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Oil & Dispersants Spell Trouble for Florida’s Coral Reefs

Lisa Speer

Posted May 6, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Reviving the World's Oceans, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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When an oil spill happens, the first thing many people think of are the beaches, wetlands, birds and other life along the shore. And the impacts of oil on that life can be huge and devastating. While dispersing the oil with chemicals may help reduce shoreline impacts, it’s a trade-off that still comes at a great cost.

That’s because dispersants don’t make oil go away – they merely shift the oil and its impacts away from the surface and into the water and the sea floor, where they can cause less visible but equally devastating damage. Oiled fish, dolphins, whales, turtles, shrimp, clams, oysters and other marine life aren’t as easy to photograph, but they too suffer and die, an invisible toll impossible to measure.  

As the spill heads toward Florida I am beginning to worry more about the trade off between protecting the shore and protecting the ocean. While it may have been the right decision to reduce the impacts on Louisiana’s vastly productive and important wetlands by using dispersants, that decision may come back to haunt us in Florida. 

There are a few reasons for this.  First, transferring the oil from the surface into the water means that its trajectory will be driven more by currents than wind. The Loop Current will pick that oil up, and like a conveyer belt transport it directly to Florida, and perhaps beyond.

Second, dispersed oil often forms form a mousse-like toxic soup below the surface, which may end up as in Louisiana threatening sensitive shallow water coastal habitats like Florida’s extensive seagrass beds.

And third, one of the marine treasures of the nation – the coral ecosystems in and around the Florida Keys – are especially vulnerable to this lethal soup. A 2007 study  found that both chemical dispersants and dispersed oil are often much more toxic to corals than oil itself. Dispersants and dispersed oil can result in extensive mortality that manifests itself over months and years.   

The Florida Keys coral reef tract is the third largest in the world, covering over 2,800 square nautical miles in and around the Florida Keys. These reefs are already under tremendous stress from overfishing, pollution, warming water temperatures and ocean acidification.  According to EPA, we may lose most of the coral reefs in the world by the next century as a result. The very last thing Florida’s reefs need is to get hit by a toxic soup of dispersed oil and chemicals.

Using dispersants to protect shorelines in Florida’s case could end up spelling disaster for its reefs and seagrass beds, which are already under great stress. On the other hand allowing the oil to reach shore is a horrible alternative. It’s a terrible Catch 22, one that again points up the need for greater safety and a move away from dirty energy.

Something good can still come out this tragedy – we can learn from our mistakes, and we can make sure this never happens again. That’s why President Obama must impose a moratorium on all new offshore oil drilling activities,  and our nation must turn our full attention toward clean, renewable energy that can’t spill or run out. The Senate has a chance to pass clean energy legislation this year – join me in telling Washington we want to learn from this tough lesson and get on the path to a cleaner, safer energy future. Take action here.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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