Tunnell Vision?

Once again, a report on a specific aspect of the overall environmental damage caused by BP’s Oil Drilling Disaster is being presented as a comprehensive assessment of the health of the Gulf of Mexico, warping the reality of the damage and ongoing oil impacts here in the Gulf.On January 31, 2011, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility released An expert opinion of when the Gulf of Mexico will return to pre-spill harvest status following the BP Deepwater Horizon MC 252 oil spill by Dr. Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at the Harte Institute at Texas A&M University. The report explicitly states its purpose as examining damage to a small number of economically-important species so the Gulf Coast Claims Facility can determine how much money to pay people whose livelihoods depend on those species. Unfortunately, a New York Times article on the report implies the findings apply to the entire Gulf of Mexico. This misinterpretation of the report misses the fact that the oil is still here. The Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper provides the evidence. Unfortunately, both Dr. Tunnell’s report and the New York Times article rely on opinion rather than scientific study of actual impacts, as the National Wildlife Federation points out.Just look at the New York Times headline, Report Foresees Quick Gulf of Mexico Recovery. Far too broad, especially when the report says, “establishing an exact recovery time is essentially impossible” on Page iii, following the Table of Contents. So what does the report actually say?The report says that the number of shrimp, crabs, and finfish harvested in the Gulf will be the same by 2012 as they were in 2009, prior to the Drilling Disaster, and that the number of oysters will be the same by, at the latest, 2019. This conclusion is relevant only to a small number of species, yet the New York Times balloons this conclusion into a headline implying quick recovery of the entire Gulf of Mexico. By doing so, the Times minimizes the complexity of Gulf ecosystems and the reality that oil will continue impacting the region long into the future. Specifically, the New York Times ignores Echo Effects and the persistence of oil and dispersant in Gulf ecosystems. Echo Effects refer to damage done to eggs, larvae, and food sources by oil, the impact of which will be unknown for several generations, if ever. For example, shrimp eggs and larva die when exposed to oil, and the impacts of dispersant on eggs and larva are unknown. Oil and dispersant may also kill the food supply for key species. Dr. Tunnell writes, “The effects of oil on plankton (food for larvae of fish and invertebrates) are currently unknown, and may never be known” (p. 22). If BP’s oil and dispersant killed large numbers of shrimp eggs and larvae, those shrimp will not grow to maturity to be caught by shrimpers. We could very well see a crash of shrimp fisheries in several years due to this Echo Effect, and the same is true for crabs, oysters, and finfish whose food supply and early developmental stages are similarly vulnerable to oil and dispersant. Dr. Tunnell’s report acknowledges this possibility for shrimp. “…[S]hrimp have annual life cycles and can live up to two years, so after a spill, or any other event that could cause a lost year class, it is reasonable to expect that shrimp would recover after just one year, or two years at the maximum,” which sounds optimistic for the future of shrimp, until the ending of the sentence, “unless there is a continuation of the insult or perturbation” (p. 25).This leads to the second area of concern for long-term impacts, the persistence of oil and dispersant in the Gulf. Dr. Tunnell notes that oil can settle into sediment and persist long into the future, continuing to impact species (p. 24-25). The fate of dispersant is still unknown, especially in the case of the BP Disaster when dispersant was used in huge quantities. To borrow Dr. Tunnell’s evocative phrase, the persistence of oil and dispersant in the Gulf will be “a continuation of the insult” for quite some time. This continued insult is absent from the New York Times article and is not factored into the report’s recovery estimates. The assumption is that the oil is gone. It is not.Further, the report repeatedly cautions about the lack of studies examining the long-term impacts of oil. Dr. Tunnell compares the recovery time from the Deepwater Horizon to the recovery time of species affected by the Ixtoc I disaster in 1979 while readily admitting that no long-term studies were done examining the recovery of species after Ixtox I. “Unfortunately, there were no long-term comprehensive studies done to confirm recovery, so we cannot be certain. In addition, it is unclear today whether the Gulf of Mexico is as resilient as it was 30 years ago, due to the many and continuing environmental impacts” (p. 7-8). Instead of relying on data, the report is built on historical overview of past disasters, anecdotal evidence from fishers, and, as the report title readily admits, Dr. Tunnell’s expert opinion. This is not the long-term, comprehensive assessment of oil impacts the Gulf needs and deserves.We need to make sure the reality of the situation does not succumb to bad reporting. The oil is still here. The dispersant is still here. We are still here. The full extent of the damage of BP’s Oil Drilling Disaster will not be known for many years. Dr. Tunnell’s report has a specific purpose, to allow the Gulf Coast Claims Fund to determine how much to pay people for damages related to shrimp, crab, oyster, and finfish harvesting. It is certainly not a comprehensive analysis of the health of the Gulf of Mexico.This expert opinion can’t be the final word on the Gulf. Take action today by sending an e-mail the Gulf Coast Claims Fund demanding it open up Dr. Tunnell’s ‘expert opinion’ to some level of scientific peer review. We’ve got to be careful about closing the door on the future oil impacts that even Dr. Tunnell says are inevitable.Nick Poggioli is GRN’s Campus Organizer

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