The Blog Aquatic » oil spill News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:21:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 BP Oil Marring Deep-Water Corals 13 Miles Out Thu, 31 Jul 2014 19:09:33 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Photo: Fisher lab, Penn State University

Deep-water corals keep good records, which come in handy in the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Researchers from Penn State University discovered this week that the impact of the BP oil disaster on corals living in the cold waters at the Gulf of Mexico seafloor is bigger than predicted.

This study joins dozens of others on fish, dolphins and birds as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a legal process that’s critical for tracking the damage that started four years ago at the bottom of the Gulf. Scientists first discovered corals coated in a brown substance only 7 miles from the now-defunct BP well in late 2010. The oil left over from the disaster is more difficult to find in the deep sea (in contrast to the coastline, where the occasional 1,000-pound tar mat washes up on shore), so scientists must look to corals for clues on how the marine environment was impacted. “One of the keys to coral’s usefulness as an indicator species is that the coral skeleton retains evidence of the damage long after the oil that caused the damage is gone,” said lead researcher Charles Fisher.

As you can see in the photo above, the normally gold-colored coral has a number of patchy brown growths, which is not found on healthy coral colonies. This coral has been damaged by BP oil.

So how did the oil get so far away from the source? Since these corals are deeper and further away than those previously discovered, Fisher said it could mean that the oil plume could have been bigger than we thought. Potentially, more oil sank to the seafloor than scientists originally predicted.

Not surprising, BP is already trying to refute the scientists’ work, claiming that the corals could have been oiled by the oil and gas that naturally seep up through the Gulf seafloor. However, natural seeps release only 40,000 gallons a day through small cracks in the seafloor across the entire Gulf of Mexico, from Cuba to Mexico to Mississippi. BP released seven times that—2.5 million gallons a day—in one part of the vast Gulf. It seemed obvious that so much oil over a concentrated area of the seafloor would have serious impacts on our deep-sea corals, and after years of careful study, researchers are now providing the scientific links to document those injuries.

Photo: Ocean Conservancy

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800,000 and Counting: The Soaring Deepwater Horizon Bird Death Count Thu, 22 May 2014 18:21:58 +0000 Alexis Baldera
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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Preserving Wildlife and Preventing Shipwrecks in the Aleutian Islands Tue, 06 May 2014 21:17:41 +0000 Whit Sheard

Photo: Alaska Dept of Environmental Conservation Spill Prevention and Response

Forming the southern boundary of the Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands archipelago stretches for more than 1,000 miles. This windswept and remote region is home to a rich diversity of fish species, birds that migrate from all seven continents, and marine mammals ranging from endangered Steller sea lions to humpback whales. Although this unique ecological area has been designated a National Maritime Wildlife Refuge and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it continues to face the impacts of oil spills and other pollution from the global shipping industry. As shipping along the Aleutian Island segment of the ‘Great Circle Route’ connecting North America and Asian markets has increased, so too has the number of catastrophic accidents and near-misses involving some of the largest vessels in the world.

On December 6, 2004, the cargo vessel Selendang Ayu, which was carrying 66,000 tons of soybeans from Seattle, Washington to Xiamen, China, experienced engine problems. The 738 foot long ship was shut down and allowed to drift while repairs were made. The ship drifted along the Aleutian chain, but the captain did not call the U.S. Coast Guard immediately. When the crew was unable to start the engine the following morning, the weather had worsened and the Selendang Ayu was dead in the water—and taking the full force of 35 mph winds and 15 foot waves.  By the time the Coast Guard was alerted and rescue vessels arrived on the scene, winds were exceeding 60 mph, with waves reaching 25 feet.  Despite the efforts of rescue crews, the extreme weather conditions forced the grounding of the Selendang Ayu near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Tragically, several of the ship’s crew members were killed when a helicopter crashed while attempting to rescue them. The ship eventually broke in half, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel, which is more toxic to the environment than crude oil.

The death of crew members, a large oil spill, and the resulting impacts to wildlife, including thousands of dead birds, are horrific.  It gets even worse though: this tragedy could have been avoided. These sailing conditions are not extraordinary and with thousands of vessels transiting the Aleutian Islands every year, the dangers are well known. Due to the remoteness of the region, however, U.S. prevention and response regulations that apply to other areas in the country have not been enforced. In the wake of this tragic incident and several near-misses since then, however, several important lessons have come to light. First, we need vessels to operate with a higher standard of care. It was later discovered that the M/V Selendang Ayu parent company had criminally neglected maintenance of the ship’s engines. Second, increased efforts must be made towards prevention, including increased vessel tracking and reporting. If the captain or a third party monitoring the vessel had reported the situation to the Coast Guard immediately, the response would have been quicker. Third, although some might argue that full compliance with U.S. and State of Alaska regulations may be cost prohibitive, simply waiving those provisions is irresponsible. We must do more and avoid another tragedy like the Selendang Ayu.

