The Beacon

New Zealand Oil Spill Brings Reminders of Gulf Spill

little blue penguin

A little blue penguin covered in oil. © Jeremy Gray/Flickr

Matthew Huelsenbeck is a marine scientist at Oceana.

A cargo ship has wrecked on a reef off the coast of New Zealand and the oil spill and wreckage is being called the worst maritime environmental disaster in the country’s history.

Reminders of last year’s Gulf oil spill are playing out as oil is lapping up on some of New Zealand’s most popular beaches, and hazmat suit workers are attempting to clean it up. Graphic images are emerging of oil soaked penguins and birds washing up dead.

Videos show the cargo ship tilted at a severe angle and it is feared to be splitting in half. Several of the cargo containers hold hazardous materials that could ignite in flames when in contact with water. New Zealand’s emergency response team is having difficulties containing the spill and accessing the ship due to high seas and strong winds. 

During a college study abroad at the University of Auckland, I experienced the unspoiled beaches of New Zealand, and the little blue penguins that are now washing ashore dead. New Zealand’s respect for the coastlines and marine life has given them great protection and status in their country, so this is indeed a sad day for their citizens and all of us who appreciate the oceans. I hope that the political response in New Zealand to this disaster is better than what has happened so far in the United States, which is a whole lot of talk and no action.

Here in the U.S., Shell is pushing to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean and making outrageous claims that they could clean up after an oil spill under even more extreme weather, seasonal darkness, sea ice, and no harbors. Previous spill cleanup drills in the Arctic have failed miserably. 

America still has a chance! Protect walruses and seals by helping us keep similar oil spills out of the Arctic Ocean.


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New Study: Gulf Spill Oil Threatens Fish Biology

A soapfish in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Eduardo Sorensen

The first study showing the biological impacts to wildlife from last year’s Gulf oil spill has just been published in PNAS, and the news is not good for fish populations. 

After being exposed to low levels of heavily weathered crude oil in marsh habitats, killifish, also called bull minnows, showed cellular changes in their livers which could impact reproduction and health. Killifish are an important part of the Gulf of Mexico food web, and impacts to their populations could have ecosystem-wide results.

"The message that seafood is safe to eat doesn't necessarily mean that the animals are out of the woods," said Andrew Whitehead, an assistant professor of biology at Louisiana State University and a lead researcher in the study.

These lesser-seen impacts to reproduction are predictive of more serious long-term threats to populations. In a way, these changes are even more tragic than the animals that washed up on the shore dead after the spill. The study found the same kind of cellular responses in killifish as were observed in herring, salmon and ducks that later had population crashes as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and some populations never recovered.    

The fish showed changes even when the water was seemingly clean and when there were very low levels of oil present. The researchers note that even when oil is not visible on the surface, the toxic components of the oil can remain in the sediment and get stirred up by waves and storms. 

"Where's the oil? It's in the sediment," Whitehead said.

He’s right. A couple of weeks ago Tropical Storm Lee unearthed miles of tar balls, tar mats and abandoned cleanup equipment left from last year's oil spill, forcing BP cleanup crews back to the beaches.

As the science of the spill is just beginning to unfold and BP continues to clean up oil on the beaches, Congress is pushing hard for more risky offshore drilling in the same affected ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, and new pristine environments like the Arctic where there is no capability to clean up after a spill.

Help us in the fight to stop offshore drilling. Sign the petition to Stop the Drill today if you haven't already!


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BP Pays Out – But What’s the Real Price of the Spill?

 After the Gulf oil spill happened, people demanded numbers. They wanted to know animal mortality numbers and dollar signs to understand the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history.

The problem is that the extent of this spill was so huge and so many animals and people were affected that it’s hard to quantify. But some recent numbers help show how widespread the impacts have been.

So far BP has set aside $20 billion for spill impacts, and it has just been released that they paid out $5 billion of that amount in damages to over 200,000 people in the last year, with an additional $1.5 billion going to cleanup and restoration.

Many more people are claiming damages, with a total of close to 1 million claims being processed from people in all 50 states and 36 different nations, with thousands more claims coming in each week.

How could a spill in the Gulf possibly affect over a million people in such far reaching places? The answer is that the Gulf of Mexico isn’t just an oil and gas depot, it is used for many activities besides drilling that employ thousands of people in fishing and tourism related jobs. As a result, the economic impacts of the spill have been felt around the world.


