The vast quantities of oil and dispersants that have flooded the Gulf of Mexico are now disappearing into the water column, leading scientists to worry about the long-term toxic effects. One species of particular concern is the Gulf sturgeon, a remarkable “living dinosaur” of a fish that can reach 1000 pounds, and can cause serious injury with its armor-plated skin as it leaps through the air. However, these anadromous fish — which, like salmon, spawn in rivers but live as adults in the ocean — are no match for man’s destructive power. Once living throughout the eastern Gulf, the fish is now a threatened species because of river damming, pollution, and overfishing, with a range limited from the Suwannee River in Florida to the Pearl River in Mississippi and Louisiana. According to Frank Parauka, a fishery biologist with the the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there are about 10,000 Gulf sturgeon left.
When the Bush administration made plans to open up more of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling — including the eventual site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster — the Minerals Management Service predicted that there would be “minimal” impacts on the Gulf sturgeon, even in the case of “accidental spills”:
Impacts on Gulf sturgeon associated with routine operations and accidental spills under the proposed action are expected to be minimal, because there is relatively little overlap between the locations that could be affected by activities and the distribution of Gulf sturgeon. [p. 57]
In fact, nearly all of the estuarine regions that are key to Gulf sturgeon survival have been affected by the BP oil disaster. Ichthyologist Stephen Ross, who has been tracking Gulf sturgeon in the marine environment for years, has found that the adult fish live among the Mississippi barrier islands in the cold months of the year, and that juveniles probably live there all year long. In an email interview with the Wonk Room, Ross explained that the threat to the sturgeon from the subsurface (benthic) oiling of the barrier islands and gulf coast could be “devastating”:
First, subadult and adult Gulf Sturgeon accomplish their entire annual food intake during the time they are in coastal waters (October-March), so any impact that altered the benthic food base would be devastating to Gulf Sturgeon. Second, we are pretty sure that juvenile Gulf Sturgeon inhabit the coastal estuaries throughout the year. Consequently, penetration of oil into the inshore areas would also be a major problem — of course, not just for Gulf Sturgeon but for all aquatic and marsh organisms.
Gulf sturgeon do not forage when they are in the rivers. They enter the estuarine habitat after fasting for months and completely depend on resources obtained when they are in saline waters. Comparing the maps for the Gulf sturgeon critical habitat and the oil’s impact, only the far eastern reaches of the sturgeon’s feeding range appears to be untouched by BP’s toxic slick.
It is unclear that sufficient steps are being taken to monitor the potential impact of the BP oil disaster on the Gulf sturgeon critical habitat. Repeated requests for information from the disaster response’s Unified Command — the joint effort led by the Coast Guard and BP contractors — gleaned a muddled story. U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Tom Buckley didn’t know “what’s being done now to assess impacts.” Even though oil had been spewing into the gulf for months, he added that “it’s pretty early for that.”
The responsibility for assessing the disaster’s impact falls within the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process under the purview of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, although according to Buckley, “there probably isn’t one person sitting at the top of the heap.” Both agencies also manage the recovery plan for the Gulf sturgeon.
Chet F. Rakocinski, a benthic ecologist at Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, University of Southern Mississippi told the Wonk Room it seemed that “federal agencies have been blindsided by the event.” Although his team of scientists had done preliminary sampling of the Gulf Islands, Rakocinski expressed frustration at the lack of scientific leadership, direction, and funding from the government to respond quickly to the disaster, praising only the work of the National Science Foundation’s rapid response program.
“I don’t know where the information is being kept of the magnitude and frequency of oil coming in,” Rakocinski said, mirroring the complaints of other scientists that crucial information about the scope of the disaster is being shared with BP’s private contractors but not the general scientific community.
FWS biologist Frank Parauka has been monitoring the threatened species for decades under Endangered Species Act authority. He told the Wonk Room that a five-year status review of the sturgeon’s Endangered Species Act recovery plan had just been completed when the Deepwater Horizon rig blew. The recovery plan’s update will of course have to take into account the potential harm of BP’s oil to the sturgeon’s habitat, and he has recommended that new benthic surveys be done before the winter.
Although Parauka is “not involved in the NRDA,” he has “heard that NRDA is picking up samples” and that the wildlife refuges under the National Park Service are doing surveys. “There are a lot of legalities involved in this,” Parauka explained. “We haven’t really gotten into the area of who’s responsible for doing these projects.” NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service scientist Stephania Bolden tells the Wonk Room she is “not aware of anyone monitoring the effects of the oil spill on Gulf sturgeon,” but she is “worried about what environment they will find” as they move downstream this fall.