Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Primer on Oil Spill Education: 2010's Incident in the Gulf and the Effects on and Current State of the Ecosystem and Seafood

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

“In the last few months we have learned a lot more about the oil spill and future plans for Gulf restoration,” says New York Sea Grant Director James Ammerman. Ammerman first discussed the now largest oil spill in history that followed the incident during a September 2010 talk at Stony Brook Southampton and as part of a panel discussion at Stony Brook University in October 2010. Earlier this month, he was the guest speaker at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences for an update on the recovery efforts since last spring’s blowout of British Petroleum’s Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Oil Spill Commission report has been released and a new restoration task force created." Ammerman is a microbial ecologist interested in nutrient cycling and its contribution to the Gulf's "Dead Zone." From his prior faculty posts at Texas A&M and Rutgers, he led numerous cruises into the Northern Gulf from 2000 to 2004. At Rutgers, he also created and taught courses on the challenges of the Gulf post-Katrina. Released in mid-January 2011, the Report to the U.S. President from National Commission on the BP Oil Spill calls for the federal government to require tougher regulation, stiffer fines and a new industry-run safety organization within the U.S. Interior Department that would be headed by an official with a fixed term of office in order to insulate the appointee from political interference. It also recommends funding the regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, with fees from the companies who are exploiting the nation's petroleum resource. The U.S. Interior Department was also advised in the report that it should include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the decision-making process about where and how to conduct future oil and gas leasing.

The commission also found the Deepwater Horizon disaster could have been much worse than it was: "At one point, industry experts feared that a significant portion of the 4.6 billion gallon oil and gas reservoir beneath the sea floor could be released into the gulf."

While damaged marshes already appear to be re-growing and bird mortality is less than prior spills, other uncertainties include the impacts on the region’s turtle and tuna populations. Also, seafood appears safe (from open fishing areas in the Gulf), but additional testing is needed.

According to a recent fact sheet produced by Louisiana Sea Grant (LASG), "Seafood Safety in the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill," there is an extensive process to deem if and when to reopen seafood harvesting areas after such an event: "If and once a specific area of water was determined to have an absence of oil, and seafood samples were tested and determined to be free or below levels of concern of polycyclic aromatic or polynuclear hydrocarbons (PAHs), then this area would be opened to fishing."

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) advises on the safety of harvesting from waters that may have been contaminated by harmful substances; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority over the edible portions of seafood and seafood products after harvest; and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an advisory role regarding the environment from which seafood is harvested, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA). State regulations typically mirror the FDA requirements and states often have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the FDA to conduct inspections on behalf of the federal agency.

NMFS has published protocols for monitoring seafood, and the FDA has honored this in the event of seafood harvests from oil impacted areas. First, there is a precautionary closure of fishing grounds in the area of the spill. With wave motion, if there is a sheen of oil on the water further away from the spill site, that area and a large safety buffer is closed to all seafood harvesting. FDA maintains and updates tolerance limits for suggested seafood consumption rates based upon identified compounds of concern. These are usually hydrocarbons that may contaminate water, soil, groundwater and aquatic life and contain contaminants of concern (COC) such as aliphatics, aromatics and asphaltics. Most often, these are called PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (also polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons). Consumption of PAHs represents the greatest health hazard in seafood contaminated from an oil spill.

The LASG fact sheet, which is produced in conjunction of Louisiana State University's AgCenter, includes answers to a number of other questions and concerns, such as: What are the benefits of consuming Gulf of Mexico seafood? Can seafood really be smelled to detect petrochemical contamination? And, Is there assurance that seafood has been harvested from open waters.

Another way Sea Grant is educating others about the response effort since last April's Gulf oil spill is through a partnership with the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA). Starting today, NYSG staff join teachers from NYSMEA for a five-day trip to south Louisiana to learn about restoration efforts and talk with experts about wildlife rehabilitation.

"Almost five years after my first trip down to New Orleans to help rebuild after Katrina, I’ll be returning to help them recover from another catastrophe," says NYSG's Long Island Sound Educator, Larissa Graham. "This time we’ll be focusing on habitats, the home to wildlife and lifeline for much of New Orleans’ economy."

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