by Tony Rosenfeld
Lately, I go to work at the shellfish hatchery and think about the Gulf of Mexico. While my hands are submerged in the clear water of the Lagoon, caught in familiar repetitive motions involved in scallop rearing, my mind wanders south.
It’s been three months since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Three months of raw oil gushing out into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. The spill is already the largest to take place in U.S. controlled waters. As of press time, the cap put in place by BP Global seems to be holding, although concerns are rising about possible leaks elsewhere in the nearby seafloor. On the shores of Louisiana, clean-up crews have started their relentless effort to gather, contain, and rescue.
For most Vineyard residents, the Gulf spill is not a direct threat. It’s joke material at the Taste of The Vineyard raw bar, or a reason to praise or criticize the Obama administration over dinner with friends. No one here looks at the horizon and waits for tar balls. It’s a big ocean after all, and 1,000 miles seems like a very long way to go.
“Nobody is worried, but if something (i.e. oil) starts coming up, I’ll start pushing the buttons,” says Dave Grunden, Shellfish Constable for the town of Oak Bluffs. The Vineyard’s old-timers are familiar with the procedures involved in dealing with oil spills. The Cape Cod Canal is a major transit route for tankers transporting oil into the greater Boston area, and Islanders have had to respond to many spills over the years. In 1969, the oil barge Florida spilled 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel in Buzzards Bay, killing wildlife and soaking into the mud so deep that it can still be found today. In 1979, it was the Argo Merchant that spilled its entire cargo, 7.7 million gallons of fuel oil, after running aground on Nantucket shoals. “I remember washing the birds with Dawn Soap after school at Felix Neck,” says Dave, who was 14 years old at the time of the Florida spill.
Dave already has a strategy if the Gulf oil ever shows. All six Island towns are all equipped with emergency response trailers purchased with a trust fund set up as part of the Oil Spill Act of 2004. The 20-foot trailers each hold 1,000 feet of boom, anchors, line, and absorbent pillows. A thousand feet of boom seems negligible, but it could be helpful if placed strategically. “I can put a chevron at Little Bridge (in Oak Bluffs) so that the oil goes onto the sandy beaches rather than into the pond,” says Dave. “Sand is much easier to clean than wetlands. Immediately I thought about Louisiana’s luscious wetlands.”
The oil has reached the Loop Current, an ocean current that flows clockwise around the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, loops southeastward just south of the Florida Keys and becomes the Gulf Stream. But it is highly unlikely that any of the thick raw oil will end up on our Vineyard beaches. Most models developed by physical oceanographers do show the oil entering the Gulf Stream and reaching the Atlantic Northeast, but at very low concentrations and mostly offshore.
However, the oil does not need to reach our shores to affect our waters. “Everything is local because our ocean systems are connected and dependent on one another,” explains Dr. Jennifer Bender Ferré, executive director of Stellwagen Alive. This non-profit’s mission is to preserve Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an 842-square-mile zone in the Massachusetts Bay, between Cape Ann and Cape Cod.
Fish travel. A lot of the pelagic migratory fish that thrive in Vineyard waters are born in the Gulf of Mexico and return there to breed. “The Atlantic bluefin tuna, the yellowfin tuna, and a couple of bill fishes—blue marlin, white marlin— spawn in areas of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Dr. Greg Skomal, a Martha’s Vineyard-based marine biologist and The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Guy.” The fish larvae usually spend their nursery phase in Sargassum weed, a floating mat of vegetation that also provides habitat for dolphins, wahoo, sea turtles, and marine birds. None of this amazing floating habitat will survive contact with the oil. Entire year classes will be lost. “You’re going to get this hiccup in productivity,” explains Dr. Skomal.
“Recruitment (the number of fish which grow into the catchable size range in a unit of time, usually a year) may not be seen for many years, if not a decade or so, which ultimately will lead to fisheries problems.” Tragically, the Bluefin tuna, which is the most depleted species involved, will be the most impacted.
As for the low concentration of oil entering the Gulf Stream, traveling north, and passing within a hundred miles east of New England, no one can predict the effect it will have on the delicate balance of the offshore pelagic communities.
The productive edges of the Gulf Stream are essential to ecosystems like Georges Bank and the Grand Bank, making the Gulf Stream a key feature to New England’s seafood industry. “There are going to be problems,” says Dr. Skomal. “I don’t know if anyone can say what they are going to be.”
Long-term issues will arise. Some, like the lack of fish recruitment, will not appear until next year.
Down at the local fish market, changes are already happening. The price of shrimp is up, and a gallon of shucked oysters costs $20 more than last month. “We are worried,” explains Jeffrey Maida, manager of the Net Result Fish Market in Vineyard Haven, “We don’t know what the overall picture is going to be.”