Photo: Whit Sheard, Pacific Environment, and Alaska Center for the Environment

With prodding from the conservation community, part of the settlement funds from a criminal plea agreement with the owner of the Selendang Ayu went to funding a multi-year quantitative risk assessment to overhaul every aspect of shipping through the Aleutian Islands. Ocean Conservancy currently sits as the primary conservation representative on the Advisory Panel and we have been working with the State of Alaska, the Coast Guard, the shipping industry, federal wildlife managers, fishermen, and others to bring forward a comprehensive package of measures to make sure that the Aleutian Island region is protected.

We have also focused on practical measures that can be implemented immediately. Some of these measures include better coordination of emergency tugs transiting the region, increased tracking and monitoring of vessels, an emergency towing system based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and a system that routes vessels away from shore and through the least dangerous passes along the archipelago.

At the conclusion of the risk assessment we will finalize our consensus recommendations and turn our attention to implementation and funding of the more detailed recommendations, which will include obtaining protections through the International Maritime Organization, increasing spill response equipment in the region, and requiring state of the art tugboats that can prevent future tragedies like the Selendang Ayu and preserve wildlife and livelihoods in the Aleutian Islands.

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Oil and Ice Still Don’t Mix in the Arctic Wed, 30 Apr 2014 15:05:36 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

On April 23, the National Research Council (NRC) released a new report that reviews state of science and technology with respect to spill response and environmental assessment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Ocean Conservancy provided recommendations and comments to the NRC as it conducted its research last year.

Now that the NRC has published its final report, we are pleased to see that it confirms what we’ve known all along: there are major barriers to effective oil spill response in Arctic waters. These include lack of information, lack of infrastructure, and lack of preparedness to deal with adverse environmental conditions.

Knowledge gaps: baselines, data on physical and biological status, and understanding of the fate and behavior of oil under sea ice conditions are all inadequate.

The NRC report correctly notes that effective spill response and recovery requires a “fundamental understanding of the dynamic Arctic region.” Unfortunately, current knowledge of the Arctic marine environment is plagued by significant gaps. For example, the NRC found that existing data in the Arctic “do not provide reliable baselines to assess current environmental or ecosystem states” and cannot fully anticipate future impacts. It also determined that “[p]opulation sizes and trends for most U.S. Arctic marine mammals are poorly known,” and “shoreline and hydrographic data are mostly obsolete, with limited tide, current, and water level data and very little ability to get accurate positioning and elevation.” Other shortcomings? Spill trajectory models “have not been calibrated for the full range of environmental factors encountered in the Arctic” and “reliable oil spill trajectory models for oil fate and behavior under sea ice conditions have not been established.”

Infrastructure: equipment and services needed to support response teams are insufficient.

In addition to these knowledge gaps, the NRC report found that the Arctic’s lack of infrastructure “would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill.” Responders would be confronted with “a severe shortage” of basic services including “housing, fresh water, food and catering, sewage handling and garbage removal facilities, communications infrastructure, ability to handle heavy equipment, supplies, and hospitals and medical support.” Despite the U.S. Coast Guard’s best efforts, the NRC report concluded that “personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic.” In short, spill response personnel would likely be unable to react quickly to an oil spill without “improved port and air access, stronger supply chains, and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

Arctic environment: challenging environmental conditions in the Arctic create increased risk for responders.

Environmental conditions in the Arctic present another serious problem for oil spill response. The NRC report recognized that “Arctic conditions impose many challenges for oil spill response—low temperatures and extended periods of darkness in the winter; oil that is encapsulated under ice or trapped in ridges and leads; oil spreading due to sea ice drift and surface currents; reduced effectiveness of conventional containment and recovery systems in measurable ice concentrations; and issues of life and safety of responders.”

While the NRC report is dense and detailed, its overall message is simple: “[m]arine activities in U.S. Arctic waters are increasing without a commensurate increase in the logistics and infrastructure needed to conduct these activities safely.”

Fortunately, the NRC report contains a series of important recommendations designed to remedy some of the shortcomings that the report identified. Implementing those recommendations will take commitment, time and resources. But four years after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, those are recommendations we should not ignore.

