By Martha Musgrove
and John Koenig
Marine scientist and deep-sea explorer Dr. Edith “Edie” Widder sums up what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico in three words: “a hideous stain.”
It takes a lot more words to sum up her. She is an acclaimed researcher specializing in bioluminescence (light chemically produced by marine organisms); engaging television personality featured on the Discovery Channel and PBS’s NOVA and www.TED.com; inventor holding patents on light-measuring instruments in use on U.S. Navy submarines; a MacArthur Fellow, the so-called genius grant; a deep sea explorer with hundreds of dives under her belt; a certified submersibles pilot; first person to photograph deep-sea bioluminescence, designer of a remotely operated camera, called the Eye-in-the-Sea, which captured the first images of a new species of squid in 2,100 feet of water 160 miles from the site of the BP blowout; and co-founder of Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), based in Fort Pierce and aiming to reverse years of marine ecosystem degradation.
With ORCA engineers, she developed Kilroy, an inexpensive solar-powered water-quality monitor. Kilroy can track oil, providing scientifically defensible “before” and “after” measurements of impact and damage. It would take $180,000 to deploy Kilroys in the Keys channels and critical East Coast estuary inlets and $20,000 to test for toxicity in the 10 inlets between Sebastian and Key Biscayne. Unable to attract the money from state or federal agencies, Widder has issued an Internet plea for help: www.teamorca.org.
On Monday, Widder shared with FloridaThinks her observations on the destruction underway in the Gulf from the BP oil spill.
Question: We’ve all seen the photos of the oil spill working up to shore, people trying to pick it up. But what is happening under water to the reefs and sea life?
Edith Widder: We wish we knew. There’s not anywhere near enough information, and there’s virtually no monitoring going on. But I can tell you I’ve been under water right by where the oil spill is, and it’s some of the most beautiful deep-sea reefs I’ve seen anywhere in my life. It’s been described as being like the Garden of Eden.
Dr. Edith Widder captured this image in 2004 of coral, sponges and sea anemone undersea on the Viosca Knoll in the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of 1,300 feet. The Knoll is 36 miles north of BP’s blown-out well.
Whether they’re being impacted by the oil or the dispersants or the drilling mud, for that matter, we don’t know. I suspect that anywhere they make contact with the oil, they’re being killed or damaged. There are studies dating back to 1983 showing that coral exposed to oil alone or dispersant alone did OK, but the combination caused an 85 percent reduction in photosynthesis. Those were hard, surface corals. We don’t know what impact it might be having on the deep, non-photosynthetic corals.
Q: How far down are you talking about?
Widder: The Viosca Knoll reef pictures [published with this conversation] were taken between 1,000 and 2,000 feet down. They’re very near the oil spill.
The point is that we have very little understanding of what the dispersants’ impact on all of this is. What it is probably doing is keeping the oil beneath the surface. That may be part of the point, to keep it from lapping up against the shore. But if they think that’s not causing damage to the ecosystem, they don’t have an understanding of how the ecosystem out there works.
For example, every day in the oceans of the world, the largest animal migration pattern on the planet occurs. Because in the open ocean environment, there are no trees or bushes for animals to hide behind, they go down into the dark depths to hide during the day, and then they come up into food-rich surface waters under cover of darkness. As a result of all of these animals moving up and down every single day, they enter different currents. They might come up in clean water and go down through dirty water. They have a much higher probably of exposure to the oil because of this vertical migration pattern.
Some of the vertical migrators are an absolutely critical part of the food chain. Krill, which are so abundant – they’re a food source for baleen whales. They’re a critical food source for blue fin tuna. They tend to accumulate at the edge of the loop current, which is a prime feeding and spawning ground for blue fin tuna. So one potential outcome of this oil spill is the commercial extinction of Atlantic Blue Fin Tuna. They were already being pushed to the edge of extinction by overfishing, and this may be the tipping point.
Venus flytrap anemone at the deepwater Viosca Knoll reef before the blowout at the nearby BP Deepwater Horizon well.
The thing is, everything we’re talking about here is going to impact the fisheries. Those deep coral reefs are important habitat for the deepwater fishes. The vertical migrators that are being killed off by the oil are food source for important fisheries fish, like the Atlantic blue fin tuna. And most devastating of all is the destruction of the fish nurseries in the mangroves and wetlands. That’s the scariest of all because there’s nothing at all that can be done to clean that up. It’s just going to have to wait for nature to do its thing, and that could be decades. If they go in and try to clean it up, they’re just going to make it worse.
As soon as the oil contacts the sea grass beds and the mangroves, it’s probably killing them. It’s certainly killing all of the filter feeders attached to the mangrove roots and all of the plankton that is the food source for the baby fish in among the mangroves and sea grasses. So the fish don’t have a chance – nor do the squid and shrimp.
Q: What should be done to protect the estuaries?
Widder: The only thing that can be done to protect the estuaries is to keep the oil out, because once it’s in, anything you try to do to clean it up is probably going to make it worse.
Q: Is it possible to keep oil out of the estuaries?
Widder: The concept that oil floats is somewhat specious, because it depends on the mixture. The oil plus dispersant, the oil plus the gas, is causing them to form into very small droplets. There are clear indications there are deep-water plumes. There was a ship out there last week on a research mission that found evidence of a deep-water plume down between 1,100 and 1,300 meters. That oil does seem to be staying down for a very long time. Also, oil can actually be heavier than water. You can have tar balls that just roll across the bottom.
As the oil comes around the tip of Florida and up the East Coast, if we could have more information about what form it’s going to be in, because we don’t really know that. Is it going to be deep oil? Is it going to be surface oil? Is it going to be tar balls? Of those, which is going to be the most toxic? If we could gather that information, which is what we’re actually trying to get funding to do, then we would have a better chance of figuring out the best way to protect our estuaries.
Sucking Oxygen Out of the Water
Q: We already have a dead zone about the size of New Jersey in the Gulf, near the mouth of the Mississippi, where reportedly nothing can live. Tell us about that. Are you worried that the oil spill will expand the dead zone or create new dead zones?
Widder: You have nutrients, largely agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, flowing out of the breadbasket of the United States down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf. Now, nutrients don’t sound like a bad thing. But a healthy marine ecosystem should be nutrient limited, and when you add fertilizer to it you make the weeds grow. The weeds in the water situation are micro algae. The micro algae blooms, then they die and the bacteria eat them and they suck all of the oxygen out of the water. And there’s no oxygen left for anything else. The only thing that can live there are bacteria and jelly fish. You can also get algae blooms that produce toxins and that end up causing fish kills as well.
The microorganisms that break down petroleum have a huge demand for oxygen, so they’re going to suck oxygen out of the water. They’ll be doing their bit to try to clean up this mess, but as they’re doing it, they’re going to be sucking the oxygen out of the water and not leaving any for the aerobic animals that need it.
I would expect a possible expansion of the existing dead zone, but potentially there could be new dead zones. It will depend entirely on how the currents flow and what happens with hurricanes. Hurricanes are another added factor that we really don’t know what their impact could be, but it’s probably not going to be good.
Q: We now have 4,000 drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Widder: Not only that, but we have a lot of underwater pipeline that’s been there for a very long time and it’s starting to age. People haven’t been talking about it very much, but it is also a major concern.
Q: Should oil drilling in Florida’s coastal waters be prohibited?
Widder: Until there’s been a demonstration of far more safety precautions than were obviously even considered in this case, yes. You need fail-safe, upon fail-safe, upon fail-safe. When you look at the billions and billions of dollars of damage being done to the ecosystem, it seems unconscionable that we could even consider it. It ought to be treated the same way you would treat nuclear power plants, with the same kinds of controls, safety checks and oversight. And clearly, that was not the case.
What people need to be made to understand is that Planet Earth is a spaceship. We don’t have another spaceship we can move off onto. Our life-support system is our oceans. They produce more than 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. They’re often described as the kidneys of the planet.
If you are going on a mission into space, the first thing you want to make sure of is the health of your life-support systems. You don’t want to contaminate them. You want to be monitoring them. You want to be taking care of them. And you don’t want some greedy industrialist coming along and being able to make himself wealthy while destroying your life-support system.
We’re contaminating our ecosystem services, so that a few people can get rich. We have to start valuing ecosystem services economically so that when people are using them, they are actually paying for their real cost.
Is It Possible to ‘Make This Right?’
Q: The CEO of BP has gone on TV and said, “We’re going to make this right.” Is that even possible?
Widder: No, they’re never going to be able to make it right. They’re making a concerted effort to not find out what they need to do to make it right. They’re holding the purse strings for a lot of the (scientific research) work that is being done, and a lot of the work that could document the damage being done isn’t getting done. The government doesn’t want to take responsibility. They’re saying it’s BP’s responsibility. But anybody holding the purse strings is clearly determining how the money is being spent, and that is not a healthy situation. That is the fox taking care of the hen house.
For example, the marine mammals out there – every time they come to the surface and take a breath of air, they get a tremendous intake of the fumes, hydrocarbons, they take in oil, and they may end up dying. But we’re not going to have any concept of that. The death toll could be, and probably already is, enormous. But how will we know that? These animals sink when they die and they get consumed in a matter of days on the bottom of the ocean, so there will be no record.
In many cases, there is no record of the baseline toxicity of a particular area. So if you come in later and show high levels of toxicity or damage, how do you prove what the situation was beforehand?
Q: Has there been a clamor from marine scientists from around the world to get in there and do some research?
Widder: There’s a huge push. We just spoke to one of the program officers at the National Science Foundation about some monitoring that we want to do – that we feel we’re uniquely qualified to do – and were told that they basically have no more funds. In the meantime, we’re not getting the baseline data that is so important to get prior to the oil hitting. What we’re ending up doing is putting out an e-mail blast, asking for financial support from individuals, because we think this is so important.
‘Command Center Is Under BP Control’
Q: You have visited the oil-spill command center. Do you think everything that is possible to do is being done? What concerns do you have?
Widder: The problem with the command center is that every single person in the command center is under BP control. There are different groups. They’re all working in silos. There’s not a lot of cross-communication. What they need to do is get some of the top scientists together outside of BP’s control to be brainstorming about the best things to be doing in response to this situation.
Q: Are we going to end up with all of the scientific data collected on this being controlled by BP?
Widder: That’s a very real concern. There needs to be a centralized data facility where people can share data, and it needs to be outside of BP’s control.
Q: What advice would you have President Obama, Governor Crist and our political leadership?
Widder: I would like to see them put together a team of scientists and engineers, working together, separate from BP, to come up with solutions. Some scientists have been doing this on their own, but I don’t believe this has been funded and it needs to be to be seriously funded. And there needs to be a centralized data facility where data can be shared openly. But it needs to be funded by somebody other than BP.
Here’s a thinking article with an actionable step – the creation of an independent scientific oversight and action committee on the oil spill. Pass it on.