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Published in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Aug/Sept 2010 Issue



Three months of oil gushing into the Gulf of MexicoÖ  Now what?


Up to now Iíve tried to avoid covering the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.  Not only is it infuriating, itís almost too large to get a handle on.   However, while there are a multitude of other issues that deserve space here, they all pale in comparison to the effect that this disaster will have on our fisheries, which will undoubtedly extend well beyond the Gulf of Mexico.  I canít help but think little else matters until we get a hold of what is perhaps the greatest environmental disaster in the history of our nation.   


At the time of this writing, it looks as if BP may have put a stop to the gusher.  Our fingers are collectively crossed.  Still, thousands upon thousands of fish, birds and marine mammals have likely died from the oil already, and that toll will probably end up in the millions.  Scientists are now warning that the large amounts of methane escaping into the Gulf could create dead zones in which nothing can live.  And, of course, oil continues to sully coastlines and beaches.


Now that the gusher has hopefully been capped, I donít believe the Gulf is doomed, but I do believe that this disaster will have catastrophic and cascading effects.  As we begin to realize the true impact, things are likely to look a lot worse than they do now.


The spill couldnít have happened at a worse time or place.  Louisianaís coastline contains 40% of the wetlands found in the lower 48 states.   Such estuarine marsh is some of the most productive, biodiverse habitat on the planet.  But the surface oil washing up along the coast is just the tip of the iceberg.  What might have been just a really bad oil spill has been transformed, through the use of dispersants, into something we know relatively little aboutóbut we do know that the chemical dispersant being used will have an adverse impact on life under the surface of the sea.  Not only is the dispersant toxic, but it suspends oil in the entire water column instead of allowing it to float to the surface, resulting in undersea plumes that in some cases extend dozens of miles.  Because the oil has been broken up and held in suspension, it passes easily across gills and into digestive systems, poisoning marine creatures.  It also seriously depletes oxygen levels.  Organisms most likely to be effected by such plumes are those at the base of the food chain, and that will unquestionably cascade to the larger species.  Things look bad for coral and benthic communities as well.  While it may make sense from a PR standpoint to keep the oil out of sight, the unseen damage below the surface is likely to be severe.


The Gulf of Mexico itself is just as critical as the coast, providing critical habitat for many species, and hosting one of the Nationís most important nursery areas for large pelagic fish.  The most significant of those is Western Atlantic bluefin tuna, which are already severely depleted and, unfortunately, spawn almost precisely where and when the spill happened.  The majority of eggs and fry are almost certain to perish.  Itís not just bluefin.  Floating mats of Sargassum, which are now being soaked with oil, are habitat for the larvae of more than 120 species of fish, many of which travel well outside the Gulf when they become adults.   And itís hard to turn a blind eye to the marine mammals that canít surface to breathe, or the sea-turtles that are being cremated alive in BPís ďburn boxes.Ē    And there are the human costs, in the form of commercial fishermen and charter boat captains that depended on the Gulf for their livelihood, and have had those livelihoods stolen by a waking nightmare that will not abate.


Whoís to blame?  There is Halliburton, which may have used contaminated cement to seal the well and so might have caused the natural gas leak that lead to the explosion.  Then there is Transocean, which installed equipment, including blowout preventers, which failed once the crisis began.  And, of course, there is BP, which repeatedly opted for more risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time, misled Congress and the public about its ability to prevent and respond to spills in deep water, and spent millions successfully lobbying against tougher regulations and greater and more frequent government oversight of the drilling industry.  After the spill they grossly, and arguably purposely, underestimated the rate of oil gushing into the Gulf.


But can we really blame those folks?  One could argue that such behavior is to be expected, as large corporations rarely act altruistically.  Decisions arenít based on ethical or environmental considerations, but on a simple risk/reward calculation.  In this case, BP apparently felt that the likelihood of a spill didnít justify installing a $500,000 acoustic switch.  Such switches should have been required, but werenít, and BP did what companies doóno more than the government requires.   

That said, one must also place some blame on Congress for its many members who take money from big oil and do the companiesí bidding.  The close relationship that Congress has with wealthy oil companies that fund election campaigns is frightening, and certainly extends across party lines.  We can also blame Congress for their weak oversight of regulatory agencies like the Mineral Management Service (MMS) and agency failure to require critical safety measures, such as acoustic switches on offshore wells.  Congressí ongoing support, including tax breaks and incentives, for offshore drilling hasnít helped matters either. 


Certainly one could blame the Bush Administration for pushing for more drilling everywhere, and for staffing MMS with industry-friendly folks while whittling away at regulatory safeguards across the board, making it easier for industry to do whatever it wanted.  It clearly failed to reform MMS even when corruption scandals became public.   One could also blame the Obama Administration for failing to implement needed reform at MMS when it was clear from that start that the agency badly needed it.  This Administration has also been too deferential to BP with respect to estimates of the disaster's scale, cleanup, and the use of dispersants. 


But while assigning accountability is important, it is less important than moving forward with policies that will protect our oceans and its coastlines in the future.  This disaster occurred at a time when the Obama Administration is considering opening up millions of acres to offshore drilling.  Environmental groups argue that we must end that policy, and frankly I agree. Offshore drilling simply does not provide the benefits that its advocates claim, and this disaster proves that itís not worth the risk it poses to our marine ecosystems and our fishing communities. 


Of course, proponents of offshore drilling will tout it as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But I donít believe we can't drill our way to energy security.  And if you thought drilling was good for job creation, consider all businesses and people out of work now because of this spill.   In calculating risks vs. rewards, never forget that our marine resources have a value beyond reckoning.


The President recently suspended new offshore drilling.  He needs to go further by taking the offshore drilling option completely off the table for the entire Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic and Straits of Florida.  What is happening in the Gulf of Mexico is a tragedy, plain and simple. But it will be even more tragic if we donít learn from it, and 20 years from now it happens again, perhaps with oil pouring out of one of those new wells slated to be built off the Virginia coast.