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Advisory Board Gets Oil Spill Update

By DAVID RAINER

Meeting at Shelby Fisheries Center at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board received an update recently on the impact of the oil spill on Alabama.

Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley recruited two marine scientists – Dr. George Crozier and Dr. Bob Shipp – to give the advisory board the latest information on the massive spill that released 4.9 million barrels of crude into the Gulf.

Crozier, executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said there was some debate during the spill whether the federal government should have taken over the effort to plug the gusher.

“Like I said from the beginning, the federal government doesn’t have the capacity to stop something like this,” Crozier said. “When I say capacity, they don’t have the gear; they don’t have the knowledge; they don’t have the people. It was foolish to think they could. The oil industry should.”

Crozier said the question of the marshes, the oyster reefs and the grass beds – and to some extent, the beaches – are aspects of the oil spill that should be of particular concern to the advisory board.

“I made a lot of enemies to the east of us by saying the beaches were the least productive and easiest to clean up,” Crozier said. “I’ll stand by that. I’m sorry it hurt some people’s feelings. I simply feel that is true. What beaches grow are tourists. And that’s a good thing because they bring dollars with them.”

Crozier said one of the major tasks ahead for marine scientists will be to try to determine what the long term impacts will be. Having a baseline may prove invaluable for Alabama in that respect, a baseline derived from research done by Crozier and his staff on a nine-square-mile area where an LNG (liquid natural gas) terminal was proposed off the Alabama coast earlier this decade.

“That site we know extraordinarily well,” he said. “We know everything that lives on the bottom and in the bottom. We took samples of the eggs and the larvae. We think the eggs and larvae are going to be the most susceptible to being severely impacted by the spill. We’ve got all that data from the bottom to the surface.

“We’ve continued to take eggs and larvae and thanks to the governor and the commissioner we’ve extended it to 35 miles south. We take samples essentially every 10 feet in the water column.”

Lawley said that the research done by Crozier and the sea lab gives Alabama solid data to use in settlement negotiations with BP.

“The baseline study that Dr. Crozier did out to 35 miles out, neither NOAA nor any other state in the Gulf have that kind of information,” Lawley said. “Why that is so important is that it gives you a beginning point. We know where we were before the oil spill. We better than anybody know what our losses will be because of the work they’ve done.”

Crozier showed the board photos of the jars with the eggs and larvae that were taken last year and jars with sample taken this past June during the height of the oil spill. The containers from both samplings appeared to have similar proportions of material.

“The thing is that when we begin to analyze this material, we will be able to give the state some idea if there has been an impact,” he said. “It will be quantitative and we’ll know it species by species. I think that’s the value of the work we’re doing. It gives us real data to plug into the fisheries data.”

While the oil appears to be gone from the surface of the Gulf, Crozier is still concerned about oil that is likely suspended in the water column and could have an effect on the microorganisms and base species that are filter feeders – like bay anchovies and menhaden – in the Gulf.

“The big question for now is going to become: Did the dispersant work and keep it out of our marshes and off the beaches and out of the grass beds?” he asked. “Did it work effectively? What are the consequences of keeping it in the Gulf of Mexico? This worries me, because I don’t think anybody really knows what those consequences are. There is quite a bit of debate of where it is and how much of it is there, as well as what is the toxicity and degradation rate because of the dispersant use.”

Crozier has confidence that the natural ecosystem will bounce back. He is concerned that the human population that uses the Gulf for recreation and commerce will be as resilient.

“I’m worried about that,” he said.

Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA) and the newest member of the advisory board, said now that the wellhead is capped his major concerns are in three areas – the water column, the ocean bottom along the Alabama Gulf Coast and the saragassum grass offshore.

“Alabama has the greatest red snapper fishing in the world,” Shipp said. “If there is any one fishery we’re concerned about with the impact of the oil is the red snapper fishery. We have about four-and-half percent of the coastline in the Gulf, yet we catch about 35 percent of the snapper. There’s a reason for that.”

Shipp then showed the advisory board footage from a remotely operated camera of the different structures that congregate snapper. The red snapper are so plentiful on some of the structure that it obstructs the view of the camera beyond a few feet.

Since the oil spill, USA Marines Sciences has collected about 600 red snapper for sampling and the results are very encouraging.

“We’ve some analysis of their livers and less than five percent show any sort of anomalies, which is what the natural numbers would be anyway,” Shipp said. “So we anticipate the waters off Alabama will be open around Labor Day. And as many have heard, we are going to have a fall snapper season starting the first of October.”

Of course, those snapper must feed on something and it’s the base of the food chain that is Shipp’s major concern.

“One of the things about the anchovies and microorganisms is they’re filter feeders,” he said. “One of the things that happens every night from depths of 1,000 feet or 1,500 feet there is a nocturnal migration of these planktonic organisms. They get to the surface at night to feed, breed or a variety of activities and then when the sun rises they sink back down to the bottom. This happens every single day, every single night.

“These plumes of oil – that 70 percent we don’t where it is – that’s what they have to pass through every night and every morning. If anybody says they know the outcome, they’re wrong. We simply don’t know, and they are the base of the food web.”

A video of a mat of sargassum floating in the Gulf revealed a number of species of fish and other creatures using the sargassum for cover.

“There are between 100 and 150 species that are totally dependent on sargassum in one way or another,” Shipp said. “The sargassum plays the same role for highly migratory species like billfish, tuna and mahi mahi that grass beds and oyster reefs and marshes do in our estuarine waters.

“Sometimes the sargassum will windrow and be miles long and several hundred feet across. Unfortunately, sargassum soaks up oil like a sponge.”

Shipp said the bluefin tuna only spawns in two places – the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea. Sargassum creates a safe haven for the young tuna before they migrate into the Atlantic Ocean.

“If the habitat is OK, the species will respond very quickly,” he said. “If the habitat is destroyed, we will have a very serious problem.”

There was also great news for anglers, both commercial and recreational, off the Alabama, Mississippi and Florida Panhandle. NOAA Fisheries has reopened the waters out to the 29°30'N line in the Gulf of Mexico at 5 p.m. Thursday, just in time for the big Labor Day weekend.

 
PHOTOS (by David Rainer) Conservation Advisory Board member Grady Hartzog, right, presents certificates of appreciation from Gov. Bob Riley to Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley (top) and Board Chairman Dan Moultrie at the recent meeting on Dauphin Island.
 
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