The Blog Aquatic » gulf of mexico http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:21:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Interview: Deep-Sea Researcher Dr. Samantha Joye on Microbes in the Gulf http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/06/interview-deep-sea-researcher-dr-samantha-joye-on-microbes-in-the-gulf/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/06/interview-deep-sea-researcher-dr-samantha-joye-on-microbes-in-the-gulf/#comments Wed, 06 Aug 2014 13:29:13 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8943

Dr. Samantha Joye aboard the research vessel Atlantis with the submersible Alvin in the background. Credit: Antonia Juhasz

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

Dr. Samantha Joye is a Professor of Marine Sciences in the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She is an expert in biogeochemistry and microbial ecology and works in open-ocean, deep-sea and coastal ecosystems. Her work is interdisciplinary, bridging the fields of chemistry, microbiology and geology. Following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Dr. Joye joined a team of scientists in the Gulf, investigating oil plumes from the disaster in the open ocean of the Gulf, which at the time BP claimed did not exist. Her team’s discoveries proved that there was more oil and gas in the water than BP and government agencies had predicted. She continues to study the impacts of the BP oil disaster, as well as the ecological processes at natural oil and gas seeps in the Gulf, Arctic Ocean and in the Guaymas Basin.

OC: How long have you been conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico, and what are your current research interests?

Dr. Joye: I embarked on my first Gulf of Mexico cruise in 1994, and I did my first submersible dive on that cruise. I was completely enthralled and totally hooked on deep-water exploration from that instant. I began working in the Gulf in earnest when I joined the faculty at Texas A&M University (College Station) in 1995. I have been working in the Gulf since that time. My research interests include understanding the environmental and physiological factors that regulate microbial hydrocarbon degradation in the Gulf’s waters and in both shallow (upper meter) and deep (>5 meters) sediments. We are interested in the cycling of a wide spectrum of hydrocarbons, ranging from methane to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. We are also interested in the metabolic potential and capacity for hydrocarbon degradation (i.e., determining which microorganisms are there naturally, their abundance, and how fast and how well do they respond to large hydrocarbon infusions like that resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster).

OC: Here at the Ocean Conservancy offices, we have been following the deep-sea expeditions in the Gulf this summer, watching the live feeds, and listening to the scientists discuss what they are seeing. We would love to hear more about these cruises from you. What types of information have you been collecting? What have you learned on the cruises?

Dr. Joye: Our cruise in April 2014 was on board the R/V Atlantis. It was the first official research cruise using the newly renovated human occupied vehicle, Alvin, which was very exciting for us. The goal of this particular cruise was to visit and sample sites impacted by the Macondo blowout and to sample two types of very salty seafloor ecosystems called brines. Seawater is salty; it contains about 35 grams of salt per liter. However, in some places, super-salty brine fluids occur. Brines are defined as fluids containing more than 50 grams of salt per liter but some deep sea brines contain almost 10 times the amount of salt as seawater. Our saltiest site contained about 340 grams of salt per liter. We are studying two types of brines: those derived from ancient salt dissolution (which contain mainly sodium and chlorine and are sulfate-free) and those derived from gas hydrate formation (which are basically concentrated seawater and thus contain sulfate)

Our research cruises are intense; we conduct operations around the clock. Alvin operations occur between 8a.m. and 5p.m., and starting around 6p.m., we collect water and deeper sediment samples through the night. We also do geophysical surveys at night and during transits between sites to search for interesting seafloor geological features and gas and oil plumes. Being an oceanographer requires that you are able to thrive in this intense environment, where sleep is a luxury and where focused, hard work is required around the clock. It’s worth it because each dive presents an opportunity for discovery, and discovery is what it’s all about!

On our April cruise, we discovered some amazing things that we will be reporting in our science blog and in publications during the coming months. But first, a lot more hard work is required in the lab to process all of the sediment, water and brine fluid samples we collected on the ship. Cruises are intense, but it does not stop there. Post-cruise analyses and experiments keep us busy for often six to eight months. Then the phase of manuscript preparation and publication begins.

