The Administration Should Protect Economic Engine of the Gulf: Marine Life

For five weeks now, we have watched the Deepwater Horizon disaster spew oil and toxic dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t a simple spill on surface water. It is an ongoing, deepwater catastrophe occurring in one of the most productive marine environments in the world.

Yet the Obama Administration’s response hasn’t matched the scale of what is needed to protect aquatic life in the Gulf.

The Gulf’s marine ecosystem generates an enormous amount of economic growth, job creation, and cultural resources. And yet the government still hasn’t been able to say how much oil is rushing into that ecosystem or how dispersants are affecting the fish. If agency scientists are studying these questions, they haven’t shared their data.

It makes me realize that while the Gulf of Mexico has two economic engines--drilling and fishing--only one of them has real political clout.

Some folks view Louisiana as a subsidiary of the oil industry, but if you look at the economics of coastal communities, oceans-based resources should be given more weight.

  • According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, in 2008, the commercial fish and shellfish harvest from the five Gulf states was estimated to be valued at more than $661 million at the dock--the value increases as fish moves up the retail supply chain.
  • A NMFS report found that 6.2 million recreational anglers spent $2.2 billion on more than 23 million fishing trips in the Gulf in 2006.
  • Recreational activities such as beach visits, recreational fishing, diving, and snorkeling along the Gulf Coast are estimated to generate between $8.3 billion to $34.2 billion.

This is what the oil disaster could undo.

I saw the human toll for myself when I traveled to the Louisiana coast a few weeks ago. I met fishermen who told me their bank accounts are in sync with the fishing season: they stretch their money to last until they can go out on their boats and earn more. Only this year, they can’t. And no one knows how long the closures will continue or how next year’s harvest will be effected.

Why the Open Water Matters

Fishermen are rightly concerned about the impact oil is having in the wetlands--a critical breeding ground for fish and shellfish.

But the open water is also terribly important in the marine life cycle, and this is a deepwater blowout. The top 300 feet of water is where the bulk of the food chain exists. This is where sunlight penetrates and plants to grow.  The invertebrates graze on the plants and the fish eat the invertebrates.

This chain of life could prove highly susceptible to both oil and dispersants. Scientists are especially worried about the eggs and larvae that have just arrived with spring. Many have no scales and are essentially permeable, making them sensitive to toxins. Experts predict significant death rates.

Meanwhile, if the dispersed oil gets taken into bottom water on the shallow continental shelf, it could pose another problem for commercial fishing. Some of the most productive Gulf fisheries are grouper and snapper, both of which like the complex bottom habitat of reefs and sponges. Oil would jeopardize that habitat.

Waiting for the Administration to Share Information

The truth is we don’t know where the oil is right now or how it is affecting fisheries. We don’t know if government scientists have been charged with assessing impacts on marine life. The administration’s response has been so opaque that we don’t even know how many research boats are actively on the open water and what data they are collecting.

I can understand that cash-strapped agencies needed time to respond to a crisis of this size, but they have had more than a month. It is well past time for the administration to develop a comprehensive monitoring and damage assessment plan and begin executing it.

We must start understanding what the oil is doing to the Gulf. We must learn how to restore its marine life or we risk loosing it its economic and cultural vitality.