The Blog Aquatic » BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 19 Sep 2014 14:44:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Restoration Report Card: Gulf Council Fails at Public Participation http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/21/restoration-report-card-gulf-council-fails-at-public-participation/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/21/restoration-report-card-gulf-council-fails-at-public-participation/#comments Fri, 22 Aug 2014 01:09:56 +0000 Kara Lankford http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9069

Today the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council made some big announcements and provided more information on how they will choose projects to restore the Gulf. We’ve graded the Council’s efforts today, and the results are a mixed bag.

Project selection process: B+

The Council announced that the window for submitting projects to restore the Gulf starts today and will be open until at least November 17. They’ve also provided a detailed strategy on how they will evaluate projects based on science and the goals of the Council. While some questions remain, these details further lay the groundwork for the Council to select projects based on merit, not politics. For example, how will the science reviews be used to further prioritize projects? Will reviewers be permitted to rank projects as high, medium or low priority to guide Council staff recommendations? Will the public have access to summaries of independent reviews to help inform their comments? Answers to these questions are important, but overall, this is great news for the Gulf.

Public participation: F

The Council’s new fact sheet on public participation doesn’t provide details about how they plan to achieve meaningful public engagement across the Gulf Coast. Since the Council was formed with the passage of the RESTORE Act in 2012, they have frequently reiterated the importance of public engagement. In the spring of this year, Council staff made the rounds in each of the five Gulf states to ask conservation nonprofits, community leaders and fishermen for recommendations on how to engage the public in restoring the Gulf. These groups provided input under the impression that a process for participation and involvement was coming. Now, there is no mention of these recommendations in the Council’s fact sheet.

The Council states they “will continue to seek input from the public as it continues its work to plan for and implement large-scale ecosystem restoration projects across the Gulf region.” However, they fail to outline how this will be achieved. There is no website for sending project ideas to the Council and no list of community meetings for Gulf residents to speak out about how Gulf restoration dollars should be spent. The Council should seek public participation as a cohesive body, not as individual agencies or states. This will ensure a coordinated, consistent process across the five Gulf states, and will allow for all council members to hear from the Gulf Coast citizens, from Texas to Florida.

The Council also states “restoration work in the Gulf region will not be successful without genuine and meaningful input from the people in the region.” We couldn’t agree more. With a task so critical and personal to the people of the Gulf Coast, their involvement should be front and center. The Council should stay true to their word and provide a meaningful platform for Gulf Coast residents to be involved in the restoration process.

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High Five to the RESTORE Council! http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/25/high-five-to-the-restore-council/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/25/high-five-to-the-restore-council/#comments Sat, 26 Jul 2014 00:55:48 +0000 Kara Lankford http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8832

In order to successfully restore the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Ocean Conservancy, as you may recall, has a tried-and-true Recipe for Restoration:

1 part science

1 part public engagement

1 part clear criteria for decision-making

We are so pleased today to see that the RESTORE Council is following our recipe for success. As the federal and state partnership charged with determining how billion of dollars in Clean Water Act fines will be spent, the RESTORE Council announced their plans today for receiving and evaluating proposals for Gulf restoration projects. This long-awaited announcement has been years in the making, and Ocean Conservancy has been one of the strongest supporters for a science-based platform for successful Gulf restoration. Thanks to the actions taken by the Council today, projects to restore the Gulf will be chosen based on merit, not on politics.
 The Council lays out a five-step process for project selection. Projects and programs that meet these criteria will be included in a draft prioritized list, known as the Funded Priorities List. The Council’s process will accomplish the following:

1.     Proposes focus areas of restoring habitat and water quality for projects and programs which will be included on the Funded Priorities List as the first addendum to the Initial Comprehensive Plan.

2.     Encourages project submissions that emphasize the following:

    • How a project is foundational in the sense that the project forms the initial core steps in addressing a significant ecosystem issue and that future projects can be tiered to substantially increase the benefits;
    • How a project will be sustainable over time;
    • Why a project is likely to succeed; and
    • How a project benefits the human community where implementation occurs.

