Delve Deeper and the Real Cost of Spillage Will Start to Emerge
Commentary by Frank Pope
It’s the age-old curse of the ocean: from the surface there’s nothing to tell a dead sea from a thriving one. Many a marine disaster has been hidden by the waves, keeping dwindling fish stocks, pollution and trawler damage out of sight until it is too late to respond.
US officials report that the oil slick is fast disappearing from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, but marine scientists are warning that the true impact will become clear only over the coming months and years.
“Less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil beneath the surface, or that our beaches and marshes are not still at risk,” said Jane Lubchenco, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
If fishermen were allowed into closed areas, they would likely return with hulls* of crabs, shrimp and fish. Although contaminated*, most would still be alive. That does not mean all is well, said the marine biologist Wes Tunnell of the University of Texas. Their ability to reproduce may be affected and young fish are at risk.
“Adults usually survive quite well. Swimming fish are able to get out of an area when the water quality gets too bad,” he said. “Larvae* are much more vulnerable. Some species — like Bluefin tuna* — have larvae that float near the surface. We could have lost an entire year-class.”
Specks of oil have been found beneath the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the area, and tests at Tulane University suggest these could be a mix of both dispersant* and oil. “On its own, oil is too thick to penetrate beneath the carapace*,” said Erin Grey, a marine biologist at Tulane. The chemical dispersants — 1.8 million gallons — have created undersea plumes of oil.
Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine, accused the authorities of unleashing a vast, uncontrolled chemistry experiment and said that “the worst impacts of the disaster are yet to come. Without deliberate, independent scientific tracking and assessment, they could remain hidden.”
Others are optimistic about the ocean’s ability to regenerate. Dr Tunnell said: “After the 1979 Ixtoc* spill in the south of the Gulf, the shrimp recovered completely in a couple of years. Having said that, it could be much worse for the oysters.”
A $500 million (£315 million) fund has been created by BP to study the impact over the coming decade. Scientists will look at the effects on everything from sub-seabed life to impacts on genetic material, but most effort will be focused on the oil still trapped beneath the surface.
While the area recovered fast from the Ixtoc spill, it is more vulnerable today. This year the de-oxygenated* “dead zone” that spreads through the Gulf every year is one of the largest recorded since measurements began in 1985, covering an area almost the size of Massachusetts.
Robert Carney, a deep-sea ecologist from Louisiana State University, said: “The issue you run into is the effect of all these combined insults. Whether the insult* from the oil spill could be a tipping point is a serious concern.”
Source: TimesOnline, Aug. 3, 2010
* hulls - Schalen
* to contaminate - vergiften, verseuchen
* larva, pl. larvae - Larven
* Bluefin tuna - Blauflossen-Thunfisch
* dispersant - Dispergiermittel, Reinigungsmittel
* carapace -Schale, Kruste
* Ixtoc - On 3 June 1979, the well in the Bay of Campeche of the Gulf of Mexico suffered a blowout resulting in the fourth largest oil spill in history.
* de-oxygenated - Mangel an Sauerstoff
* insult - hier: Krankheitszustand
1. Why has the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico worse effects than one that would occur on land?
2. What has contributed to the aggravation of the oil spill in the Gulf?
3. The effects of the oil spill will be studies by scientists. What exactly will they be looking at?
4. Do you think that deep sea exploring of oil should be terminated? Substantiate your view by convincing arguments.