biology