Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Thursday, July 29, 2010
A couple weeks ago, I blogged regarding my trip across the gulf coast – the images fromf that trip, in my opinion, were frightening; the incursion of thick, brown goo into Louisiana marshes, into the inlets and waterways of Alabama, and onto the sugar white sand beaches of Florida. In those posts, I introduced you to some of the players in the area, the leads and supporting actors, all with a role in the unfolding drama that is the Gulf oil spill.
My focus then was on some of the dynamic of the oil spill: in “silence is golden,” I wrote about some of the observations I had regarding the reluctance of BP workers to talk about what they were seeing and experiencing as part of the clean-up and protection efforts; in “Out of the Chaos,” I wrote about the unexpected reconnection, and sometimes new connection among people and communities as we join forces to face this environmental, economic, and psychological dimensions of the oil threat; in “who’s on first,” I went on a search for a unifying strategy that would tie together response activity in the gulf in the form of a coherent strategy – I found very little.
During the next couple days, I am back in the gulf area – focused more on some of the more exciting, and high-stakes activities in the gulf meant to support wildlife. In the next few posts, I will write about the work to rescue gulf sea turtles! The species that I’ll focus on today is the loggerhead sea turtle. The loggerhead is found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. It spends most of its life in saltwater and estuarine habitats, with females briefly coming ashore to lay eggs. Loggerhead sea turtles have a low reproductive rate; females lay an average of four egg clutches and then become quiescent, producing no eggs for two to three years. The loggerhead reaches sexual maturity within 17-33 years and has a lifespan of 47-67 years.
Loggerheads are considered an endangered species and are protected by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature. Untended fishing gear is responsible for many loggerhead deaths. Turtles also suffocate when they are accidentally trapped in fishing trawls. Turtle excluder devices (TEDs) have been implemented in efforts to reduce mortality by providing the turtle an escape route. Loss of suitable nesting beaches and the introduction of exotic predators has also taken a toll on loggerhead populations. Efforts to restore their numbers will require international cooperation since the turtles roam vast areas of ocean and critical nesting beaches are scattered among several countries.
The realities of the loggerhead’s already fragile continued existence means that the oil spill in the gulf has pushed the species just that much closer to the brink. Nature’s strategy for insuring that loggerheads persist is to have them lay large quantities of eggs – it is not uncommon for a nest to have 100 – 200 eggs. The challenges of predation and the vagaries of living along side humans on increasing populated beaches/traditional nesting areas means that the oil has reduced, even further, the probability of hatchlings reaching adulthood.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has undertaken a bold project – to relocate hundreds of sea turtle nest that are now on gulf beaches to the east coast of Florida. In order to do this, the eggs have to be removed from the nests and transported across the state to places where they can hatch, and the hatchlings safely (safer-ly ….ok, I made that word up) released into the fresher waters of the Atlanta. Recently…as in yesterday (July 28, 2010), at 6:30 in the morning, Jeremy Symons, Senior Vice President for the National Wildlife Federation, my son, Jay Hammond, and I were allowed to tag along to observe the harvesting of a loggerhead nest. It was an amazing, and rare opportunity (see the story that appeared on the NBC nightly news recently Sea Turtle).
Finally, once the eggs are place gently in the boxes, and thermal couples are placed in the boxes, amongst the sand taken from the nest and eggs, the lid is sealed and the egg count attached. The precious cargo is ready for transport to the trucks, and then on to a brave new beginning. Just for your information, there are no eggs in the box Jay is holding -- we were allowed to observe only. We were never allowed to touch the eggs or the nest at any time --this requires trained professionals, so please, please do not attempt any high sea recues on your own -- there is too much at stake.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
The low tech clean up may serve one purpose -- putting more people to work, etc.. When I thought about it on my drive from Pensacola to Tallahassee, it made some sense. If you use low tech methods of cleaning the beach, you employ more people, and give the clean-up effort the look and feel of a massive operation, which it will be and is for some time to come. The more people you have organizing worker packets, placing worker packets, using worker packet, collecting dirty worker packets...well, you get the picture...the more people who are able to benefit from being employed by BP -- that is a good thing...right? Of course it is, people who might have been struggling to find a job before the oil disaster are now able to find employment that pays well enough to give $160 tips (I am sure not all workers are able to show such generosity) -- but you get the point. On the surface, the low-tech clean-up is a good idea for many reasons...on the other hand, there are some alternative explanations that could account for the employ of low tech methods.
The battle for the hearts and minds of the American public has begun for BP. It will be a long and protracted battle that will be waged in private and public places. During my stay in Venice, La I had first hand experience with BP hires who were unwilling to say anything about working conditions, work objectives, or anything else that might remotely be perceived as negative towards BP. These people were trying to hold on to their jobs -- and I get it, I really do. Here is the issue -- in their battle for the hearts and minds of workers, BP has taken away the voice of those likely to have been most impacted by the gulf tragedy. Who speaks for the young Black men who were afraid to have their picture taken with me because " 'they' don't want us talking to anyone," or the security guard who held/hid his/her badge from me when she confessed that conditions for the workers is too harsh and the hours are too long
This is going to be a long and protracted campaign, balance is going to have to be struck among the interests that are trying to be served. From workers to wildlife, from corporations to NGOs and from state and local to federal and international there has to be a better, more strategic approach to prioritizing what and how things get done. If not, there is a real possibility that the considerable investment being made by all will be ineffectively and inefficiently deployed. There is a role for coordination across these interests, and it is unclear to me who is attending to all the interests in a transparent and deliberate manner. And of course there is the PM (post-media) moment -- when the cameras are turned off, and the next story emerges -- it is precisely while the eyes of the world are upon us that the time to demand that accountability and responsibility be established and communicated.
