The State of the Gulf Coast Wetlands—Two Years After the B.P. Oil Spill

Since the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, dolphin strandings have occurred at an unprecedented high level—over 500 stranded dolphins—one indicator that there is still a major problem in the Gulf (NOAA). Another strong indicator is the accelerated rate of coastal wetland loss in the Gulf as direct result from the impacts of the spill. Prior to the 2010 spill, the state of Louisiana already faced significant coastal wetland loss—about the area equivalent to a football field’s worth of wetlands every hour. Over 1,000 miles of coastal wetlands were contaminated by the oil spill, and despite restoration efforts, the rate of coastal wetland loss is now made more complex by the spill and clean-up process. Efforts to clean up the oil in the marshes, in some areas, depending on the extent of the contamination, have caused further damage to the wetlands. (NWF) A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation, “A Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands—Two Years into the Gulf OilDisaster” assesses the impacts to sea turtles, dolphins, pelicans, other wildlife and coastal wetlands affected by the B.P. oil spill.

NOAA announced this month that eight Gulf coast restoration projects will begin this year with $60 million earmarked for the work to create marshes, improve coastal dune habitat, restore oyster beds and reefs, and other projects related to the boat industry.  The first phase of the projects will take place in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. There is more information about these restoration projects atwww.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov and www.doi.gov/deepwaterhorizon

Specific project fact sheets on each restoration project involved in this first phase of the Gulf Coast Restoration, called “Early Restoration,” an effort to get the natural resources back to the state prior to the spill, are available on NOAA’s website.  To learn more about the Gulf Coast Early Restoration efforts underway, go to:http://www.gulfspill
restoration.noaa.gov/
restoration/early-restoration/

As part of the response to the spill two years ago, a number of organizations and agencies have worked hard to address the critical needs of wildlife that depended on the coastal wetlands that were contaminated or destroyed by the spill. For example, a shorebird habitat enhancement project provided alternative habitat in Mississippi for waterfowl. A sea turtle project improved nesting and hatching on the Texas coast.

The Gulf coast’s diverse shoreline includes mangroves, cypress swamps, fresh and saltwater marshes and mudflats. What’s really at stake here? More than half of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states are located on the Gulf coast, which is also where the majority of coastal wetland loss has been occurring.  About 40% of these are in Louisiana. (NOAA) There is an important link between the healthy coastal marshes, their ecological role in serving as a nursery for invertebrates and small fish, and the larger fisheries and their health—which in turn, have a big impact on both the economy and well-being of people along the Gulf coast. In a healthy coastal marsh, the wetland soils and vegetation protect the land from storm surge, reduce flooding and improve water quality in the surrounding watershed. In a coastal marsh that has been contaminated by oil, the vegetation dies and the soil no longer has the ability to hold its position; it becomes more likely to erode during storms and even day-to-day tidal activity. Coastal wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate, becoming open ocean.

One would think that cleaning up the oil during the response to the disaster would have solved the problem of contaminated marshes. But it doesn’t work that way. The vulnerable wetlands were threatened by the clean-up response methods intended to save them. The tools used to prevent oil from contaminating shorelands, including booms, got stuck in the wetlands.  Other techniques used to remove the oil disturbed and killed vegetation and other living things. Oily mats smothered mudflats and sand removal disturbed the beach habitat. These unintended impacts have been monitored and a number of contaminated marsh studies will help the response teams to evaluate these impacts and clean-up methods. For more information, see this Status Update: Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NOAA, April 2012).

Related blogs:

Gulf Restoration Network (includes photo slide show): Bird’s Eye View: An Earth Day Reflection In Photos Of The Last 2 Years Of The BP Drilling Disaster

Huffington Post blogs and videos of Gulf Oil Spill

Response & Restoration (NOAA) blog

8 Gulf coast restoration projects announced

Environmental Defense Fund blog: ASFPM Agrees: Some Gulf oil spill fines should go to Gulf restoration (Feb. 2012)

For background information on the impact of the oil spill on wetlands and related media over the past two years, visit ASWM’s Gulf Oil Spill Impact on Wetlands page I put together.

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