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My Personal Journey from Hope to Restoration Four Years After the BP Oil Disaster (Part 2) Fri, 18 Apr 2014 11:00:21 +0000 Kara Lankford

Photo: Sarah West

2010 marked a changing point both for the Gulf and for me personally. There is a distinct dividing line  ̶ before the disaster and after the disaster. I’ve now worked for Ocean Conservancy for over three years and, as I look forward to the potential opportunities that will arise to make the Gulf healthier, stronger and more resilient. I find myself hopeful. Many times it takes a tragedy or a disaster to make us appreciate what we have. I took the Gulf and all the things it offered throughout my life for granted. Now more than ever I want to protect, preserve and restore this beautiful place. The long road to restoration won’t be a walk in the park. In fact, it will be a marathon.

As impacts emerge, I’m reminded that, even though the oil has stopped flowing, the harmful effects will be felt for years to come. Over the course of the last year, three important stories have emerged about impacts to the Gulf ecosystem:

  1. Dolphins in Barataria Bay are showing severe signs of poor health;
  2. An area of 24 square kilometers at the bottom of the Gulf surrounding the blowout site was severely impacted; and
  3. Multiple studies have been conducted to determine how oil impacts offshore marine fish, such as bluefin tuna.

In order to fully restore the Gulf of Mexico from both oil impacts and prior degradation, it will take a comprehensive, holistic approach from the coast to the deep sea. This includes the coastal communities impacted by the spill. It won’t be an easy task and will require some growing pains and the ability to adjust and overcome obstacles. Restoration projects should be guided by the best available science, they should be regional in nature, and a rigorous, adaptable monitoring program should be built into each project. Lastly, all projects should be fully vetted by the public. This disaster affected Gulf Coast citizens at a very local level, and they should have a voice in the restoration process.

When we think about how to restore the Gulf, many folks would imagine rebuilding oyster reefs or replanting marsh grass. These activities are tangible and near the shore. But, when we try to picture deep-water restoration, the picture gets a little fuzzy. How does one even begin to restore this mysterious place? In order to answer this question Ocean Conservancy convened experts from around the Gulf Coast to identify projects that would restore the marine environment. A critical piece of the restoration puzzle, a comprehensive Gulf of Mexico marine habitat map, was among restoration options identified. Mapping the Gulf would tell us what type of habitats exist, and where, as well as what condition they are in at this time. It would also provide a tool that allows scientists to more accurately study the abundance and health of fish populations, and provide fishery managers the information needed to better sustain a healthy fishing industry. It’s a unique project, building knowledge rather than habitat. The BP disaster brought to light the unfortunate lack of baseline scientific information we have on the Gulf’s ecosystem. In order to restore what was lost, we must first know what was there. Without good scientific data and a good understanding of both the species and their habitats, restoration efforts are not complete.

The challenge at hand is restoring an ecosystem so precious to us and our way of life. Gulf restoration is personal to those who call the Gulf home. Each day, I’m reminded of the magnitude of this task before us. We have one chance to get this right. When I look back 25 years from now at what has been accomplished, I hope I look back with satisfaction at a course well charted.

That’s why we’re asking BP to do their part. They’ve spent almost four years and millions in ad buys telling us they’d take responsibility for the disaster. And what we’re asking is simple: BP, put your money where your mouth is, keep your promise and make things right in the Gulf. Take action today!

To read the first part of this series, please click here.

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Galveston Oil Spill Threatens Multibillion-dollar Investment in Gulf Wildlife Thu, 27 Mar 2014 20:00:01 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Photo: Laronna Doggett

This week, as we recall the moment that the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef just off the coast of a sleepy Alaska fishing town 25 years ago, a similar scene unfolds on the other side of the country. Under heavy fog, a barge traveling through Galveston Bay, Texas, collided with another ship and leaked an alarming amount of oil into the bay from its 168,000-gallon fuel tank. Due to bad weather, the oil is spreading quickly and has been spotted as far as 12 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Response teams are busy trying to contain the oil on the water’s surface with boom and skimmers, but the damage has already been done. Spring is a crucial time for bird migrations in Texas, with an estimated 50,000 shorebirds and seabirds roosting at the Bolivar Flats Refuge only two miles from where the spill occurred. Our partners at Audubon and Galveston Bay Foundation are on the ground reporting a number of birds that have been found oiled. The surface oil also poses a threat to dolphins and turtles, which frequently surface in the bay. The endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles living in the Gulf nest almost exclusively on the coasts of Texas and Mexico.

This time of year is also critical for spawning fish, including red drum, mullet and menhaden, which use the estuaries near the coast to spawn before returning to the ocean. Also, the fishing season is about to get underway off the Texas coast, and this latest spill is terrible timing for Texas’ nearly $2 billion-dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry. It is well established that crude oil is toxic to pink salmon and zebrafish eggs and larvae, and a recent study has established that the same types of abnormalities occur in Gulf species, such as tuna and amberjack, when exposed to crude oil. Researchers studying the impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster determined that fish eggs exposed to relatively low levels of crude oil suffer from deformed or abnormal hearts. Therefore, it is highly possible that fish eggs and larvae exposed to oil in Galveston Bay will be similarly impacted. It is crucial that we monitor and track spawning fish and other animals and any lost fishing opportunity as we begin to pick up the pieces from the recent oil spill in Texas. This information will help ensure that we fully account for injury to natural resources or lost services like fishing or beach use and hold the responsible parties accountable.

