By Miles Grant, National Wildlife Federation
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) this week led a boat trip to Louisiana marshes hit hard by the Gulf oil disaster. The trip made depressingly clear that while national attention has moved on and Congress still hasn’t passed legislation to restore the Gulf, much BP oil remains, it’s easy to find and it’s never far from the Gulf’s wildlife.
The trip out of Myrtle Grove Marina with Captain Dave Marino was led by David Muth, state director of NWF’s Mississippi River Delta campaign, David White, director of NWF’s Gulf of Mexico Restoration campaign and Alisha Renfro, NWF coastal scientist.
“As they headed south to the corner of Barataria Bay called Bay Jimmy, the tide was high and winds were blowing strong at 20 miles an hour out of the southeast,” said NWF’s David White. “That drove water high up into the marsh, obscuring the oiled edges denuded of vegetation. With such a high water line, it was hard to determine exactly how much oil might remain.”
After finding a safe place to land, it became clear that despite BP’s efforts to mop and scrape marshes, oil remains in various stages of weathering and decomposition. On the surface, it’s now weathered into tar — some small clumps and other large mats — and it’s there for the long term.
“There were a few patches in the marsh that were completely devoid of vegetation. They smelled like asphalt,” said NWF’s Alisha Renfro. “Because it’s so thick, natural processes like sunlight and bacteria have a hard time breaking down the hydrocarbons. It ends up serving like a cap on the marsh surface — a hardened seal that blocks light and gas exchange, diminishes growth and creates a dead zone with little new life. However, baby fiddler crabs and other marsh invertebrates could be seen scuttling across the dead surface.”
In the tar-covered marshes, NWF staff found a dead and decomposed American White Pelican. Liquid oil was visible on its wing feathers, its origin mysterious, until the staff made a new discovery.
“Wherever we stood in the marshes, liquid oil would squeeze out of the sediment. I probed the ground a little and didn’t see the oil right at the surface, so it was probably coming from several centimeters down,” said NWF’s Alisha Renfro. “During the winter, with cooler temperatures, this oil would be thicker and harder to see since it’s not at the surface, but as it has gotten warmer the oil is far less viscous and can seep back to the marsh surface.”
It’s impossible to know when the oil got on the pelican or contributed to its death. “A large flock of pelicans nearby had settled on another marshy shoreline that had been similarly oiled. They appeared healthy with no signs of oiling from a distance,” said NWF’s David Muth. “But the dead bird provided a stark reminder that nearly two years into the Gulf oil disaster, the BP oil remains a daily fact of life for the Gulf’s wildlife.”
As you can see in additional photos from the trip at NWF’s Flickr page, marshes continue to show signs of degradation and retreat. That follows the trend NWF staff have witnessed in recent trips, like the collapse of Cat Island’s mangrove trees from a thriving rookery for Brown Pelicans and other birds in 2010 to a patch of brown lifeless sticks in 2011.
The trip was a reminder that Mississippi River Delta restoration is needed now more than ever. While the Senate passed the RESTORE Act as part of its transportation bill, the House has yet to act.