Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Glimpse of What's at Stake in the Gulf

Probably because there is so much to report on BP's disaster, the ever-widening closure of the Gulf of Mexico fishery appears almost as a footnote. Yesterday, it was quietly increased to 31 percent. Meaning nearly a third of the fishery is closed to fishing because of BP’s mess. As long as oil keeps spewing, it’s entirely possible the whole fishery will be closed.

It begs a question. Aside from my lamentations and my pounding the Thesaurus for more ways to say “disaster”, what is really at stake in concrete terms? The excellent folks at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have already come up with answers in the form of a concise report.

Among other things including the dollar value of the Gulf, the report shows that BP’s disaster could not have come at a worse time. Spring is the time for renewal and reproduction in the wild world. Nearly every creature in the Gulf is doing what their most basic life force tells them to do -- procreate and carry on the species. What’s more vulnerable to a thick, ominous cloud of petroleum and toxic dispersants than an adult of a species? A newborn.

Highlights follow and you can find the full NRDC report here. A glimpse of what’s at stake:

“In 2008, the combined value of several key species groups for all five states in the Gulf region – shrimp, oysters, blue crab and red snapper – was more than $474.4 million.

Unfortunately, many of the Gulf region’s key species are likely to be the first casualties of the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill. Oysters are largely stationary and cannot flee the low dissolved oxygen areas caused by oil on the water’s surface.The timing of this spill will impact the newly spawned larvae of shrimps and crabs – the catch of the future – as they are largely immobile and likely to be closer to the water’s surface and any floating oil.”

In 2003, the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean economy:
  • employed more than 562,000 people
  • paid wages of more than $13.2 billion
  • contributed over $32 billion to the region’s gross state product
“Tourism and recreation comprised 71 percent of the employment in the Gulf region’s 2003 ocean economy. Unfortunately, beach communities in the Gulf region are already reporting hotel-reservation cancellations and fishing tournament postponements due to the spill.

The Value of the Ecosystem:

While some ocean ecosystem benefits, such as the market value of commercially harvested fish, are regularly calculated, many values that result from healthy, functioning ocean ecosystems are rarely tallied, but provide a large pool of extended benefits. Such ecosystem services include “… provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and fiber; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling. “

In other words, the stakes are huge.

Any optimism from the front? Yes, actually. There are natural leaks of petroleum from cracks in the sea floor. Amounts to about a million gallons a year, which is far, far less than BP’s contribution. But anyway, scientists express guarded optimism that some sea life, such as deep sea corals, have adapted ways to deal with raw petroleum in their water. But there are serious open questions about the corals' capacity to deal with the quantity, the toxic dispersants, and the density of the petroleum plumes. Ok, I take it back. There’s no good news. Sorry.

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