Walking the Beach

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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rescue on the High Seas

Well, ok, it wasn’t exactly on the high seas, but it was nothing short of a rescue.

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.

The loggerhead sea turtle is omnivorous, feeding mainly on bottom dwelling invertebrates. Its large and powerful jaws serve as an effective tool in dismantling its prey. Young loggerheads are exploited by numerous predators; the eggs are especially vulnerable to terrestrial organisms. Once the turtles reach adulthood, their formidable size limits predation to large marine organisms such as sharks.

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).

The nests have been marked so that they can be protected from beachgoers, and easily found by rescue workers.

Eggs are delicately collected and placed in specially assymbled boxes for transport to the east coast of Florida. Eggs are collected near the time of thier hatching, and taken to Kennedy Space Center, where they will be lauched (so to speak), boldly going where...well, you get the idea...

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

Who's on first?: The search for a strategy in the Gulf

So, I need to understand something…there is a hole in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, that according to the NYTimes, is spewing out between 25,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil a day. And this is day 73...and how are we going to clean it up? Take a look at the image to the right, I wonder if you are having the same reaction I did. In the image, workers search the beach for tar balls and other forms of oil on the beach. Workers pick the oil up with a shovel, and put it in a small baggie. The baggies are collected and taken to an off-site staging location.

I have seen where oil has invaded the marsh-lands of Louisiana, cand over the once white sand beaches of the Florida panhandle. Thousands of miles of devastation, and millions of gallons of oil yet to visit the marshes and the beaches. Honestly, if this is the best we can do, I say we let the workers go home, and pay them to stay there and watch the unfolding mess on television. I am not upset with the workers, they are doing what they have been instructed to do, in order to receive a pay check from BP (I assume it is from BP). I also assume that some these checks are rather large -- while having lunch on Pensacola Beach, I was told by a waitress today that a colleague of hers received a $160 tip (from one of the workers)...on a $40 bill...but I digress. I just think that in a time when I rambblers like me and create a blog in 25 minutes, and upload pictures, and video (ok, still having trouble with these), with a reasonable expectation that someone will read it -- then we can find a more efficient way of getting oil off the beaches, and out of the marshes. I'm just saying...
The beach clean up is a low tech operation through and through. This morning before I drove to Pensacola, I stopped by Orange Beach, Alabama again, just to see if any progress had been made from yesterday. What I fond there were worker staging stations -- I guess that is what one would call them. There were boots, gloves, brooms and shovels, all wrapped nicely in plastic wrap. Am I the only who sees the irony of this. Maybe its biodegradable plastic -- yeah, ok, I am sure it is. Anyway, the worker staging packets were distributed along the beach as far as I could see. There was also a water cooler, I assume filled with cool refreshing water. And that is another thing - it was 10am when I was there, and it was already 80 degrees and about 100% humidity -- the working conditions are horrible (OSHA, I hope you're reading this) -- but I guess the money is good (see the $160 tip mentioned above). I digress again. I assume that the workers pick up the gear and adorn it before they start removing the oil from the beach the supplied gloves and tools

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.

Stay tuned.