OC: Some people may not realize that as much as 16 million gallons of oil naturally seeps from the Gulf seafloor each year. How does that compare to the oil and gas that was released by the BP oil disaster?

Dr. Joye: Natural seeps are in no way similar to the Deepwater Horizon discharge, which released almost 210 million gallons of oil from a focused source (the wellhead) over the course of 84 days. Natural seepage releases about 0.04 million gallons a day over the entire Gulf of Mexico, while the Deepwater Horizon discharge released 2.5 million gallons a day in a localized area. If you compare the discharge per area released during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the blown out well discharged orders of magnitude more oil than natural seepage. This was an unprecedented perturbation that led to a large number of unanticipated phenomena and impacts to the Gulf ecosystem even hundreds of kilometers from the discharging wellhead. The chronic impacts of this perturbation are only now coming to light.

OC: Considering that there are natural petroleum seeps in the Gulf, does this lessen the impacts of the BP oil disaster?

Dr. Joye: Absolutely not. Many people argue that since the Gulf is a site of extensive natural hydrocarbon seepage, a large discharge such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster would have little effect on the system. The implicit assumption here is that the system was primed and poised to respond to hydrocarbon inputs because the waters are exposed routinely to hydrocarbons. But this argument has several shortcomings. First, what this assumption neglects to consider is that the offshore Gulf is a blue water system, where the nutrients that fuel microbial growth are sparse and fiercely competed for. Oil and gas oxidizing bacteria require nutrients to build biomass and increase metabolic rates. Nutrient availability may well have limited the degradation of Deepwater Horizon oil and gas significantly. Second, natural seepage inputs are sparse and diffuse so the populations of microbes that eat oil and gas during normal conditions are, in fact, rare. They can respond rapidly, but as has recently been shown, they are often not able to sustain high rates of hydrocarbon consumption. So, how much of the Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbons were consumed by bacteria? I don’t think we know for sure, but I have done some simple back of the envelope calculations of nutrient demands by hydrocarbon degraders, and the results suggest it would be difficult to consume all of the discharged hydrocarbons given the nutrient pool available.

OC: Can you describe what a cold-seep community is and how the BP oil disaster might have affected those in the Gulf?

Dr. Joye: Natural hydrocarbon seeps are magical systems that evolve and change over time. The biological diversity of these environments – which is fueled by oil and gas degradation, driven by the activity of indigenous hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria – is astonishing. I remember vividly my first dive to the Gulf seafloor in a submersible in 1994. When the lights came on and I saw all the odd and amazing organisms living on oil and gas, I was simply shocked. My jaw was on the floor and I knew I wanted to study these incredible systems for the rest of my career, because they are fascinating and because we know so little about what makes them tick.

Natural seep habitats, especially deep-water coral communities which are the “old growth forest” analog of the seep evolution sequence, were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil plume and by weathered oil-containing marine snow, or tiny bits of organic matter that sink down from the surface to the seabed. Dispersants may well have also impacted the organisms at natural seeps, but many more experiments are needed to verify this hypothesis.

OC: A few of your recently published papers have focused on the fate of dispersants in the Gulf, and the impacts of the BP oil disaster on open-ocean ecosystems in the Gulf. Can you tell us more about your research on these topics?

Dr. Joye: Dispersants are complex chemical mixtures that act to break up oil and presumably make it small enough for microorganisms to eat. However, the literature on this is split: few studies show increased hydrocarbon biodegradation after dispersant application, and many show no effect or a negative effect on biodegradation. The Deepwater Horizon dispersant application was made after much scientific discussion and debate. The dispersants were applied to keep oil from reaching the coastline, and the potential impacts on open-water organisms, from microorganisms to fish to sharks, were not known. We still do not know conclusively how dispersants impact microorganisms, but what we do know is that it affects different microorganisms in substantially distinct ways. We need to know a lot more, and we are working diligently to obtain this information by doing detailed experiments in the laboratory. So the jury is out on whether dispersants increase hydrocarbon degradation and on how they impact the structure and function of the hydrocarbon-degrading bacterial communities that they are supposed to stimulate.

OC: During your deep-sea expeditions in the Gulf, have you found significant differences between oiled sites and non-oiled sites, or differences at the same site before and after oil exposure?

Dr. Joye: Both. We had been studying one site, Mississippi Canyon 118, for about five years prior to the oil spill, so we had a very good baseline there. The microbiology and geochemistry of the water column and sediments changed after the discharge. If you compare an oiled site to a non-oiled site, you also see striking differences, irrespective if you are at a ‘control site’ or a natural seep. The oiled sites are distinct in terms of microbiology and geochemistry. The differences are significant and prominent.

OC: How might these impacts affect the larger Gulf ecosystem and food web?

Dr. Joye: The Gulf’s food web starts at the top, and the key there is nutrients. A key question is how much of the nutrient inventory was taken up by oil-degrading bacteria and how much of that sunk to the bottom. It will take a very, very long time to return those nutrients from the seafloor up to the surface where phytoplankton can again incorporate them into the food web from zooplankton to small fish and ultimately big game fish and whales. Food web impacts often take 5-10 years to materialize (i.e., to be quantifiable) because it takes a while to start catching the fish from the 2010 year-class. Other considerations include the impact of oil and dispersant exposure on larval fish; that will also take a long time (5-10 years) to become quantifiable. Finally, there is the consideration of oil and dispersant exposure on adult fish and their health. A recent study by Dr. Steve Murawski at the University of South Florida showed that fish caught recently contained Deepwater Horizon polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in their livers. So the food web impacts from the Deepwater Horizon incident are poorly understood and will take years more of research to fully unravel and understand.

OC: Looking forward to the restoration process, it is clear we didn’t have a good baseline understanding of some of the habitats in the Gulf before the BP oil disaster. How will we know when they are recovered? What are realistic goals for restoration of some of these areas, such as deep-sea and open-ocean ecosystems?

Dr. Joye: Baselines are essential when it comes to evaluating environmental impacts. It is clear that not enough funds have been invested in developing baselines for microbial communities in the open water and seafloor of the Gulf. This is both surprising and disappointing, given the industrial presence in the Gulf. I believe it is in the best interest of the oil and gas industry to devote substantial resources into developing collaborations between industry and academic scientists to obtain such baseline data. What would this require: instrumentation, monitoring platforms, access to research vessels and interested scientists on both sides. I believe all of the required parts are there; the missing piece of the puzzle is funding. Given the amount of money generated by the oil and gas industry in the Gulf, the funding required to generate environmental baselines for the system would be small potatoes (relative to oil company profits), but the value of these baseline data would be immense.

Because we do not know the baseline, it is extremely difficult to judge when the system is recovered. We don’t even know if it will recover to the “baseline”. It could end up at a new steady state.

But there is satellite data that can be use that to evaluate how chlorophyll has changed since the oil disaster and those data can be used to describe pre- and post-spill carbon fixation scenarios. So, it is easier to evaluate the status of the open-ocean system compared to the seafloor system because deep-water corals, for example, grow very slowly. When a 500-year-old coral is damaged or killed by oiling, it will require a very long follow up study to evaluate recovery of that system.

Restoration of these systems is essentially impossible; what we can do is monitor recovery and attempt to understand what regulates its efficacy. That is the goal that many of us are working towards.

OC: It has been over four years since the BP oil disaster – 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. Joye: I am a microbial geochemist. Basically, that means I study the effects of microbial processes on elemental cycles. The Deepwater Horizon discharge served, in essence, as a tragic experiment. Tragic because eleven people lost their lives, and thousands more lost their livelihoods and an experiment because we have never had a marine oil disaster of this scale in U.S. waters. As far as microbial research goes, we have learned a great deal from it and we’ve had quite a few surprises and some interesting debates along the way. We’ve also realized how much we do not know.

Every research cruise we go on, every experiment we do, every time I simply sit in my office and ponder what I’ve seen and what my group and our collaborators have done, these things lead to additional questions that require further observation and experimentation. That’s how science works. Science is not static, and there is no end to it. There is always more work to do, more things to learn, more discovery and more excitement. I feel like we have made a tremendous amount of progress, but we have so much more to do and so much more to learn. In my opinion, we have only now begun to scratch the surface and dig into the details that drive many of the patterns observed during the discharge.

