Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Devastation from Oil Spills Reaches Far Beyond Shores of San Francisco Bay

On the morning of Nov. 7, San Francisco Bay became the unfortunate dumping ground for 58,000 gallons of oil, gushing from the hull of a cargo ship that ran into the Bay Bridge. The oil slicks and greasy balls of tar can now be found along 64 miles of California’s shorelines—and on the feathers of birds, the fur of seals and the scales of fish, which then become poisonous traps for any animal eating them. At last count, Oiled Wildlife Care Network has taken in their facilities 1,394 seabirds—804 alive when recovered, 590 dead. But according to University of California at Davis’ Jonna Mazet, an expert on the treatment of oiled wildlife, for every oiled seabird found washed ashore, 10 to 100 more die at sea. As to the other marine animals, one sick harbor seal has been taken in at this time and the actual numbers of marine wildlife devastated by this may never be known.
This past weekend our legacy of polluting our waters with this deadly substance continued near Russia। A storm wrecked several ships, including an oil tanker that spread its poisonous cargo throughout the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. Upwards of a half million gallons of fuel have already killed thousands of birds and countless other marine fish and wildlife.

Sadly, only through such spills does the issue of how oil devastates our marine environments seem to rise to the surface. After these tragic events begin to fade from our immediate memories, however, the oil’s damage will last much longer. And because we see the dying seabirds first, we also fail to remember that they are just the tip of the iceberg as to how oil can poison an entire marine ecosystem.
Charles “Pete” Peterson, a marine scientist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has spent the last 20 years analyzing scientific data gathered from marine ecosystems after oil spills, including the famed Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska’s coast। Or as he puts it, “I synthesize what everybody else gets dirty doing.”

Peterson explained that because, for the most part, oil floats on water, animals such as seabirds that swim or forage on the water’s surface, and sea turtles and marine mammals that must come from below to the surface to breathe are repeatedly exposed to the contaminant। Seabirds and furred marine mammals are particularly at risk because they depend upon their feathers and fur to provide insulation. If oil mats the feathers and fur to their bodies, they no longer can serve as adequate insulation and the animals can die from hypothermia. If the oil is particularly dense, seabirds and mammals can also inhale toxic fumes. An estimated 2,800 sea otters and 300 harbor seals died from the Exxon Valdez spill.

But the devastation from oil spills can go much deeper than what happens on the surface। Environments that can become most contaminated are shallow areas where oil can penetrate into sediments, such as the coral reefs in the Kerch Strait. In the case of San Francisco’s spill, severe wave action may mix the toxic oil throughout the water column and extend to bottom-dwelling species such as the Bay’s highly valued Dungeness crabs, clams, mussels and burrowing ghost shrimps, which are important prey for fish. Sea otters that feed off contaminated prey like mussels and clams could be also poisoned.

In addition, the oil’s effects are not confined to the ocean or its shores, and they can last for decades. The oil has spread into nearby salt marshes. If it penetrates the mud where sunlight and oxygen cannot reach, it can take a long time to degrade. This could present “tremendous long-term problems,” says Peterson. He studied an oil spill that happened nearly 40 years ago near the village of Buzzard’s Bay, Mass., that contaminated its Wild Harbor’s sediments, killing its plants and fiddler crabs. “That marsh has still not recovered. Oil is still detectable centimeters below the surface.” The San Francisco oil spill could be devastating to the many threatened and endangered species that are endemic to the area’s salt marshes.
Evidently the dominoes in San Francisco Bay and the Black Sea are just beginning to fall।

Several of California’s beaches are now closed, even as eager volunteers are trying desperately to help clean up what oil they can। SeaWeb’s Managing Director Hollis Hope drove to an ocean beach about 15 miles south of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge last Friday to witness the spill’s far-reaching effects firsthand. She could feel the oil clumping the sand beneath her feet as she walked and the smell of oil hung in the air. Around her, a dozen young volunteers with garbage bags tried to collect balls of tar from the infested shoreline. She applauded their efforts, but as she described it, “It was like trying to pick up individual pieces of sand.”

What this horrifying, tragic accident has also brought to the surface is the united passion of individuals to preserve our marine environments. Each person who has taken a step to help in this cleanup effort is making a difference, not just in addressing this assault on this part of the Pacific but in encouraging others to tackle problems throughout our world’s ocean. We must remember that no matter how minimal our individual actions might seem when faced with the enormity of a problem like this, they are part of a rising tide. And we know that a rising tide lifts all boats. When combined, our efforts can and do make a difference.One can’t help be lifted by the sight of hundreds of volunteers, true leading voices for our ocean, combing our coasts to help clean them, even if it is a grain of sand at a time. — Dawn Martin

No comments: