On a typical spill (a term that I am trying to decide whether it is an oxymoron or not), on or about this time, wildlife field operations are in full swing, the largest number of animals are being (or have been) collected, and facilities are bustling with activity. Tempers are short, Starbucks runs during breaks challenge the carrying capacity of most small sedans, pizza begins to lose its appeal at dinner, and you either put a second pair of insoles in your rubber boots or covet your neighbor’s Muck Boots.
However, this spill is very, very different – especially for one so large and so frightening in its potential. To date, while we have collected over 30 dead sea turtles and two dead dolphins in the general area of the spill, none have had evidence of external oiling that we have detected visually (though animals have been externally sampled following defined protocols such that they can be chemically analyzed to see if oil residues are present, and will have full necropsies done at a later date). On the bird front, only two live oiled birds have been collected so far – both of which are in the capable hands of IBRRC and Tri-State.
Normally I would be overjoyed at this lack of overt animal impact. No, overjoyed is a significant understatement (something I am accused of frequently); it is a running-in-the-middle-of-the-street-dancing-like-Gene-Kelley-in-the-rain feeling of relief and thankfulness for the lack of animal suffering. On this response, though, it is almost like getting dressed up for a party that you didn’t really want to go to, but one that you know you have to make an appearance at, and where it’s unclear how many people will be there. All the readiness, planning, facility development, supply purchases, coordinating with agencies, countless meetings and conference calls, and working through the alphabet soup of the ICS structure (“Yes, Mr. Logistics Section Chief, I am submitting my 213 RR form, signed by the Wildlife Branch Director and the Operations Section Chief, to request a freezer truck identified in the ICS 215 so that I can fulfill the activities identified in the ICS 204 to collect animals to report on the ICS 209 for the next operational period”) in the anticipation of large numbers of animals being affected is warranted, but is this lull what we should expect in the days to come, or is the Sword of Damocles really about to come crashing down?
This pause has also given me some time for think about the other real and potential effects this spill can have even if animal numbers remain lower than we expect. Fisheries have closed, affecting the livelihoods of many fisherman in this area. This is particularly resonant with me, as I experienced similar events during the Cosco Busan spill but, more strikingly, while in Spain assisting in the Prestige oil spill with the IFAW/IBRRC team. On the one day I was able to steal from the facility (over a three week span, so borrow is probably a better word), I accompanied Joan Embery to a local fishing pier to examine the effects of the spill (and, in full disclosure, I fell asleep in the back of the car on the way to the beach). There, an angry mob of women were grouped on the pier, clearly extremely upset. Joan, never one to shrink from an interesting event, marched right into the fray and, through her knowledge of Spanish, was able to speak with them about their vitriol towards the spiller and the government. Underlying this, though, was a true sense of desperation, as approximately 70% of the Galician economy relies on the sea for their livelihoods, and it was clear the anger actually was masking the fear and sadness beneath. That is an experience I will carry with me forever, and one that has helped me broaden my understanding of the multifactorial effects of spills.
Another aspect to this current event that I have also had the time to ponder more fully is the overall effect that this volume of oil can have on the environment beyond the macrovertebrates that we are attempting to protect. I have been asked many times during this spill by numerous sources about my feelings of dispersant use in large volumes. I said (and still feel) that it is truly the lesser of two evils, due to its reduction of the immediate effects on birds, mammals and turtles. As Yvonne Addassi taught me, dispersant use takes a two-dimensional slick into a third dimension, diluting the oil into the much larger volume of the water column. This not only dilutes the overall “dose” of the oil, but it also removes it from the surface where the primary exposure to the most “sensitive” wildlife might occur – birds that rest on the surface which can lose their waterproofing, and mammals and turtles that breathe and feed at the surface which can cause significant gastrointestinal and respiratory damage. However, this solution does come at a cost. This oil does not disappear – it simply is no longer as visible (or available, for lack of a better term). It may be taken up by other organisms, possibly biomagnifying into the food chain. It may sink, going to the bottom of the Gulf and affecting the sessile organisms there. The dispersant itself may have toxic consequences, as much is currently unknown of long-term effects of such compounds on macroorganisms. However, as I said before, the ecological tradeoffs that this (as well as in-situ burning of the oil) gives to the wildlife present, as well as the potential for reducing the shoreline effects into the lush, beautiful and fragile ecosystem, make it well worth the cost in my estimation.
Whew! Who knew this side of The Wall would be so serious? It must be time for a break in the action. I am happy to announce that I have scheduled a surprise guest blogger for tomorrow’s look into the Deepwater Horizon spill – not only for the fact that I don’t have to think of something to write at 10:30, but because I am truly looking forward to him/her joining us. Y’all come back tomorrow evening now, ya hear?