Oil spills: can anyone say for sure what long-term effect they have?
Having finished my hibernation from studying hard for a test on aquatic pollution, I’ve been trying to catch up on recent ocean news. But the exam yesterday reminded me how little I really know about oil pollution, despite having read some great chapters from the EA Laws classic text Aquatic Pollution and relevant chapters from Oceana. (A side-point is that our lecturer told us oil pollution wouldn’t be on the test, then changed her mind at some point and I missed her mental note – so I wasn’t prepared).
Anyway, oil spills are one of those areas where ‘experts’ of different fields seem to have wildly different answers when it comes to cleaning up. Some say chemical dispersants are the answer (and often neglecting to mention the further effects on wildlife), others will demand a load of seawater containing carbon-degarding bacteria be dumped on the site (ditto re possible effects on the indigenous bacteria, microalgae populations and further up the food web).
This post, from the Times-Picayune in Louisiana, spells out some of the issues with making sweeping statements about one oil spill – this time it’s the Deepwater Horizon spill from 2009. As the author, Bob Marshall, begins, his previous article commenting on fears that the BP oil spill would damage the trout season, was taken by ‘some readers’ (probably many, he just isolates the ones he replied) to mean the spill IS hurting speckled trout’. He continues:
Other readers thought the column showed there’s no way the oil spill is causing problems for speckled trout. I didn’t report that, either.
I was trying to artfully convey the angst of charter captains looking for answers to poor fishing in the wake of the spill, forced to draw their own conclusions in the absence of scientific data from the state. Obviously, I was a bad artist.
More likely is that people often have established views on how little or how much an oil spill will effect an ecosystem or in this case, on particular species. It’s not scientific but it can be anecdotal (e.g. “I only caught 100 trout this season, instead of 250, so I’ll blame the oil”) or just drawn from the media or government or corporate or environmental organisation’s portrayal of the damage.
An oil company may want to play down the damage, as may a sportfishing charter group who don’t want people to think there are less trout to be caught! But an environment group, looking to jump onto a media trend, could play up the effects and win themselves valuable support and donations.
So unless their motives are based on fact (and you could argue – who decides the facts), having a balanced view of the arguments and looking scientifically at the data is the only way to get a real image of what oil spills do to an environment.