Catching up with Jeff Corwin
I caught up with Animal Planet host Jeff Corwin by phone as he visited the Louisiana coast, not long after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig erupted in flames and started spewing mass quantities of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists, commercial fishermen and citizens alike have expressed concern over what will happen to the coastal ecosystem when the oil comes ashore – not to mention the impacts on the greater Gulf marine ecosystem. Just Saturday, some of the first oozing brown oil has started washing ashore in Grande Isle, Louisiana. A couple weeks ago, Jeff visited Venice, Louisiana, and took a riverboat out to a brown pelican rookery offshore – one of several rare species that many are concerned about. He told me what he saw.
“Brown pelicans were a critically endangered species and scientists went through incredibly exhaustive efforts to recover them. And then when they delisted it 6 months ago, this happens. It’s the state bird of Louisiana. It’s on every Louisiana license plate. It’s near and dear to the people here. We took a boat out to [Breton National Wildlife Refuge] with Chief Ornithologist of the Audubon Society Greg Butcher, and we were literally within the fishes’ breath of the pelicans. You know you’re close to a pelican when you smell its breath. They were shadowing us. Some sat on their nests, and we were able to experience what makes them so magical. The rookery was illuminated by the setting sun. You feel like you’ve time traveled back to the Devonian.”
The estuaries and hammocks on the coast of Louisiana have untold value for the ecology of the region, important not just for their own sake, but also in anthropogenic terms, for economically important commercial fisheries, coastal birdwatching, and eco-tourism. When Jeff visited the area, recording video not just in Venice but also off of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, he said that only a few oiled birds had been brought to the rehab center at that time, including a gannet and a couple of brown pelicans. As of last Friday, a total of 27 oiled birds have come in. The International Bird Rescue Research Center blog keeps a running tally.
“We were there when the third bird, a brown pelican, came into the Oiled Bird Rehab Center outside of Venice. The bird was in distress, and they were trying to stabilize it and examine it. There was no evidence of oil in its plumage but they were trying to see if it ingested something. The birds are not only affected by oil, but they can ingest fish affected by the oil. With pelicans, when they scoop up all that fish, they get everything that is also in the water – from benzenes to sulfur to other very dangerous chemicals.”
Besides the crude oil itself, BP is spraying Corexit 9500 undersea – a chemical dispersant that breaks the oil into smaller bits. It does not chemically change the oil or make it go away. Many scientific studies suggest that it can make the oil itself more available to animals, to be ingested or taken in through their skin, and hence the dispersed oil is far more toxic than either the dispersant or the oil alone. And it’s never been used in these quantities, nor this deep undersea.
“Dispersants break up the oil, but in untested ways. They’re jetting it at the site, underwater. They’re propelling it at the surface, not just at the bottom of the ocean. This is very toxic stuff, and it’s primarily designed to be used in deep water.”
In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just ordered BP to stop using the Corexit 9500 dispersant underwater and come up with an alternative. Over 600,000 gallons of the substance have now been deployed in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet BP apparently decided they would not take the EPAs advice, and said after reviewing alternatives, Corexit remains their best option. Some reporters have questioned BPs insistence on using Corexit, a product manufactured by Nalco, a company owned by Goldman Sachs.
I ask Jeff about why, as of when we spoke, the oil hadn’t really hit the shoreline yet.
“The oil is caught in a loop, like the movie Groundhog Day. It just keeps going around and around. When this hits – we don’t know when, we don’t know where – but many reputable folks from government to NGOs believe that when it does, it could quite possibly be an unprecedented event that could really rattle the national and regional economies, and the nation’s supply of seafood. Twenty-five percent of seafood comes from here. And every day another 210,000 gallons of raw sweet crude get released into the Gulf.”
That number has since been revised upwards. Though BP stands by their value, Purdue University engineering professor Steven Wereley used video footage to estimate the oil geyser closer to 70,000 barrels or 2.94 million gallons per day, and other scientists’ estimates have concluded similar values. I ask Jeff if he saw the oil himself while off the coast.
“My mission is to try to stay accurate and not be influenced by hearsay. We made a concerted effort to get to the perimeter of the spill zone. We witnessed what we thought was sheen. The spill has grown to the size of Jamaica, as it expands nearly exponentially. But what we saw was possibly a large algal bloom taking place.”
Algal blooms can take place due to lowered oxygen caused by the oil. In fact, such vast quantities of oil may ultimately cause ecological cascades to run through the entire food web, and the effects will be seen for decades to come. Some fisheries have yet to recover from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
“This region is really a hot zone for several national iconic species:. Alligators, sea turtles, pelicans, herons, and it's one of the nation’s most important shark nurseries, and there are and there are commercially and recreationally important fisheries. It’s part of our national natural heritage and it is in jeopardy. If this is impacted like they think, we’ll all pay.”