Marine biologists along Alabama’s Southern Coast are battling strong winds and a fast approaching deadline, trying to prepare for what now looks like a certain environmental disaster from the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Researchers from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab have been working feverishly for the past three days gathering fish and water samples near fragile estuaries, which provide breeding grounds for oyster, fish and shrimp. They hope the data they collect before the spill reaches the coastline could give them a better idea of the environmental impact and how to clean it up.
Dr. George Crozier runs the Marine Biology program at the ocean research center which rests on the tip of a small island along Alabama’s Gulf Coast. He says although the white sand beaches, and the tourism dollars they bring to the area, are very important, cleaning up oil from oyster beds and marshlands will be much harder than the beaches.
“The aspect of this going deeply into hurricane season is just a terrible uncertainty,” Dr. Crozier says. “It’s not good, because that will obviously put it on shore. It might be good for the Gulf, but I hate to speculate.”
Dr. Crozier is most concerned with the physics of how the oil will behave and the impact the massive coating will have on wildlife. He says toxins and aroma associated with the light crude will largely dissipate and evaporate as it makes it’s way across the Gulf.
“This is the fertile crescent, a good percentage of the seafood production in the Gulf of Mexico is east of the Mississippi River,” Dr. Crozier says. “And I am not equipped to tell you it’s going to be this many dollars, but if we are looking at a decade of impact with reduced production I think that’s my long-term concern.”
Once the oil washes ashore, impacting estuaries and grassy marshlands along the Gulf Coast, Dr. Crozier says crews have a few tactics to clean-up the damage. One method, called bio-remediation uses genetically engineered micro-organisms to break down the oil. But crews could also use a clean-up and renewal tactic from Mother Nature’s playbook — burning the marshes. Crozier says marshes recover from routine, lightning-sparked fires and it would be less harmful than most other clean-up methods.
“If it gets in oyster reefs and grass beds — terribly productive areas — you don’t exactly run a vacuum cleaner over it,” Crozier says. “The grass beds are particularly fragile in our part of the world. So even trying to clean it would probably destroy them.”