Ecosystem in the surf imperiled by oil spill
Biologists eye effects on creatures along shoreline
KIMBERLY BLAIR • KBLAIR@PNJ.COM • AUGUST 16, 2010
Pompano and whiting patrol for them as they dart for cover in the wave wash. Ghost crabs, sandpipers and other shore birds feast on their soft insides and toss their fragile shells aside.
Anglers seek them for bait. Kids hunt them for "sea monsters" to put in sand castle moats.
The little crustaceans teem in a narrow tidal zone just off the hot summer sand — the beginning of the vast Gulf of Mexico food chain.
But these vital creatures and those that depend on them are threatened by toxic oil still lurking in the Gulf and deposits of crude already under the sands of Panhandle beaches.
"As the oil comes in, it gets buried by the wave action," Gulf Islands National Seashore biologist Mark Nicholas said. "Sanderlings and shore birds poke their noses into the sand to feed."
Nobody really knows how many birds have died along local beaches as the result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some dead birds have been found at Fort Pickens, Opal and Johnson beaches, Nicholas said.
But he said many shore birds nesting along the seashore in the early days of the oil spill abandoned their nests and eggs.
He's not sure if it was because oil tainted their food supply or because of all the unusual activity near nesting areas created by the oil spill cleanup operation.
Rick Clark, chief of science and resources management for the Gulf Islands National Seashore, said park rangers are monitoring the situation and preparing to develop a baseline inventory of species impacted by the oil for a long-term study.
"All species are interrelated up and down the food chains," Clark said "And we don't know the ultimate effect the oil spill has on the species. Everyone is happy the well has been capped, but it's not over. There's still a lot of oil out there, an unprecedented amount of oil."
Signs of life
Marine biologist Robert Turpin waded into the surf near the Pensacola Beach fishing pier at sunset recently to scoop up a handful of sand teaming with colorful coquina clams and sand fleas.
"They are a good indication that this is not a mass dead zone," he said.
But their presence does not mean the ecosystem is 100 percent healthy, he said, pointing to the pea soup-colored waves filled with slimy June grass.
"If not for the oil spill, we'd look at this and say 'Wow. That's a lot of June grass,' " Turpin said about a tremendous bloom of the plankton-based seaweed. "This is a larger bloom than I've ever seen."
The fact it coincides with the oil spill fuels speculation it may be caused by the oil spill.
Emerald Coastkeeper Chassidy Hobbs said it took four years for the fish populations to crash after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.
"Herring have not fully come back 21 years later," she said. "They didn't see the impacts there initially."
Her greatest concern is the 1.8 million gallons of toxic dispersant BP sprayed on the oil to break it down and the chemical's impact on microorganisms, including phytoplankton.
"Phytoplankton are the base of the food web for whole Gulf of Mexico," Hobbs said. "As to what kind of ecological and health impacts it is having, it is yet to be determined."
Returning to normal
Turpin remains optimistic about the resiliency of the Gulf.
"I'm extremely hopeful. As a marine biologist who has lived here half a century and watched this system recover from hurricanes and other things, we'll get to pre-oil conditions very rapidly," he said.
His own family's quality of life has been affected.
Recently, the Gulf Breeze resident picked up his wife, Tammie, and two daughters, Celia, 7, and Mara, 9, for one of their favorite summertime pastimes — a ghost crab and sand flea hunt.
The family had not been on one since the oil washed ashore in June.
"It's a family tradition," Celia said. "We shine a flashlight on them and chase them down and put them in a bucket. It's awesome."
Discussion of Gulf Oil Spill regarding Navarre Beach, Florida; the good, bad and ugly reports; however most of the reports of oil on Navarre Beach are good!
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