Overreaction in the Gulf
David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Soon after the magnitude of the spill became apparent, BP started applying dispersant on the surface and at the wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. Crozier immediately expressed his concerns, which continue today.
"When it gets to the surface, the sun breaks down a lot of the components of crude oil," he said. "The microbial community that eats the oil has lots of oxygen to do that with. At the surface, a lot of good things can happen. We can boom it. We can skim it. If you boom it successfully, you can burn it. But if you use dispersant, and those who play poker will love this, you've gone 'all in' on the microbial community. The tools of skimming, burning and natural oxidation have been damaged. I will tell you that the science behind dispersant use is logical. The idea is that if you make little tiny droplets, the bacteria can get at it more easily. The concept here is going to lead and has successfully led to the rapid degradation of the oil.
"We seem to be over the hill on the surface. The problem I've had since they started applying dispersant 5,000 feet down, it formed a microscopically small droplet, but it became neutrally buoyant. So that means it's stuck somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. And no one has been able to tell me yet where are the toxic components."
Crozier said anyone who has ever had an aquarium knows that after detergent is applied, the aquarium must be rinsed repeatedly before the fish are reintroduced. He sees a correlation with the use of the dispersant Corexit.
"The detergent nature of the Corexit is as big a problem as any component," he said. "The membranes of the phytoplankton, the zooplankton and the eggs could be disrupted. It's always the eggs and babies that are always affected by this - the adults not so much. If the larval white shrimp don't show up in the grass beds in the Delta and the bays in December and January, we'll know there was a problem with the young. I don't think there is a problem with adults. It's always the eggs and babies that are vulnerable.
"But the ecosystem is very resilient. I hope I make that clear. The comparisons to Exxon Valdez are not valid. It's very cold up there. We have, obviously, a warmer climate so everything happens faster here. We also have an extraordinarily complex ecosystem. In other words, if one species was severely impacted, another one would take its place. We have a very resilient, very flexible ecosystem."
While the beaches can be easily cleaned, Crozier contends any effort to clean the marshes, grass beds and oyster reefs would be a big mistake.
"We'd better leave them alone and let the natural system do that," he said. "Beaches are dry land, at least at low tide. Mostly they grow tourists. And they will come back. I guarantee you that the beaches from the Panhandle to the Mississippi barrier islands will be fine next year."
Crozier does expect the Gulf's adaptation to the oil spill to take a significant amount of time.
"I think we're going to have to deal with enormous uncertainty over the long haul," he said. "We're going to see some impact on the young-of-the-year, whether it be shrimp or red snapper or whatever. There are going to be problems in a couple of years. We're going to see a diminishing of our normal catch. I think that is possible. We will be able to tell you within a couple of months. We will be able to make some semi-intelligent prognostications.
"The challenge for us - the community from the Mississippi River to Cape San Blas (Florida) - is we're going to have to do something to restore the confidence of the country in Gulf seafood. There have not been issues of fish kills from the oil spill. Fish are not stupid. Because the pressure is off, I expect fishing to be good everywhere. The issue of contaminated or tainted fish is a long-term issue of uncertainty that the scientific community and the government regulatory agencies will be struggling to deal with. Meanwhile, for the immediate future, there is simply no reason to be concerned about the fish."
In other good news, the catch-and-release restrictions in Alabama coastal waters north of Dauphin Island and west of Dauphin Island Bridge have been lifted. After fish, shrimp and oyster samples were collected and tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the normal bag limit was re-instated for fish and shrimp. The restrictions on crabs are still in place. The Alabama Department of Public Health reopened the private oyster reefs for harvest effective 6 a.m. on August 10. The public reefs remain closed to oystering by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for management purposes.