3.     Provides for external independent scientific review of project proposals.

4.     Ensures that all applicable environmental compliance requirements are addressed.

5.     Ensures that projects meet both statutory requirements and commitments the Council made in the Comprehensive Plan.

Ocean Conservancy applauds the Council for seeking external scientific review of project proposals. This is so important to ensure that Gulf restoration projects are based on the best available science. We are also pleased to hear that they are committed to a transparent process, with projects coordinated across state lines. After all, fish don’t observe state lines underwater!

We commend the Council for their dedication and perseverance to accomplish the enormous task of restoring the Gulf, not just from the BP oil disaster, but also from decades of environmental disasters. The process outlined by the Council may not be perfect, but it will help guide restoration toward a comprehensive, ecosystem-wide approach to Gulf restoration. There is still much work to do and many more hurdles to jump, but today was certainly a victory. Let’s take time to celebrate this win. High five!

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Fishermen and Scientists Work Together to Track Sick Fish http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/21/fishermen-and-scientists-work-together-to-track-sick-fish/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/21/fishermen-and-scientists-work-together-to-track-sick-fish/#comments Mon, 21 Jul 2014 14:22:59 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8776

University of South Florida Professor Steven Murawski began studying diseases in fin fishes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill when Gulf of Mexico fishermen began reporting a surge in fish with visible lesions. Credit: C-Image. Caption from phys.org

Fishermen are on the water every day, which means they are often the first to notice when something changes. After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, we heard reports from fishermen that they were catching more fish with lesions than they had ever seen before. Immediately after hearing these reports, Dr. Jim Cowan at LSU began investigating the frequency, location and cause of the reported lesions. Many other scientists have collected data on this same issue, and last week a group from the University of South Florida published the first round of results in a scientific journal.

Through extensive study, the scientists ruled out other potential causes, such as pathogens or oceanographic conditions, and concluded that the BP oil disaster is the likely cause of the fish lesions. Oil has a distinct chemical signature that allows scientists to differentiate between different origins, and contamination in the sick fish was a better match to oil from BP’s Macondo well than any other source.

For the Gulf, studies that help us understand the lingering impacts of the BP oil disaster are critical to achieving recovery. They are also a reminder that we cannot close the door on studying the effects of the disaster or the impact of our restoration efforts until we are certain the job is complete. The results of the USF study are only the beginning of this story about how fish were impacted by the BP oil disaster. In order to achieve complete recovery, we need long-term research on how lesions and other oil impacts affect the survival and reproduction of fish, how their populations are responding to habitat and water quality restoration efforts, and what that means for the fishermen who first identified the problem.

Location of sampling stations and the percent of skin lesions per station for June–August 2011. The percent of skin lesions at a station is indicated as follows: white circles = 0%, red graduated circles = 0.1–2.0%, 2.1–4.0%, 4.1–6.0%, and >6.0% (from smallest to largest). The gray shading is the cumulative distribution of surface oil occurring during the duration of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) event. Map credit: Murawski et al., 2014

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Troubling News for Mahi-mahi in the Gulf http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/06/20/troubling-news-for-mahi-mahi-in-the-gulf/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/06/20/troubling-news-for-mahi-mahi-in-the-gulf/#comments Fri, 20 Jun 2014 19:20:24 +0000 Libby Fetherston http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8593

Photo: Kelly the Deluded via Flickr Creative Commons

As we watched the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster unfold on beaches and in bays of the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, we wondered, too, about the impacts beyond what we could see on shore. Some of the answers to that troubling question are rolling in. We previously learned about damage to fish embryos, and the latest news involves mahi-mahi, or dolphinfish. These fast-growing, colorful predators are a favorite target of recreational fishermen and restaurant-goers alike across the Gulf, and despite their savage speed, it seems they could not outrun the impacts of BP’s oil.

