Working Now to Save the Habitat, Not Individual Species

Jun 11, 2010
As scenes of oil-covered wildlife and blobs of oil and tar balls atop pristine beaches along the northern Gulf of Mexico dominate the media exposure throughout the world, a greater concern weighs on Bob Shipp's mind - the effect of the massive oil spill on the ecosystem that is hidden from the public's view.>
Bob Shipp measures and tags a red snapper during a research trip out of Dauphin Island on the Lady Ann. David Rainer photo.
The many hats worn by Shipp give him unique insight into the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, has served 14 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and is currently serving as its chairman. Shipp was also recently appointed the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board by Gov. Bob Riley. Shipp has also overseen and participated in years of research on red snapper off the Alabama Gulf Coast.

The latest efforts of British Petroleum (BP) to stem the flow of oil has met with some success, but about half of the flow from the well is still escaping into the Gulf. The impact to the way of life on the Gulf Coast hinges on when the leak is plugged.

"It all depends whether they get this thing capped or not," Shipp said. "Looking at it from a scientific perspective, we feel like individual species, whether it's crabs, snapper or mahi mahi, they're going to snap back. They're very resilient and when this thing is over they're going to snap back, as long as the habitat isn't destroyed.

"The thing that's scary is the habitat. If you destroy the habitat, then they won't be able to snap back. That's what we're worried about over the long term - destruction of habitat. If we lose a year class of snapper, it's bad, but next year we'll have another year class. The same is true for blue crabs and mahi mahi. If the sargassum or grass beds or oyster reefs are destroyed, then we have a really, really bad long-term problem.

Shipp thinks the focus now is to do whatever we can to save the habitat and not worry too much about what's going on with individual species.

"Sargassum is such an important habitat that is being overlooked," he said. "I don't know how one can go out and protect it, but sargassum is every bit as important as grass beds and marshes."

Almost all the highly migratory species - mahi mahi, billfish, tunas - are dependent on the floating beds of sargassum, which serves as a nursery area for those species.

Along with the majority of marine scientists, Shipp thinks it's a bad idea to apply dispersants to the spill.

"We don't want the oil down in the water column or on the bottom where it gets into the sediments and starts traveling through the food chain," he said. "There are so many unknowns regarding the composition of dispersants. Not only that, when the oil is on the surface, some of it evaporates. Some of the toxic components go off into the atmosphere. That's not going to happen if it's under water.

"They're trying to keep it out of view and it might help the beaches a little. If it doesn't float, it might not float up on the beach. But in terms of the ecosystem, dispersants are bad."

Although the ecosystems are obviously different, Shipp said there are some comparisons that could be made to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. Sean Powers, also a member of the USA Marine Sciences Department, has made research trips to Prince William Sound to study the spill's aftermath.

"Sean goes up there a couple of times a year," Shipp said. "And the oil is still in sediments and still having an impact. The herring fishery has never come back. The habitat where they lay their eggs was destroyed. A lot of the area has recovered, but we're talking 20 years ago. And (the Gulf spill) is worse."

Shipp said the worst-case scenario would be if the latest BP efforts to cap the well don't go as planned and the flow of oil isn't stemmed until a relief well can be finished.

"Let's say they don't get control of this until August," he said. "I suspect almost all the Gulf will be closed to fishing. I think most of the estuaries and inshore waters will be closed to fishing. I don't know about Texas, but I suspect they will catch it. The (Florida) Keys will catch it. They're already talking about the Tortugas being closed. Then some of it will go up the East Coast. So if it's not closed until August, there's going to be no fishing this year.

"And that's just the beginning, because it's going to destroy a tremendous amount of habitat. It will take years to recover is this leak isn't stopped in the next week or so."

Shipp expects the impact of the spill will show up initially in the marshes, oyster reefs, grass beds and sargassum.

"I think the offshore reefs won't be impacted as much early on," he said. "The hard-bottom stuff won't be impacted as quickly. That will be OK for a longer period of time. The impact there will be the species themselves - the juveniles, the larvae during the spawning season. But that habitat will be the least damaged and quickest to restore compared to the vegetative-type habitat.

"With grass beds, if the blades die and roots stay alive, they can come back fairly quickly. But if the roots die, it takes a long, long time for the grass beds to come back. It's similar to the marsh. The one positive about the marsh, is it's very, very deep. Even if you lose the outside part of it, the inside may be OK."

Shipp said major complications would occur if a tropical storm or hurricane churns into the Gulf and makes landfall in any of the areas affected by the spill.

"If it overcovers the marshes and beaches, it's going to be a major problem," he said. "The oil could go way back up into the marshes or even up into freshwater habitat. If you get a funnel of bad water going up Mobile Bay or Pensacola Bay, suddenly we're talking about freshwater habitat being impacted.

"It's just so complex. There are so many variables. None of the outcomes appear to be particularly good."

The Gulf Council's next meeting will be held in Gulfport, Miss., June 14-17 and Shipp knows most of the meeting will be spent trying to adapt to the spill's impact.

"One of the things we may look at is modifying the seasons," Shipp said. "The snapper season has been basically shut down in the central and eastern Gulf. If this thing passes and we get control of it, we might consider reopening snapper season later on or extending it.

"Of course this is all contingent on waters being reopened if things get under control. It has already spewed so much oil that it's going to have a serious negative impact. If they get it capped in the next week or two, we may be able to make some adjustments and have a snapper season later in the year. It's all depends on them getting this thing capped."

--David Rainer
Rainer, former Outdoor Editor of the Mobile (AL) Press Register, is now with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources