During these challenging times, we at Ocean Conservancy are fortunate to be able to continue working towards a healthy ocean and Gulf (albeit from a distance)—not only for wildlife but for all of us that depend on resilient, thriving coastlines. Now more than ever is the time to look out for one another, the health of our planet and our ocean.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster has been a critical part of our work here, and as a New Orleans native myself, it’s been an issue especially close to my heart. This month marks 10 years since an estimated 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico—taking the lives of 11 oil rig workers and killing hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, marine mammals and birds, along with trillions of larval fish.
But there has been a tremendous amount of progress and restoration since then. The world’s first ever open ocean restoration plan was approved, the United States House of Representatives passed legislation to strengthen offshore oil and gas drilling safety standards and millions of dollars in restoration funds have gone towards promising projects aimed at restoring Gulf species, like sea turtles and deep-sea corals.
So, in the 10 years since the oil disaster, how far have our Gulf species come in terms of restoration and recovery? Let’s take a look.
1-26 years for recovery
Admittedly when I think of Gulf species, my mind doesn’t immediately jump to seagrasses—but, they are a critical part of a healthy Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Seagrass provides a source of food, habitat and nursery areas for a wide variety of species, including the commercially and recreationally important reef fish, gag grouper. As plants found in shallow waters along the Gulf coast, they are perfect sanctuaries for marine species seeking a safe and gentle environment. Seagrasses also absorb and store carbon dioxide in their leaves, drawing down a greenhouse gas behind sea level rise and ocean acidification.
Seagrasses are estimated to have one of the shortest recovery times from the disastrous effects of the oil disaster, ranging from one to 26 years. External stressors, however, like damage to seagrass beds due to boats, can delay their recovery.
The Florida Seagrass Recovery Project is working hard to offset damage to seagrass due to local boats. Besides restoring shallow beds, the project seeks to implement outreach and education materials for drivers.
18 years for recovery
Five out of seven sea turtles species of can be found in Gulf waters. The Kemp’s ridley is one of the smallest (weighing in at about 100 pounds) and is the only species that crawls from the ocean to nest during the day.
These sea turtles travel hundreds of miles to reach their nesting grounds, and often return to the same beach where they hatched. Sadly, many of their nesting areas on the Gulf coast are threatened by urban development and sea level rise, and are at high risk of impacts from offshore oil spills since their open ocean foraging areas overlap with major areas of drilling.
During the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster between 55,000 and 160,000 small, juvenile sea turtles were killed and nearly 35,000 hatchlings were injured—thousands more lost. Kemp’s ridley recovery is an estimated 18 years.
Fortunately, there are many projects that are committed to restoring all of the Gulf’s sea turtle populations, including projects that aim to reduce disturbances to nesting habitats, improve nest detection and enhancement and develop emergency response programs for strandings.
39 years for recovery
Common bottlenose dolphins are found throughout the world, but are a particularly favored species in the Gulf. Dolphins are an integral part of the Gulf tourism industry and economy—frequently spotted since they live so close to shore. Unfortunately, this puts dolphins at increased risk for human-related impacts.
Dolphins affected by the oil disaster were reported to have been dying earlier and birthing fewer calves—suffering from lung diseases and hormonal issues that harmed or ended pregnancies. The estimated time it will take for dolphins in Louisiana estuaries to recover from the oil disaster is 39 years. And just like our seagrasses, recovery times are additionally impacted by issues like pollution, prey availability and fishing interactions.
NOAA’s RESTORE Science Program has been working on a project to conserve and restore dolphin populations since 2017. This team developed an innovative approach attaching satellite tags to cetaceans without actually having to capture them—helping researchers understand how different species move between and use habitats.
69 years for recovery
Now listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, the Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-DUS) whale has a shockingly low population estimate of merely 33 individuals. The Gulf’s remaining Bryde’s whales (large-headed filter-feeders that are rarely seen) now live in a small area just off the coast of the Florida Panhandle.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster wiped out a huge portion of the whale’s already tiny population, and the whale’s recovery time is an estimated 69 years. Energy exploration, development and associated accidents (such as oil spills) are all serious threats to their populations. Even by the federal government’s recent analysis, oil drilling in offshore waters home to the Bryde’s whale will likely harm the species.
If we want to give these whales a fighting chance and restore their population to healthy levels, we need to avoid the human activities that threaten its survival—like risky offshore oil and gas drilling.
Up to 500 years for recovery
Deep-sea corals have some of the longest recovery times—up to 500 years—from the oil disaster.
Corals are ancient and fragile ecosystems that provide food, shelter and breeding grounds for sharks, crabs and fish. They create invaluable habitat that plays an important role in the health and vitality of the Gulf of Mexico.
But this vibrant seafloor is no less immune from human activities than our coasts. Research expeditions to the blown-out wellhead of the BP oil rig have found dying corals in the vicinity covered in a layer of oil-tainted material. Though corals can live for more than 1,000 years, they are incredibly slow-growing and have extremely long recovery times.
The historic, first-of-its-kind Open Ocean Restoration Plan proposes projects to uncover the exact locations of the Gulf’s deep-sea corals, model how they reproduce and function, and mitigate stressors like oil and gas development, invasive species and marine debris. One project will even test innovative new methods to grow and replant corals in the deep sea—an impactful restoration effort for Gulf corals.
Although we still have many years of restoration work ahead, it’s wonderful to reflect on how far we’ve come in 10 years and how—together—we’ve been able to stand up for marine wildlife and help restore their populations.
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