With the second anniversary of the BP oil spill fast approaching, attention is once again returning to the damaged Gulf environment, especially to its greatly diminished oyster production.
The worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history put 200 million gallons of oil and two million gallons of toxic dispersants into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico with the April 20, 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and uncontrolled oil spill it caused.
The Gulf oyster supply is going through a second very limited season with demand not reaching anywhere near pre-BP oil spill levels.
In recent days, plaintiff attorneys on behalf of thousands of Gulf residents and businesses reached settlements with BP’s defense team expected to total around $7.8 billion. That’s in addition to $6.5 billion paid to about 200,000 individuals and businesses that went with BP’s out-of-court fund.
BP, however, has not yet had to pay a dime in compensation for its impact on the Gulf ecosystem. The federal government could pursue both criminal environmental penalties and separate civil action against BP, which together might hit $60 billion.
The oil company is spending millions to promote Gulf tourism and spread an all-cleaned-up image. And top officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are repeatedly brought out to tout Gulf food safety.
But below the surface of Gulf waters, marine scientists keep reporting findings that are not so reassuring. For example, Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures found supposedly harmless tar balls–periodically found on Gulf beaches–teeming with bacteria.
“As long as BP’s tar balls keep washing ashore on Gulf Coast beaches folks who come into contact with them and who have a compromised immune system or advanced diabetes or liver disease such as cirrhosis are at risk for contracting fibrosis through skin abrasions and lacerations–just as those who consume raw oysters with Vibrio vulnificus,” says marine expert Ed Cake. “We knew when the oil spill was at its peak flow rate that V. vulnificus bacterium would proliferate because it consumed oil, but we were not aware those tar balls would continue to threaten beach goers and BP’s clean-up crews that come into contact with them.”
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called “halophilic” because they require salt to live. Not all Vibrio vulnificus are pathogenic to humans, and that points to how much research still needs to be done about the Gulf’s post-spill ecology. Cake, whose Mississippi State license plate is “Oyster 1,” says researchers “should err on the side of caution.”
‘Whether or not a specific Vibrio vulnificus is pathogenic matters not to the bacteriologist who is determining the relative levels of that bacterium in molluscan shellfish or in growing waters for management purposes,” Cake says. “But it will matter to at at-risk (immuno-compromised) person who should avoid exposure to V. vulnificus including those strains in BP’s tar balls since he or she could find out too late that the strain encountered was, in fact, pathogenic–and deadly.”
Auburn research professor Cova Arias, who works from a Dauphin Island laboratory, warns anyone coming across a tar ball on the Gulf coast to give it a wide berth, as if were “a bad crab or something rotten on the beach.”
Two years later, fourth generation oysterman Nick Collins said there is nothing but dead shells in the Louisiana oyster beds that produced 60 to 80 sacks of oysters a day before the BP spill.
“Has anyone found a successful spring spat set on their leases yet?” asks Mississippi-based oyster expert Ed Cake. “Is there any evidence that the long-awaited oyster industry recovery has begun east of the (Mississippi) River or in the Barataria Bay area?”
Oyster spat are larvae that successfully attach to a solid substrate, usually other oyster shells on an oyster bar, and begin growing and forming shells.
At the peak of the oil spill, about 40 percent of U.S. Gulf waters were closed to all recreational and commercial fishing – finfish and shellfish included. The area closed was about the size of the State of Minnesota. U.S. waters include the area from three to 200 miles from shore.
Almost all state waters west of the Florida peninsula were also closed.
BP, in paid television advertising since December, depicts both tourism and commercial fishing as recovering nicely. The company is paying for $179 million in tourism promotion and another $82 million in seafood testing and marketing.
Many Gulf residents think BP just wants to close the book on the disaster. That’s unlikely to happen until the environmental bill is paid, and funds are set aside to restore Gulf ecosystem.
The herring fishery in Prince William Sound is only now beginning to recover, 22 year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and the oyster fishery in Mexico’s Terminos Lagoon has not fully recovered 32 year after the 1979 Ixtoc-1 oil spill, says Cake.