A new study from the University of Miami last week demonstrated that even “relatively brief, low-level exposure to oil harms the swimming capabilities of mahi-mahi, and likely other large pelagic fish, during the early life stages.” And while it’s troubling to hear that oil reduces the fish’s ability to swim fast – a necessity for finding food and evading predators –the more disturbing revelation is how little oil exposure it takes to cause this damage to such an economically important fish.

The more we find out about impacts to open-ocean swimmers like mahi-mahi, tuna and amberjack, the more concerned I get for their bottom-dwelling counterparts.  If these powerful fish, renowned for the distance they can cover, could not escape harm, then what of the snappers and groupers and triggerfish that live much more closely associated with the bottom of the sea? Red snapper, for instance, spend their vulnerable juvenile years in the muddy nearshore flats around the northern Gulf. Many of these same flats were covered in oil and toxic dispersant in 2010. Has it lingered? If brief, low-level exposure is harmful, what will this mean for these fish as they grow to adults?

In the face of this mounting concern, we have two options. We can watch and wait and hope for more independently-funded studies to offer pieces of the puzzle until the Natural Resource Damage Assessment studies are made public, or we can invest restoration money now into fish and fisheries research. The State of Florida is on the right track—they’ve committed $3 million to collect additional data on reef fish through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. Florida covers only a portion of the Gulf’s deep waters, however, and in order to properly understand the impacts of oil on offshore fish, we must expand fisheries research to include the entire Gulf.

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Restoring Beyond the Shore is Critical to Gulf Recovery http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/20/restoring-beyond-the-shore-is-critical-to-gulf-recovery/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/20/restoring-beyond-the-shore-is-critical-to-gulf-recovery/#comments Sun, 20 Apr 2014 10:00:53 +0000 Libby Fetherston http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8110

Four years ago today, this image appeared on televisions around the world. And soon after that, we saw the 24-hour live feed of the well at the bottom of the Gulf, endlessly pouring gallon after gallon of oil into the water.

Almost immediately, the coastal impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster were easy to spot — oiled beaches, marshes, and pelicans. And now, four years later, we have both an opportunity and an obligation to restore the Gulf with the billions of dollars from BP. It’s easy to imagine how we would repair the coast — replant marsh grasses, rebuild barrier islands and restore oyster reefs.

Unfortunately, the damage that BP caused goes beyond what we can see from the seashore. We now know that dolphins in Louisiana are severely ill, deep-sea corals are covered in oil and BP oil can even give fish heart attacks.

But how do you restore the Gulf beyond the shore?

Invest in Habitat Mapping

Before tackling any big project, such as building a house or planning a neighborhood, the first order of business is to survey and catalog the site and its associated assets. Restoring the Gulf is no different.

The Gulf is home to an amazing and diverse suite of plants, animals and seafloor types. Detailed maps of how these elements work together are critical to understanding the complexities of their interactions. Together, the flora, fauna and topographies form a vibrant and diverse Gulf composed of unique neighborhoods — neighborhoods we have not yet charted or cataloged.

Understanding the Gulf’s seafloor, as well as the plant and animal habitats that are drawn to it, helps us more clearly assess and more effectively manage the Gulf’s various assets. From recreational and commercial fishing to energy production and wildlife-watching, these activities depend on our understanding of the Gulf’s seafloor communities.

Support the Marine Mammal Stranding Network

In any crisis, timing and training are key. If a four-alarm blaze engulfed your house, crews of well-orchestrated first responders would come from the surrounding communities to fight the fire, treat the injured and determine the cause. Response time is critical to success, and the advance training and equipment available to first responders can make all the difference in an emergency. If, on the other hand, you are a pilot whale beached in the shallows of the Everglades, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network is your crew of first responders, trained to respond, treat, and determine the cause of the emergency. Unfortunately, there is only one trained response group for every 1,200 miles of Gulf shoreline, and essential sources of funding for equipment, training, and forensics have been eliminated.

