2011 May 06 Friday
We flew to Bay Jimmy in Barataria Bay today to study some marsh 'oil cleanup' operations we had been told were underway there. We found boats just off shore using huge shovels on long-armed cranes, digging into the marsh shoreline and pulling out large quantities of oiled marsh grass, then placing these into large receptacles that were collected onto much larger 'trash depot' boats nearby. It was discomfiting to see such large quantities of vegetation being removed from precious wetlands already experiencing extreme rates of loss due to erosion and insufficient sediment/freshwater mixture to maintain the vegetation needed to keep these marshes from sinking altogether!
NOTE: Unless noted, no photos or video provided by On Wings Of Care are "photoshopped" or otherwise altered in any way that could degrade accurate interpretation of what we observed.After Bay Jimmy, we continued southward past one of several active pelican rookeries which also had been heavily oiled last year. The oiled boom that had washed up onto and covered much of the fringest of that island had finally been removed, but the shorelines still did not look particularly healthy.
Then we continued toward the east end of Grand Terre Island, where we saw another cleanup/dredging operation underway, this time along the sandy shoreline. It was essentially the same type of 'cleanup' we had just observed in Bay Jimmy, except that here the subsurface oil being scooped up was highly visible as sheen along and extending at least 100 yards from the shoreline.
We had wanted to confer with ecologists familiar with issues of marsh restoration, and our friend and videographer for the flight, Bess Carrick, referred us to an outstanding scientist: Ms. Brittany Bernik, a Ph.D candidate in molecular ecology at Tulane University who specializes in the study of marsh restoration. Brittany joined us for this flight, and a combination video-interview made by Bess during the flight is provided below.
To try to put Brittany's excellent comments and several papers she shared with us into a brief summary here is beyond our ken. But here are some of the main points we discussed:
1. Bay Jimmy remains one of the most heavily oiled marsh sights since the BP spill last year. Its condition was further exacerbated by the spewing of oil for over five days straight in late July 2010 when a tug boat accidentally rammed an abandoned oil well. (For a video taken during On Wings Of Care's flyover of that on 2010 July 31, go to: "www.youtube.com/watch?v=usDkiAQCMA4&feature=related". )
2. The approach we were witnessing is mechanical, or manual cleanup: they rake and break up the oiled marsh material and then try to remove all of it. Of course, in that process they remove a considerable amount of marsh substrate. In the high-erosion environment of Louisiana's marshes where wetlands are being lost at an alarming rate, unnecessary removal of vegetation and substrate is downright sacrilegious.
3. In addition to removing precious marshland, this kind of manual cleanup is also counterproductive to helping the marsh recover from the oil spill. Here is what we understood from Brittany (paraphrased): In these marshes, the plants are all connected with one another through their root systems; the plants are actually large colonies of effectively one organism that takes up a lot of marsh meadow. So the energy of that entire system of plants is used to help regenerate the stressed areas along the fringes. This is how some plants can continue to grow even in very contaminated soils, because they are being supported by the rest of the colony. To remove the plants on the contaminated shoreline does worse than remove just those plants; it actually causes a loss and greater stress to the entire plant (colony), which will now have to devote much of it energies toward regenerating its fringes.
4. The 'cleanup' going on along the sandy beaches and shoreline farther south suffers similar problems, except that sand is more easily replaced than is shoreline marsh material.
5. Finally, aside from these cleanup approaches being deadly to the marsh itself, they are doomed from the start. For every time we have a new storm, new oil will be pushed up from the ocean bottom. The answer is not to continue to try to remove or otherwise hide from view the oil that will continue to wash on to our shores. The answer is to focus on helping the recovery of the wetlands.
Here is the video, followed by a modest gallery of still photos (click on each for higher-resolution versions).