By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant
Starting tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 22, New York Sea Grant’s (NYSG) Long Island Sound Educator, Larissa Graham, and Web Content Manager, Paul C. Focazio, will join teachers from the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) for a five-day trip to south Louisiana to learn about restoration efforts and talk with experts about wildlife rehabilitation. "Though our group is only in Louisiana for a relatively short time, the goal is to learn as much as we can about the various problems affecting the Gulf," says Graham. "This way, when our educators arrive back home, they can better inform others as to how they can help."
As the world is now aware, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day last spring was marred by the blowout of British Petroleum’s Macondo oil well, followed by the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Since then, a number of questions have been posed – Will the Gulf recover from this? Could it happen again? How could we have learned better from past oil spills in our response this time?
“The potential for disaster was great,” says NYSG Director Jim Ammerman of the Gulf oil spill, “But so far environmental impacts have been less than feared.” Ammerman, like many scientists, is quick to remind us that much is still unknown about the oil spill and its impacts and will remain so for some time. “Although shoreline impacts by the spill have been limited, partly due to dispersant use, the ultimate effects of deep water dispersant use are unclear,” says Ammerman. While damaged marshes already appear to be re-growing and bird mortality is less than after prior spills, uncertainties include the impacts on the region’s turtle and tuna populations. Also, seafood appears safe from open fishing areas in the Gulf.
“Oil is not a foreign substance in Gulf waters,” Ammerman said, referring to the area’s natural underwater seeps, from which oil is largely metabolized naturally by bacteria. “The difference, here, though,” he cautioned, “Is that the concentrations of oil from this incident (4.9 million barrels, or 205 million gallons) have been excessive.” So, the long-term effects on fisheries, wetlands and other parts of the ecosystem have yet to be determined.
All the more reason for the NYSMEA educators to pitch-in to do their part and pass on some awareness to others about the status of the Gulf's sprawling ecosystems. "NYSMEA members are eager to assist in restoration efforts, and to raise awareness back in New York that there is plenty of work to be done in the Gulf and here at home," says NYSMEA President Meghan Marrero. "NYSMEA is making a special effort this year to involve our members in stewardship activities. There are many local citizen science activities here in New York, and our annual conference held in June will focus on these and other stewardship opportunities."
Graham, who says she's also looking forward to getting her hands dirty working alongside the educators during the various habitat restoration projects planned in the area, also intends to use the trip as a way of strengthening partnerships with the Louisiana Sea Grant program and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. "After arriving home, I plan to talk to New York Sea Grant staff about ways we can support these programs. And, as part of NYSMEA, I am also hoping to educate fellow NYSMEA members through various presentations at meetings and postings in our newsletter and through social networking."
"Following the trip, we will share what we've learned with other NYSMEA members through a blog and webcasts and at our annual conference," says Marrero. "Several attendees are classroom teachers, and will be bringing what they learned back to their students in the classroom right away."
To that end, NYSG's Focazio will be reporting on the week's activities via this web blog, which will be filled with stories and pictures documenting the educators' experiences. These activities will also include engaging the group in some restoration work, similar to those participated in last fall by Sea Grant staff from the national network’s 32 programs. During their planting, coordinated by Louisiana State University AgCenter Extension Associate Caitlin Reilly, Sea Grant-ers contributed about 55 volunteer hours for a planting effort along 200 feet of shoreline in New Orleans’ City Park. “In the face of land loss, we see a lot of need for restoration in Louisiana, especially after Hurricane Katrina,” says Reilly.
“Between Sea Grant and NYSMEA, we deal with such a wide range of audiences,” Focazio says, “that the blog needs to be user-friendly, interesting and informative.” Target audiences include everyday people, the media, legislators and partners, such as Sea Grant's parent organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Perhaps the most important use of the blog, though, is for it to serve as a resource for teachers and students. "The ultimate goal here is to have the blog be viewed as an educational tool with a high multiplier effect for learning about coastal restoration and other issues related to last year's oil spill."
These concerns span beyond the Gulf, though, says Graham, Editor of last fall’s oil spill-themed Sound Update newsletter, which focuses on the region around New York/Connecticut's Long Island Sound. “This oil spill certainly makes us wonder if a similar situation could happen here and if it did, how we would respond,” she says. According to one of the Sound Update articles, the Area Contingency Plan for Long Island Sound documents how the Coast Guard will work with federal, state and local governments to prepare for and respond to oil spills.
For more on NOAA Sea Grant's response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, see NYSG's related resource site.