Tomorrow, I will summarize some of the key lessons I have learned during my trip. I welcome any thoughts, questions or comments you might have regarding any of the observations I have made. These ramblings have been meant to give a view of the situation on the ground. There are many aspects (and views) that I have not covered, because they have not been part of my experience here -- what I have attempted to do is to give you a broad sense of the scope and scale of the issues that are and will continue to emerge as the Gulf gusher continues to give us grief.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Tim is very busy, but agreed to put aside his duties for a day to introduce me to people who are able to shed some light on what is happening with the oil disaster, as well as take me to see places where the incursion of the oil can be seen plainly on sandy beaches and in once pristine bay waters.
Our first meeting was with LG Adams, Manager for the Weeks Bay Reserve, located on the east side of Mobile Bay. The Weeks Bay Reserve encompasses 6,000 acres of land and water in and around Weeks Bay and along Mobile Bay. The Reserve has a free educational interpretive center and two boardwalks. We talked for 2 hours about efforts being considered for protection of the Bay. LG shared that soon they will be audience to several vendors wishing to sell the latest in oil removal technology. As we talked I suggest that they visit Louisiana, and other impacted areas so that they can develop a context for being able to assess the technology presentations. In order to observe, and report any place or wildlife impacted by the oil from the spill, the reserve is currently deploying a volunteer surveillance effort constituted by its members.
We next traveled to the University of Southern Mississippi to visit with Dr. Robert Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama; additionally, he has served 14 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and is currently serving as its chairman. Dr. Shipp was also recently appointed the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board by Gov. Bob Riley. He has also overseen and participated in years of research on red snapper off the Alabama Gulf Coast. In a recent on-line article for which Dr. Shipp was interviewed, he had this to say:
“The thing that’s scary is the habitat. If you destroy the habitat, then they won’t be able to snap back. That’s what we’re worried about over the long term – destruction of habitat. If we lose a year class of snapper, it’s bad, but next year we’ll have another year class. The same is true for blue crabs and mahi mahi. If the sargassum or grass beds or oyster reefs are destroyed, then we have a really, really bad long-term problem.
Shipp thinks the focus now is to do whatever we can to save the habitat and not worry too much about what’s going on with individual species. “Sargassum is such an important habitat that is being overlooked,” he said. “I don’t know how one can go out and protect it, but sargassum is every bit as important as grass beds and marshes.”
Almost all the highly migratory species – mahi mahi, billfish, tunas – are dependent on the floating beds of sargassum, which serves as a nursery area for those species. Along with the majority of marine scientists, Shipp thinks it’s a bad idea to apply dispersants to the spill.
“We don’t want the oil down in the water column or on the bottom where it gets into the sediments and starts traveling through the food chain,” he said. “There are so many unknowns regarding the composition of dispersants. Not only that, when the oil is on the surface, some of it evaporates. Some of the toxic components go off into the atmosphere. That’s not going to happen if it’s under water."
In Dr. Shipp's comments he mentions Sargassum. It is not uncommon for pieces to break away from floating collections of the material, and become displaced on beaches. What is uncommon, is having Sargassum covered with oil, rendering it useless to fulfill its role of providing nourishment and protective cover for maturing species (see examples taken today of normal and oiled Sargassum).
Clearly whatever is being used to chemically disperse the oil and/or to mechanically keep it off the beach is not working effectively. Below are several pictures I took today at Orange Beach and Predido Pass. The pictures on the beach are, of course Orange Beach, and the others were taken at the pass, where construction crews are building a steel barrier that they hope will keep the oil out -- unfortunately, oil has already seeped pass the incomplete barrier, and is soiling the booms and absorbent material that has been placed in the water near the board walk.
As Tim and I approached the beach, I did not know what to expect. I assumed we would have to look pretty hard to find "tar balls," or "pancakes," terms used to describe oil deposits floating or stationary, based on the size and configuration of the oily mass. When we crested the dune, what I noticed first were the size of the waves - 6 to 8 feet. The strength with which they struck the beach was impressive -- the sound deafening. At first, I didn't notice the blobs of goo in the sand -- I thought that surely all this could not be oil, alas, I was incorrect -- it was oil. A lot of oil. Scatter across the beach, and also beneath the sand in places. Tim said that this wasn't as bad as it had been over the past couple of days -- which made me wonder, "if this isn't bad, what would a bad deposit of oil on the beach look like."