Honestly, I had no idea where we would be four years out because I did not know where the initial studies would lead us, but they have led us to very fruitful ground that will keep us busy for decades, funding permitting.

OC: What research remains to be done in the Gulf? What are the most important gaps we need to fill for research in the deep-sea, open-ocean or other ecosystems you study in the Gulf of Mexico? How can we fill those gaps?

Dr. Joye: The microorganisms that call the ocean home have enormous metabolic potential and, when exposed to perturbations, it is almost certain that some microorganisms are sentinels that could alert us to changes that are occurring in their environment. There are numerous data gaps – we know so little about the physiology of the billions of microorganisms that are present in a few drops of seawater. What are the dominant organisms and how do they respond to perturbation? What about the rare organisms? Who are they and how do they respond to perturbation? We have to understand the language of microorganisms – their language is spoken in terms of their diversity, physiological capacity and ability to tolerate or adapt to perturbation. We have to understand these three things to know what they are telling us when a perturbation occurs, whether that perturbation is a hurricane, ocean acidification or an oil discharge.

But this is my dream – to develop long-term microbial observatories in the Gulf and elsewhere. When I look at what one long-term ocean observatory site has taught us, Station ALOHA off of the island of Oahu in Hawaii, I know that this is a dream that I simply must make come true.

OC: Thanks for your time Dr. Joye! It has been a pleasure chatting with you and we look forward to hearing more about your future research.

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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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New Projects Miss Opportunity to Jump Start Restoration in the Gulf http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/06/26/new-projects-miss-opportunity-to-jump-start-restoration-in-the-gulf/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/06/26/new-projects-miss-opportunity-to-jump-start-restoration-in-the-gulf/#comments Fri, 27 Jun 2014 01:45:58 +0000 Kara Lankford http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8660

© Cheryl Gerber

Today marks another milestone in the process to restore the Gulf of Mexico. But, the news isn’t all positive.  We’ve been waiting four years now for BP to “make it right” for the Gulf and clean up the mess they made when the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. We knew the process of determining how much damage BP had done, sending them the bill and restoring what was lost would take time. This process is known as the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA), and even in the case of smaller-scale oil spills in the past, it has taken years to complete. Knowing that the full extent of damage in the Gulf could take years, even a decade or more, to document, BP and our Gulf leaders decided to speed up the recovery process—a decision that seemed to be a step in the right direction.

If you recall back in April 2011, one year after the disaster began, BP announced in an unprecedented agreement that it would provide $1 billion to begin the much-needed restoration process in the wake of what became the largest oil disaster in U.S. history. This agreement, the largest of its kind ever reached under NRDA, was a hopeful step toward recovery. With this $1 billion “down payment” from BP, the healing process of this vast and precious ecosystem could begin.

But, this agreement was also an experiment—an experiment in how the Trustees will choose to use the NRDA funding in the future, how they will work together, and how they will ensure recovery of the Gulf. Today, the Trustees announced the final list of phase III early restoration projects, most of which are geared toward addressing lost recreational or human use, rather than restoring the Gulf itself. As we watch boardwalks being built and construction crews developing beach-front property with NRDA funding, we must ask ourselves, what are the end results of this experiment? Is this the kind of legacy we want to leave behind? For my part, I see a lost opportunity to emphasize the importance of restoring our precious natural resources consistent with the intent of NRDA.

One doesn’t have to look hard to find evidence of injury. Over the last four years, scientists have documented injury in fish that were exposed to oil and dispersants, found large areas of polluted deep-sea sediments and dead deep-sea corals, and estimated the die-off of massive numbers of seabirds. In addition, sick and dead dolphins continue to wash ashore in unusually high numbers. Yet, only one project has been slated for funding that addresses these impacts.

We are, however, encouraged that the trustees are considering a long-term approach to monitoring for the final Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan for the disaster. But we’re concerned that some Phase III projects may have environmental impacts and in those cases we would encourage further NEPA analysis.