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News from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Small velella surrounded by plastic. © Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Imagine you’re in a dimly lit Italian restaurant. Famished, you take the first bite of a juicy eggplant parmesan dinner, and it turns out to be a big hunk of plastic. (Yuk.)

That’s the reality for fish in an area of the ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where fish are mistaking their food sources with a growing amount of floating trash. 

Two graduate students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Pete Davison and Rebecca Asch, joined the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition, or SEAPLEX, where they found evidence of plastic waste in more than 9 percent of the stomachs of fish collected during their voyage to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The mid-water fishes contained plastic debris, primarily broken-down bits smaller than a human fingernail.

"That is an underestimate of the true ingestion rate because a fish may regurgitate or pass a plastic item, or even die from eating it. We didn't measure those rates, so our 9 percent figure is too low by an unknown amount," said Davison.

Based on these rates of ingestion, they estimate that fish in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific ingest plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year, but the real number could be much higher.


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New Google Tool Reveals Oil Spill Amnesia

deepwater horizon explosion

Just one year ago in early June 2010, tar balls began washing up on the beaches of Pensacola, Florida, and oily waves lapped the shores of the federally protected Gulf Islands National Seashore. Graphic images of oil- covered cormorants and pelicans emerged in the news.

Over one-third of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico were closed to fishing and BP released the first video clips of a hole the size of a dinner plate gushing crude oil into the deep dark waters of the Gulf. But one year later a different disaster of great magnitude has occurred -- the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history has largely been forgotten. 

A phenomenon deemed “oil spill amnesia” has been uncovered after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to greatly expand offshore oil drilling in federal waters with less safety provisions than before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This made it obvious that many of our politicians had forgotten about the risks of offshore drilling, but how much the general public and media has forgotten about the Gulf oil spill was speculative, until now.

Google has come out with a new tool that is perfect for data nerds called Google Correlate. It can relate two different search terms or phrases and show their correlation in terms of internet search activity. Based on search activity Google has been able to accurately predict rates of flu, and these tools may serve great importance in our society.

It has also revealed that people have indeed largely forgotten about the impacts of the BP oil spill.


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Japan’s Radiation Leak Causes Fishing and Shipping Ban

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Since our first post about the impacts of Japan’s nuclear crisis on the oceans, a lot has happened, but many questions remain and the situation is constantly changing.

As the cooling systems for the injured reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station remain offline, the method used to avoid a fire and full-blown meltdown of the reactors has been the continuous pumping of seawater onto the fuel rods.

Much of the seawater is evaporated, but thousands of tons of radiated water runoff have filled the nuclear plant. Tokyo Electric, who runs the facility, has shown extreme difficulties handling the growing amounts of radiated water.

They began pumping over 10,000 tons of seawater with lower levels of radiation out into the ocean, to make room for more contaminated water. Shortly afterwards a large crack was discovered last Saturday in a pit next to the seawater intake pipes at the No. 2 reactor which began leaking drastically higher levels of radiation directly into the Pacific.

During the leak, Tokyo Electric reported that seawater near the plant contained radioactive iodine-131 that was 5 million times the legal limit, and cesium-137 levels at 1.1 million times the legal limit. 


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A Third of Reef Fish Face Extinctions from Climate Change

A blacknosed butterflyfish. © Oceana

When you picture the impacts of climate change, what animal comes to mind? Is it a polar bear floating on a thin chunk of ice, or maybe another cold climate species losing habitat like a walrus or a penguin?

Add butterflyfish to your thoughts about climate change, because a new study predicts that they, along with one-third of all coral reef fish, are losing reef habitat and are locally threatened with extinction from climate change.

Coral reefs are threatened by two aspects of carbon dioxide emissions, ocean acidification and climate change. Corals are susceptible to sustained periods of warmer water temperatures due to climate change, which causes them to bleach when they expel algae, turning them white.


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New Report: It’s Getting Hot Out There

Every year the Endangered Species Coalition creates a report that focuses on 10 species facing extinction that are currently listed or being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

This year’s report, It’s Getting Hot Out There: Top Ten Places to Save for Endangered Species, focuses on critical habitats that support endangered species and are themselves threatened by climate change. Shallow water coral reefs and Arctic sea ice, two important habitats that Oceana works hard to protect, were selected as two of the top 10 most important habitats to protect.

Oceana nominated shallow water coral reefs as a habitat that is important to save from the threats caused by human-produced carbon dioxide emissions: climate change and ocean acidification.


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