Scientists on the front line
Tireless efforts could ease the impacts on environment and the area’s economy
— ON THE GULF OF MEXICO
The fight to stave off the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and protect the Gulf Coast’s delicate ecosystem was more than evident last week off the coast of Mississippi. Coast Guard aircraft crisscrossed the sky as a small fleet of boats worked feverishly to lay oil-skimming booms to protect Horn Island.
Meanwhile, the research vessel Tom McIlwain eased quietly from its slip at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) in Ocean Springs. Carrying a small team of scientists, the ship headed offshore on a mission of vital importance to the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s economy.
Harriet Perry, director of GCRL’s Center for Fisheries Research and Development, explained that the team would be collecting samples of marine life, which would be carried back to the lab for evaluation. That data would then be used as a baseline to gauge any future impact on Mississippi’s marine life from the oil spill.
She was quick to point out that even if the oil never reaches Mississippi’s coastline, it could still have a crippling effect on Mississippi’s marine life, which is the foundation of the Coast’s economy.
“Shrimp and crab spawn offshore, move inshore to mature, then return offshore,” Perry said. “So, an impact offshore could be devastating to us.”
As the boat slipped passed the booms protecting the vital marshlands of Jackson County, Jim Franks leaned against the door of the wheelhouse and gazed across the Mississippi Sound. A fisheries biologist at GCRL’s Center for Fisheries Research and Development, Franks came to the GCRL as a student in the early 1960s and never left.
Franks is a grizzled veteran of disasters. He rode out Hurricane Camille in the student dormitory. He lost his home to Katrina, and spent months in a FEMA trailer. Yet, the oil spill is an entirely new experience for him.
“It’s the uncertainty,” he said. “We just don’t know”
Franks admitted that he had always been concerned about a Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But, those concerns eased over the years.
“We went all of this time and had no incidents,” he said. “I figured that the technology had advanced to the point that a spill was less and less likely. Now, this.”
While the uncertainty dominated the scientists’ conversation, Chris Snyder said the mood was much better than it was the week before when it seemed landfall was imminent. Director of GCRL’s Marine Education Center, Snyder said the situation then “looked dire.” Still, his level of concern remains high as he has already seen the economic impact of the spill.
“Until they get the flow of oil stopped, the uncertainty will remain,” Snyder said.
Snyder heads GCRL’s program that brings school children to the lab for marine education. He had just learned that a group from Oklahoma had scratched due to concerns for the health of the children. Other groups were calling daily, getting updates and seeking advice as to whether or not to bring children to the lab. He estimates that the spill had already cost the lab $25,000 in revenue from group cancellations.
“What am I supposed to say?” Snyder asked. “It’s fine today, but I don’t know about tomorrow. It’s like someone asking if rain is good. Well, yeah, unless it rains for a week or something. I just can’t answer their questions. I don’t know, and no one does.”
Listening to the scientists’ conversation, it was surprising to hear few disparaging remarks directed at BP, operator of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded April 20. Many said they couldn’t believe the redundant systems and safeguards all failed, allowing 5,000 barrels of oil a day to spew into the gulf. But, they seemed more perplexed than angry.
Ironically, the only oil-fighting effort that has been deemed successful so far drew heated comments from the researchers. Reports are that chemical dispersants have had a telling effect on shrinking the oil slick. The scientists wonder, though, if the dispersants are as harmful as the oil itself.
Dr. Joe Griffitt, assistant professor of coastal sciences, said the dispersants are proprietary products. Their ingredients vary from one company to the next. Griffitt said research has shown that the dispersants can impact larvae development and fish production, and are toxic to some organisms.
Franks said, “As long it is away from land, I have no problem with burning the oil. I prefer that to the dispersants. I at least know what fire is. I don’t know about the dispersants, or their effect on marine life.”
The fertility of the Mississippi estuaries and the abundance of its marine life were more than apparent during the Tom McIlwain mission. The boat’s crew first dropped its trawling net in open water a couple of miles outside the barrier islands. The first trawl produced a single, small fish. A second trawl was more successful, netting perhaps a dozen organisms, which a pod of enterprising dolphins tried to steal from the net as it was brought aboard.
Looking for better “fishing,” the boat moved back inside the islands and dropped the net again. This time, hundreds of organisms were netted, ranging from anchovies and squid to trout and catfish.
“We’re in the estuary now,” said Franks about the large haul. “This is why this area is so important. It’s the salinity level of the water that makes it so productive. It looks so vast, so robust. But, really it is extremely delicate, and the entire Coast economy depends on it.”
(Photos by Wally Northway)
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