The Trustees were given a never-before-seen chance to begin the recovery process with $1 billion and so far they have largely lost this opportunity to jump-start restoration. The question remains, at what cost to the Gulf of Mexico?

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800,000 and Counting: The Soaring Deepwater Horizon Bird Death Count http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/22/800000-and-counting-the-soaring-deepwater-horizon-bird-death-count/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/22/800000-and-counting-the-soaring-deepwater-horizon-bird-death-count/#comments Thu, 22 May 2014 18:21:58 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8379
According to a new study, scientists estimate that between 600,000 and 800,000 coastal seabirds died because of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, a number far greater than any previous estimate. Understanding the ripple effect of 800,000 coastal birds dying in the Gulf of Mexico is critical to the recovery of this special place. These findings come from a study to be released this summer in Marine Ecology Progress Series, which was recently reported in the New York Times.

This new estimate for bird deaths in the Gulf is unprecedented for an oil disaster. For context, the estimate of dead birds following the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was around 300,000.

What are the ecosystem effects of 800,000 birds dying?

In response to the study results, BP has released statements refuting the methodology and objectivity of the authors. Many of the studies that BP cites as counter arguments have not been shared with the public, and as far as we know, have not been peer reviewed. BP’s veil of confidentiality prevents the public from understanding their methodology and results. This is an obvious double standard, and we must ask ourselves:  who has more to gain from discrediting these findings and underestimating bird mortality than BP?

In order to increase transparency and have an accurate discussion about how to best estimate bird mortality or other impacts, it is necessary for all of the data and methods be on the table. This is critical information that managers and scientists need in order to know the full extent of the injury. And BP is blocking this information because they’re in the middle of a legal battle over the oil disaster.

The bird death  study comes at a time when BP is refusing to pay for key science critical to fully understanding the effects of the disaster on natural resources. This science is part of a series of ongoing studies under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) that BP previously funded. The fact that they are refusing to pay for this science at a time when some NRDA studies are underway, is telling. It is imperative that BP fund ongoing and future NRDA studies. These studies, required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, are designed to assess the extent of injury to natural resources and the subsequent restoration needed to compensate for that injury. Trustee agencies carry out NRDA studies, but the responsible party—in this case BP—is required to pay for them.

As the authors of the new study indicate, it is very likely that even this new examination of bird deaths underestimates the true number of birds killed by the disaster. For example, birds living in the coastal marshes or past 40 kilometers from shore (what scientists call offshore pelagic birds) are not included in the total. The range of impacts estimated in this new study contributes to our evolving understanding of what should be done to restore injured bird populations. Ocean Conservancy is focused not only on tracking the best available science to determine the full impact of the BP oil disaster, but also how we can restore the Gulf’s marine and coastal environments. There are opportunities to use innovative technologies to monitor and restore bird populations in the Gulf. We’ll explore these solutions in a future blog.

To view where some of the coastal seabirds make their home in the Gulf, our Marine and Coastal Atlas has maps of the northern gannet, brown pelican and royal tern.

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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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Victory for Baby Sea Turtles http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/09/victory-for-baby-sea-turtles/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/09/victory-for-baby-sea-turtles/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 11:00:06 +0000 Allison Schutes http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8015

Photo: Ellen Splain

In December, we told you about the launch of an exciting new pilot program called Preserve the Spirit: The Sea Turtle Protection Partnership. The program helps endangered sea turtles to thrive in the Atlantic, around the coast of Florida and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

During the four month pilot project, volunteers in Wrightsville, N.C. cataloged and removed trash from the beaches that serve as critical nesting habitat for sea turtles. Turtle volunteers removed a total of 7,209 items of trash across six sea turtle nesting zones. The information they collect helps us to better understand the threats faced by sea turtle hatchlings in order to help come up with solutions that will help them survive.

Thanks to the generosity of supporters like you, Preserve the Spirit: The Sea Turtle Protection Partnership has been a huge success. We are expanding the pilot program to include beaches in 5 more states. With more volunteers on more beaches, Ocean Conservancy can continue protecting sea turtles and fighting for trash free seas.

Thank you for making endangered sea turtles a priority. We couldn’t have done it without you.

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