Sadly, this funding was cut just as the Gulf is experiencing escalations in the numbers of stranded and dead animals found on its shores. With these emergencies on the rise, increased support for the response effort will greatly increase the chances of survival for many of the dolphins and whales in the Gulf.

Develop Best Practices for Releasing Fish Offshore

Offshore anglers practicing catch-and-release fishing can see their well-intentioned efforts go to waste. Released fish bloated with expanding gasses often float on the ocean’s surface and struggle to return to the Gulf’s seafloor, leaving them vulnerable to predation and lethal physical stress. Some popular Gulf bottom-dwelling fish, such as snappers and groupers, commonly experience dramatic physical effects, known scientifically as barotrauma, when they are reeled in from the deep. These effects are similar to “the bends” that SCUBA divers experience, and are often fatal for fish. This does not have to be the case.

Barotrauma research on Gulf fishes is in its infancy, but there are promising signs that rapid descent of the fish in something as simple as a weighted milk crate can decrease mortality upon release. Understanding the science of what happens to released fish and developing best-release practices that minimize and reverse injury could help more fish survive and could also support the future of fishing in the Gulf.

If we are to fully recover from the BP disaster and effectively combat other decades-old problems, we must view restoration as a single package comprising integrated activities that restore marine waters, coastal watersheds, and the communities that depend on them. Without restoring all, we risk recovery that is incomplete and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

 

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My Personal Journey from Despair to Hope Four Years After the BP Oil Disaster (Part 1) http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/17/my-personal-journey-from-despair-to-hope-four-years-after-the-bp-oil-disaster-part-1/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/17/my-personal-journey-from-despair-to-hope-four-years-after-the-bp-oil-disaster-part-1/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:45:55 +0000 Kara Lankford http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8090

Kara Lankford flies in a Black Hawk helicopter to assess damage done by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Four summers ago, I was in a Black Hawk helicopter overlooking the Alabama beaches, helplessly watching oil roll in from the spill on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. I was working as a natural resource planner for Baldwin County on the Alabama Gulf Coast when Deepwater Horizon exploded, and the first reports of the tragic loss of life stopped me in my tracks. As the days went on, it was evident that this was not only a human tragedy but also a serious environmental disaster. As the oil continued to gush from the well, oil projection maps were published daily, and each day the oil grew closer to the Alabama coast. Suddenly this place where I had spent so many happy days was about to change, and change dramatically.

Mobile, Alabama is my hometown, a small port city on Mobile Bay. I’ll never forget the trips to the beach during the summer with my big sister and fishing at Cedar Point pier near Dauphin Island or Gulf State Park in Orange Beach. I still recall how proud I was to a catch a mullet or a flounder, if I was lucky. These fond memories helped shape my passion for the Gulf and drove me to pursue an environmental degree during college, so that I could help protect the things I loved so much about the coast. Little did I know that the Gulf would experience one of the worst environmental disasters in the world.

While working for the county I attended meetings at Incident Command, the logistics center for the oil spill response. There, the county government decided to place oil booms in strategic locations in an effort to protect the fragile salt marshes. About 200,000 feet of boom was placed in the county limits alone. We flew in Black Hawk helicopters once a week to make sure the boom was still in its proper place. On one flight, we began to see the oil moving in; the colorful sheen was unmistakable. Skimmer boats attempted to remove the oil from the water before it reached the beach, but the beautiful white quartz sand where I used to build sand castles as a kid was already stained orange from the oil. Oil spill cleanup crews took the place of sunbathers and parasails on the beach. Seeing all this from the air was devastating. Reports of oiled pelicans and dead dolphins filled the news stories each evening. I remember thinking that I would have to move elsewhere instead of watch this destruction play out in a place so dear to me.