This barge spill is unfortunately not the first in the Gulf, and if history is any guide, it likely won’t be the last. While not nearly as large a spill as the BP oil disaster, the Galveston Bay spill is another in a series of historical spills around the Gulf among decades of degradation. These stressors add to the challenge of restoring the Gulf to a healthy, productive ecosystem. However, as a result of the BP oil disaster, we now have the opportunity to restore the Gulf by addressing once and for all the underlying problems. Comprehensive and integrated restoration can help improve the Gulf’s productivity and strengthen its resiliency to future events such as oil spills, harmful algal blooms and hurricanes.

The RESTORE Act, along with monies from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, could give us an unprecedented amount of resources to invest billions of dollars in penalties from BP into projects that restore the Gulf ecosystem, as well as the communities that depend on it. Some of these restoration projects benefitting key species like shorebirds, fish and oysters are already underway, and exposure to the Galveston oil spill could hinder their recovery. With this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the Gulf whole again, we simply can’t afford to have accidents like this that threaten this multibillion-dollar investment in our ecosystem.


NOTE: If you see an oiled animal, do not handle it. Call the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management at 888-384-2000 to report oiled wildlife. For more information and opportunities to volunteer, visit the Houston Audubon Society’s website

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Four Reasons Why an Arctic Oil Spill Could be Catastrophic Tue, 25 Mar 2014 14:00:42 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Photo: NOAA

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Oil from the tanker eventually affected roughly 1,300 miles of coastline, some of it more than 450 miles away from the site of the spill. Experts estimate that the spill killed roughly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the biggest oil spill in the world, it is still widely considered to have caused more environmental damage than any other.

The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good opportunity to evaluate the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic. In recent years, oil companies have expressed great interest in drilling in Arctic waters off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. In addition, decreasing levels of summer sea ice mean that Arctic waters are experiencing more vessel traffic. Both drilling and shipping activities have the potential to cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic region. What lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill can be applied to the Arctic?

• Be realistic about our ability to clean up spilled oil. Of the 11 million gallons of oil that spilled in Prince William Sound in 1989, responders were able to recover only about 14 percent. More recently, during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, on-water skimming resulted in the removal of just 3 percent of the total volume of oil released. In other words, once a significant volume of oil is in the water, it is all but impossible to remove it effectively. In fact, no existing technology has proven effective in removing oil from icy water, or cleaning oil that has collected under sea ice.

• Things won’t be any easier in Arctic conditions. The Exxon Valdez spill occurred in the comparatively sheltered waters of Prince William Sound, where environmental conditions were relatively favorable for spill response. In contrast, if an oil spill occurred in Arctic waters, response efforts could be hampered by extreme cold, fog, hurricane-force winds, low light conditions or constantly changing ice conditions. In fact, it is likely adverse weather, sea or ice conditions would make it impossible to implement any spill response measures at all for significant periods of time.

• Deploying spill response assets in the remote Arctic will be a significant challenge. The U.S. Arctic is incredibly remote. There are no major highways at all. Only two airports in the region can handle cargo planes, and they service only a small fraction of the Arctic coast. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard base is 950 air miles from Barrow, Alaska, and the nearest major port, Dutch Harbor, is more than 1,000 miles from proposed drilling sites in the Arctic Ocean. In the case of an oil spill in the Arctic, remoteness and lack of infrastructure would be major obstacles to the effective deployment of spill response assets.

•Impacts could be catastrophic. A significant oil spill could cause irreparable harm to the Arctic marine ecosystem. Arctic waters are home to species found nowhere else on earth, including polar bears, ice-dependent seals and bowhead whales. Thousands of seabirds depend on the region’s rich waters. Arctic people are also part of the ecosystem. Many Arctic communities engage in subsistence hunting practices that stretch back for untold generations, and their food security is directly linked to an intact marine environment.

The stakes are high in the Arctic, and we must make informed and thoughtful decisions about whether, where and under what conditions we allow industrial activities. The most ecologically sensitive areas—including areas that support subsistence hunting activities—should be off-limits to industry. In areas where development is permitted, there should be a rigorous focus on preventing oil spills by insisting on the highest safety and environmental standards.

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, there is still oil beneath the surface of some Prince William Sound beaches. By taking a cautious approach to industrial activity, we can help ensure that Arctic waters and coasts avoid the same fate.

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