In the above pictures you see: me standing over a "pancake" of oil that has washed ashore, in the middle picture, one can clearly see the striated lines left in the sand by oily sheen, and finally in the last picture, the oil has soaked the once white absorbent material. The first two images were taken at Orange Beach, the third near Perdido Pass. In several places along the beach, staging areas were being built; porta potties had been delivered, shelters were rising, and miles of boom lay neatly packaged...in plastic. Ironic.
As Tim and I rode around southern Alabama, we had time to talk, and get to know each other. Tim, a native of Alabama, has lived here just about all his life, his wife is from Alabama -- and his daughter is in college at Alabama. He has a teenage soon with whom he loves to go fishing. Standing at the railing in Perdido Pass, looking out over the water, I could not help but wonder what must have been going through his mind...what was he hoping for...praying for.
Then, it dawned on my -- he was probably thinking, hoping, and praying for the same things I did a few days ago, when I rode out to Bay Jimmy in Southern Louisiana, and observed miles of marsh soiled with oil and dying along the coast of Louisiana, my home state. It is interesting, Tim and I are of an age that we would not likely have played as friends growing up; we would have lived in different parts of the city, had we lived in the same city (either in Louisiana or Alabama). Me black, he white -- there wouldn't have been a lot of experiences that we would have shared growing up -- at least that is what one would think, at first glance...on the surface. Our deep affection for our home states, and some of the traditions and rites of passage, we share -- like fishing, football, and love of the outdoors are some aspects of us that can not be seen. In the wake of great challenge some times people come to realize a common humanity. We come to realize that there are some ties that bind -- and some of those ties are made of a common thread. The sooner we realize that the better we'll be able to take on what is about to come -- this, as bad as it is, is just the beginning.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
As I answer a few early morning emails and text messages, the smell of coffee wafts through the condo, . The first cup is the best. On the back deck overlooking the boat slips and canal that runs like a street between the houses, I watch the early morning sun and the stirring of life in the marina.
Half way through my first cup, someone’s phone rings – it is a captain agreeing to take us out. He assures us that the water, and consequently the ride will be rough…but that if we want to go, he is available. We all agree we should take advantage of the opportunity. A quick shower, a few granola bars, and off we go to Myrtle Grove Marina; which, in addition to being a marina, seems to be a staging place for trips to where the heavy oil is located.
As we arrive there are several aspects of this place that strike me. The security guard, and gate posted up front bar entrance to any who are not badged and official. Around the side of the gate, to the right, non-official vehicles are able to park and carry on the business of the day. In the common area, available to both badged and non-badged personnel, there is a convenience store selling water, snacks and bait. There is a little porch in front of the store there serves as a sitting area – there, I find several men, sitting, smoking, talking on the phone and to each other. At first, I stay with my companions, but soon , as is my custom, I venture out to meet a few of the fellows sitting, waiting. I am drawn to two men, and introduce myself, and they do the same. Firm handshakes and amiable smiles were offered and accepted. One of the men is from Las Vegas – he is in town specifically to work with BP and the oil spill…he was not terribly talkative, neither was he unfriendly – just leery. As the conversation slowly unfolds, Nevada get's up and leaves.
The other man introduces himself as Skipper – That's me and Skipper in the photo on the right. Skipper is from the Chitimacha Indian reservation in St. Mary Parish of Louisiana. There are 720 registered Chitimacha. The 2000 census reported a resident population of 409 persons living on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation. Of these, 285 were of solely Native American ancestry. Since coming to work on the oil disaster, Skipper has not been home in 36 days…BP is paying for a room where he lives while he works with them. Before coming to Myrtle Grove, Skipper worked as a fishing boat captain of a small vessel – work had been slow, so money from this job is appreciated. Skipper and I shot the breeze while I waited for the boat that was to take me out on the water….he was waiting to learn if he would have to work that day or not. The menacing clouds over head suggested that he, and others waiting around the sitting area would likely not have to work because of the rough seas…but no one seemed to be interested making a determination one way or the other, and the frustration was building among the men who were not working. Skipper tells that it is not uncommon to have to come out and wait, and wait with nothing to do. When I asked Skipper about this, he said he didn’t mind because he and the others were getting paid by the day…whether they worked or not. As we sat that there, already 3 hours into the work day, others were getting up and drifting toward their cars and heading away from the marina…”sneaking off” as Skipper described it --- which is what he intended to do himself after a few more minutes.
Eventually, our captain arrived, and we were able to get on the water – it looked like we would be soaked with rain, but the weather held, and we got to see some of the impacted areas. Here I need to clarify something I shared with you earlier. Yesterday, I reported that the oil in Louisiana was a mile or so off the coast of Venice and southern Louisiana. The reality is that some of the oil has made it into the marshes and is effecting the habitats and wildlife that is there. Oil making it inshore is well dispersed, it is not the long undulating ribbons as it is off-shore, rather, it seems to appear episodically, makeing it so difficult to attack -- look at the pictures of the marsh. As impacted and oiled as this salt grass is, we saw not one sign of oil in the water. What is interesting is that the optics of the spill on the grass pictured here are probably better than the actual situation -- because of the relatively high water level (because of the storm and rain from the previous day) -- the bulk of the oil is below the water-line, out of our field of vision.