Walking the Beach

Walking the Beach
BP Surveillance Team in Pass Christian on Memorial Day Weekend

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Out of the Chaos

My day started relatively early. I had a 1 1/2 hour drive from Gulfport, MS to Fair Hope Alabama, were I was going to meet my guide for the day, Mr. Tim Gothard. Tim is one of the National Wildlife Federation's most influential affiliate leaders. He has run the Alabama Wildlife Federation for nearly 12 years, and has grown the organization in terms of members, operating budget, and influence.

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.

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