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EarthTalk: Update on BP oil spill

Published 11:01 am, Monday, June 3, 2013
  • A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation found that the 3-year-old BP spill is still having a serious negative effect on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and its wildlife populations. Pictured: Smoke billows over a controlled oil fire off the coast of Venice, La., on May 5, 2010. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin E. Stumberg, Department of Defense Photo: Contributed Photo
    A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation found that the 3-year-old BP spill is still having a serious negative effect on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and its wildlife populations. Pictured: Smoke billows over a controlled oil fire off the coast of Venice, La., on May 5, 2010. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin E. Stumberg, Department of Defense Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Dear EarthTalk: The three-year anniversary of the 2010 BP oil spill just passed. What do green groups think of the progress since in restoring the region? -- Mary Johannson, New York, N.Y.

When an undersea oil well blew out 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010, and caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig above it (killing 11 workers), no one knew that an even bigger disaster was yet to come. Over the next three months, 4.9 million gallons of crude poured into the water before BP could get the wellhead capped to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to BP, which has already spent $14 billion on clean-up and restoration, the Gulf is returning to baseline conditions prior to the disaster.

"No company has done more, faster to respond to an industrial accident than BP did in response to the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010," the company reported.

But not everybody sees the situation that way. Many environmentalists are concerned that, while BP has done a thorough job removing visible oil from the water column and surface, little has been done to repair damage to marine life and ecosystems.

"Three years after the initial explosion, the impacts of the disaster continue to unfold," says Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. A recent report by the group found that the 3-year-old spill is still having a serious negative effect on wildlife populations in the Gulf. For one, dolphin deaths in the region have remained above average every single month since the disaster. In the first two months of 2013, infant dolphins were found dead at six times pre-spill average rates.

"These ongoing deaths -- particularly in an apex predator like the dolphin -- are a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem," Inkley said.

Gulf dolphins aren't the only ones suffering. NWF found that more than 1,700 sea turtles were stranded in coastal areas of the Gulf between May 2010 and November 2012 -- almost three times the pre-spill rate for the animals. Researchers have also detected changes in the cellular function of Gulf killifish, a common bait fish at the base of the food chain. And a coral colony seven miles from the offending wellhead struggles due to oil and dispersants compromising its ability to rebuild itself.

"The oil disaster highlighted the gaps in our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico," Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald said. "What frustrates me is how little has changed over the past three years. In many cases, funding for critical research has even been even been cut, limiting our understanding of the disaster's impacts."

MacDonald and others are optimistic that a federal court will find BP accountable for further damages in a civil trial now underway. NWF said that substantially more money is needed to carry out restoration efforts vital to the biological and economic stability of the Gulf region. "Despite the public relations blitz by BP, this spill is not over," said NWF's David Muth. "Justice will only be served when BP and its co-defendants pay to restore the wildlife and habitats of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico."

Dear EarthTalk: Is nature photography good or bad for the environment? -- Cal Moss, Camden, Maine

Nature photography is a wonderful way to share the beauty and wonder of the natural world with others who don't have the opportunity to see a given subject first-hand. An obvious benefit of the art is raising awareness about and generating empathy for special landscapes and species. But too much love can be a bad thing if landscapes are trampled and wildlife is frightened -- all in the name of leaving only footprints.

The use of photography as a conservation tool dates back as far as photography itself. William Henry Jackson's photos from his travels with the Hayden Expedition of the 1860s to survey the American West helped convince Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872 -- and as such played a role in the birth of the worldwide movement to set aside special places as national parks. Ansel Adams carried this torch forward a century later; opening up millions of viewers' eyes to the splendor of many an iconic western landscape. And more recently wildlife photographers have gotten up close and personal to wild animals large and small so the rest of us can appreciate their beauty out of harm's way.

But some say there is a dark side to all this exposure of the wild and the natural. In a provocative essay in the fall 1997 issue of DoubleTake magazine, activist and author Bill McKibben argued that the world has enough wildlife photography and that continuing to invade the lives of animal subjects -- given the vast oversupply of images already available -- is counterproductive to the goals of preserving biodiversity. He also decried the idealized view of the world that wildlife photography portrays. "How can there really be a shortage of whooping cranes when you've seen a thousand images of them -- seen ten times more images than there are actually whooping cranes left in the wild?" he asked.

Most wildlife photographers bristle at McKibben's stance.

"The real problem with wildlife photography is not that there is too much of it but that photographers ... are failing to reflect natural diversity," argued UK-based nature photographer Niall Benvie. "Far from inhibiting productivity, it needs to be expanded greatly, telling the story of species and locations unknown to readers and viewers."

But today, when the average vacationer with a $500 high resolution digital SLR may just want to capture his own version of that iconic photo he has seen so many times in magazines, it might be folly to hope people won't love a spot or a species to death. In the U.S., some national parks have begun to limit visitorship at specific photo-friendly spots to make sure that trails don't get inadvertently widened and native vegetation trampled. And a recent news story about the Kani people of southern India cutting trees and using bright lights and scare tactics to capture wild slender lorises -- charismatic wide-eyed primates endemic to the region yet endangered and highly elusive -- for "managed" photo shoots with well-heeled visiting photographers only further illustrates how invasive wildlife photography can get.

What the nature photographers of the world, amateurs and pros alike, can agree on is that they want their subject matter to live on. Being respectful of landscapes and wildlife in the quest to "get the shot" is all that's needed to keep nature photography from becoming a scourge on the environment.

EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com.