Eighty-seven days slowly ticked by. After many attempts to cap the well, it was finally over, but not before 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the vast Gulf ecosystem. The following months would not bring much peace. By the winter of 2010, I was working as a natural resource advisor to the crews working to clean oil from the Alabama coast. By this time, most of the oil was weathered and in the form of tar balls and large mats just offshore. Most of my time was spent with the crews working in the back bays of Orange Beach. It was amazing how far the oil traveled into the back bays. The crews cleaned tar balls ranging in size from a dime to larger than your hand. On occasion I worked the beach front where heavy equipment called sand sharks sifted the oil from the sand. Each time the Gulf was churned up by even a thunderstorm, more tar balls would wash up on the beaches. This was our new reality.

As 2010 came to an end, I began working for Ocean Conservancy as an outreach specialist in Alabama and Mississippi. My work brought me closer to my fellow Gulf Coast citizens, and I began to consider the resilience we exhibit in the face of disasters. This is home. After a hurricane, we rebuild, but I wondered if it was possible to rebuild after an oil spill. Act now and stay tuned for Part 2 of this post to see if this devastating disaster could somehow be made into a positive opportunity for the Gulf of Mexico.

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Interview with Marine Mammal Researcher Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael on the Stranding of Dolphins, Manatees and Whales http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/15/interview-with-marine-mammal-researcher-dr-ruth-h-carmichael-on-the-stranding-of-dolphins-manatees-and-whales/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/15/interview-with-marine-mammal-researcher-dr-ruth-h-carmichael-on-the-stranding-of-dolphins-manatees-and-whales/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 13:50:57 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8055

This blog is part of a series of interviews with scientists who are championing marine research in the Gulf of Mexico.

We know there was a very significant increase in the number of marine mammal strandings observed following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael talks to Ocean Conservancy about her work to respond to strandings when they occur, collect data to better understand these strandings and put together public outreach programs to prevent them in the future.

Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael is the senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and associate professor of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama. Her research seeks to better understand the biological and physiological responses of organisms to environmental change. She also studies how nutrient enrichment and pollution, coastal structures, climate change and harvest pressure affect coastal habitats and species. As the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network coordinator, she serves as a first-responder for dolphins and other animals that get stranded on the Alabama coast.

Ocean Conservancy: Why do marine mammal strandings occur in the Gulf of Mexico?

Dr. Carmichael: Marine mammals strand for a variety of reasons, some natural and some influenced by people. Most often, in coastal Alabama, animals strand after death and the specific cause of death is unknown, but may be related to illness or disease, natural or man-made environmental stress, problems during calving, old age, or human interactions. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) makes information on strandings available to the public.

OC: What exactly do marine scientists mean by the term “stranding,” and how historically extensive has this problem been in the Gulf?

Dr. C: Stranding refers to animals that wash ashore or are otherwise trapped or stuck in a location that is not normal or favorable for survival. This may occur when carcasses wash ashore after death or when animals are alive, such as dolphins ‘beaching’ or manatees orienting to a wastewater treatment plant outfall and failing to migrate when water temperatures turn cold.

OC: Can you talk specifically about dolphins and strandings, and what types of environmental conditions in the Gulf cause strandings?

Dr. C: In coastal Alabama the peak stranding period is usually in the spring, consistent with one of the two broad peaks in calving in our area. But strandings can and do occur year round. Since early 2010, the region has experienced an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), the cause of which has not been determined. Hence, relationships to overall conditions in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem are hard to define. We know that timing and location of some strandings have been related to extreme cold events and an associated spring freshet in 2011. We also know from NOAA research that some animals have been in poorer body condition and experienced disease.

OC: As the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network (ALMMSN) coordinator, you are the first call when someone reports a stranded animal. Tell us about your experience responding to those emergency calls.

Dr. C: Because the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding network responds to all marine mammal strandings (cetaceans, such as dolphins and whales, as well as manatees), our response is divided based on federal oversight for these species.

