Gulf Oil Spill One Year Later

Written by on April 21, 2011 in Marine Life, Physical Oceanography, Policy & Ocean Law

What was possibly the worst maritime oil spill in history began one year ago in a poorly drilled well deep in the Gulf of Mexico.  The explosion killed 11 workers and sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, causing a leak that spewed 206 million barrels of oil before it was capped, 87 days later.

A third of the Gulf’s waters were closed to fishing and hundreds of miles of fragile coastal wetlands and beaches were contaminated.  The economic costs have reached into the tens of billions.  Over 130,000 fishermen and coastal residents who were greatly affected by this disaster are still trying to push their compensation claims through the system.

“They could give me $500 million and it wouldn’t be enough,” said Dean Blanchard, who used to handle as much as 500,000 pounds of shrimp a day at his Grand Isle, Louisiana dock.  “It’s not the money, it’s your life’s work. It’s what I love, it’s what I did my whole life and they just came along and blindsided me.”

Thankfully, the location of the well and about two million gallons of chemical dispersants kept the bulk of the oil from the shore.  That  protected fragile coastal wetlands and millions of nesting birds.

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire after the explosion.

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire after the explosion.

A study from Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire found that about 48 percent of Gulf Coast residents perceived damage to the environment and wildlife as the most serious result of the oil spill.

Crews are still actively cleaning 235 miles of coastline and plan to return to around 300 more miles once the tourism and nesting seasons are over.  The full effect on the fish, shrimp and marine mammals around the area is still unclear.

“The outstanding question is did we save something in the short-term to extend a problem in the long-term,” said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.  “We just don’t have enough information to say one way or another.”

John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains that  “the oil did not cause the catastrophic mortality of birds that we might have seen had the winds and tides carried oil into all the major islands where colonies of birds raise their young.  Thousands of birds were heavily oiled, and we know now that probably tens of thousands more were affected by smaller amounts of oil that couldn’t be seen from a distance but were visible in the high-definition video footage acquired by the Lab’s video crews.”

“At the breeding colonies where our crews worked, nearly all the young birds and a huge proportion of the adults had at least some oil on them,” Fitzpatrick said.  “Even these small amounts of oil can be harmful.  The oil can be ingested, it can ruin the waterproofing and insulation properties of feathers, and can cause birds to spend energy cleaning their feathers at the expense of finding food or caring for young.  These health effects couldn’t be measured, of course, so we won’t ever really know the total mortality from this spill.”

Fitzpatrick continued to comment on the future: “Looking ahead, we have to ask how many more additional problems that birds and our natural ecosystems can endure.  We have to commit ourselves to preventing any recurrence of such a calamity, because next time we might not get this lucky.  True recovery means not only responding to the spill, but fundamentally changing the way we do business in such resource-rich areas.  We need to restore long-term ecosystem functions to the spectacular ecosystems of the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Delta, because these functions are essential for people as well as for one of America’s richest concentrations of wildlife.”

Copyright ©  2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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