I personally take all emergency calls for manatees in the states of Alabama and Mississippi that come into our 24-hour emergency hotline for strandings, sightings where the animal is still on site, and other issues of immediate concern. I then either respond directly, report the issue to enforcement if it involves harassment, or dispatch a team to respond depending on the nature of the call and the location of the event. In the case of manatee strandings, this usually means salvaging a carcass for necropsy the next day by a team of staff and volunteers. We have only had one known live manatee wash ashore in Alabama, and unfortunately that animal was in such poor condition that it could not survive transport. We do not hold or rehabilitate manatees.

For cetacean response, I have an excellent stranding coordinator, Noel Wingers, who takes all emergency calls for these species and makes decisions regarding direct response or dispatching a team, depending on the situation. In the case of cetaceans, which are under the northern Gulf of Mexico UME and managed a bit differently, response is also a bit different in terms of whether a carcass is salvaged or sampled and disposed of after necessary data are collected. For live cetacean strandings, in every case, we follow National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) guidance regarding how animals are handled, transported and where they go for rehabilitation. The details are different for every case. We do not transport or rehabilitate cetaceans.

We also rely on assistance from municipal, county and state authorities to assist with moving and disposing carcasses in some cases, and we are very grateful for their support and cooperation.

OC: It has been four years since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began – what is the status of the ongoing research in your area of expertise? Are you as far along as you and your fellow researchers hoped to be by this point?

Dr. C: Since 2010, we have been unable to conduct any research on biological samples from stranded marine mammals. As the result of litigation over the UME, all samples taken from stranded marine mammals in the state of Alabama have been collected by NOAA. We don’t know when or if we will be able to retain samples or have previously collected samples returned to continue our regular program of diagnostic study.

OC: Is more work needed to establish clear baselines for healthy and sustainable populations of marine mammals in the Gulf? What still needs to be done? And how would you explain its significance to the public?

Dr. C: Yes, more data are needed to establish baselines. Very little research has been done on stranded marine mammals in the north central Gulf of Mexico, and Alabama in particular has been a ‘black hole’ for data. We have had inconsistent stranding response and data collection in the past. With the establishment of the ALMMSN at Dauphin Island Sea Lab we hope to provide continuous, consistent and scientifically rigorous data collection from stranded marine mammals to better and more rapidly define causes of death, define relationships between environmental variables and stranding patterns, and enhance survival of live stranded animals. A major need is funding to operate the ALMMSN and to train dedicated long-term personnel who will build capacity for future stranding response and research on marine mammals. The only way to ensure recovery and conservation of marine mammals throughout the region is to properly outfit and support operation of dedicated consistent stranding networks. We also require additional data on live animal populations in the region, including data on genetics, population structure, contaminant exposure, health and body condition, feeding dynamics, reproduction and interactions with other populations, among other basic ecological data that are not available for our area.

OC: There are many animals on the Gulf Coast that can get stranded in addition to dolphins, including whales, manatees, turtles and sea birds. Can you tell us more about the importance of these species and their role in the ecosystem?

Dr. C: Many of these species are threatened and endangered. All are part of our community heritage and the natural resources that make up a healthy Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. And many are sentinel or key species that reflect broader ecosystem health and function, with implications for commercial fisheries success and human health risks. They all also support local economies as part of a growing regional ecotourism industry.

OC: We know there was a very significant increase in the number of strandings observed following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. For example, 930 strandings were reported in the northern Gulf between February 2010 and April 2013. But these large numbers are just numbers to many people. Can you put these numbers in context? Has anything like this happened before?

Dr. C: Our stranding network is relatively new, but we can look at mean numbers of strandings reported historically in our area and make some comparisons. For example, in the past in Alabama (2007-2009) there were about a dozen strandings reported each year. During 2010-2013, numbers of strandings ranged from 25 to 60 animals each season. It is important to note that during historical periods, stranding response was sometimes inconsistent and we suspect strandings were under-reported, but this difference is still substantial, with at least two to five times more strandings after 2010.

OC: Given that strandings occurred before the BP oil disaster, are there patterns to the strandings that suggest causes other than exposure to oil? Your research with William M. Graham, Allen Aven, Graham Worthy and Stephen Howden suggests water temperature changes and unusual freshwater discharges may have played significant roles. The research also identified diet, nutrition and food web changes as likely contributing factors, correct?

Dr. C: Natural physical and chemical attributes of any system can affect when and where animals strand. These attributes interact with but do not preclude other factors that cause mortality. For example, a disease might result in mortality but the local water flow patterns may determine when and where the resulting carcasses wash ashore. Similarly, colder than usual temperature or exposure to oil related contaminants could affect the abundance, distribution and condition of prey species available as food for dolphins and other predators in affected areas. Altered food supply could, in turn, affect dolphin condition and susceptibility to disease or other stresses. Exposure to oil-derived substances could also directly affect the condition of animals in ways we don’t fully understand or have yet to discover. Hence, all of these factors can interact to directly, and indirectly, affect stranding dynamics.

OC: Lastly, why, after four years since the UME began, are the marine mammal stranding networks on the Gulf Coast still struggling to get the resources needed to carry out this important work?

Dr. C: I cannot answer for other networks, but in the case of the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network at DISL, we are relatively new. It takes time to build a relationship with the public and with other stranding authorities, train personnel, and build infrastructure. We are very fortunate that we received support in our early months, during and just after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster from NMFS and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation for basic start-up equipment and response activities. We have excellent colleagues in the stranding network and the NMFS southeast region, who have helped train our personnel and answered many questions. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have also been very supportive of our efforts.

It is also important to understand that all of the stranding networks in the Gulf of Mexico are over-extended in personnel time and other resources due to responding to the higher than usual number of strandings during the Gulf of Mexico UME. This has been the longest duration UME in Gulf history. As a result, most stranding networks remain in need of some additional support to maintain response quality and consistency. In Alabama, we have the added burden of beginning and institutionalizing a new program. This investment, however, is already paying off. Alabama now has a nearly four-year record of responding to 100 percent of marine mammal strandings reported in the state, providing mutual aid to neighboring networks, and performing full data collection, including biological sampling on 100 percent of the carcasses for which such data collection is appropriate. We are working hard to build stranding response capacity, to no longer be the ‘black hole’ for data in our region and to establish baselines needed to evaluate the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, as well as prepare for, assess and respond to future catastrophic events.

OC: As an interesting side note, many folks in Alabama are probably familiar with the manatee license plates, stickers, and signs associated with the awareness program that you started in order to change people’s perception about Alabama’s resident manatees. Can you tell us about that outreach program, and what inspired you to start it?

Dr. C: We started our outreach campaign for manatee awareness in Alabama for two main reasons. First, we wanted to enlist the help of the public to learn more about when and where to find manatees in our area and to gather and analyze these publicly sourced data in a measurable way to support our subsequent research. Many Alabama and Mississippi residents are on the water regularly and have an opportunity to see these animals, but in the past, nobody was collecting and assimilating this information. We wanted to give the public a place to consistently report sightings in a specific way that would make them useful for us and other end users (including the public) to learn about manatee habits and habitat use. By reaching out to the public we could get them involved and functionally increase our knowledge about these animals and their movements in our area to support conservation.

Second, we wanted to use this program to share data back to the public and other authorities and let them know that manatees are here in local waters, and because of public participation in our research, we know more. We could then let local residents and policy makers know when and where to expect to find manatees in our area to guide boating practices, coastal project planning, habitat conservation and restoration activities. Our data combined with historical data we compiled allowed a change in classification of manatees from Accidental to Priority for conservation in our area now that we know these animals are regular at least seasonal visitors to our local northern Gulf of Mexico waters. Our data have also been useful to better understand home range of manatees throughout the Gulf of Mexico region between our local waters and Florida, which contributes to Gulf-wide resource conservation and management for this endangered species.

More from This Blog Series:

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