Unraveling a Mystery in the Gulf [with video]

NWF flyover finds discolorations in Chandeleur Sound

08-18-2010 // Aislinn Maestas
Chandeleur Sound Discoloration

As part of NWF’s continuing effort to monitor and investigate effects of the BP oil spill, a team of staff recently went on a flyover of areas hit hardest by the disaster. NWF’s Amanda Moore describes the trip:

“We flew out of New Orleans with SouthWings, a volunteer flying service. Our plan was to leave New Orleans, fly over Lake Borgne, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, Biloxi Marsh, Chandeleur Sound and Chandeleur Islands, and the Venice area and back. The purpose of the flight was surveillance.”

Red as far as the eye can see

The team was hoping to validate reports they had been hearing that most of the oil in the area was gone. After seeing a few streams of weathered oil around the Chandeleur Islands, the team noticed tiger stripes of reddish water. As they flew further, the red water grew in size. Again, NWF’s Amanda Moore describes the scene:

“It was full on reddish water – as far as the eye could see – for miles and miles. Our pilot was seasoned at spotting oil from the plane and had been advising us about what we were seeing. When we got into the red, we were all heartbroken and the pilot was resigned to the fact that we were seeing weathered or dispersed oil. It was very difficult for all of us and I was teetering on being very angry and being very sad because this is an area of very fragile coastal ecosystem that I was working to restore before the oil spill."

Digging deeper

Once they were back on the ground, the NWF team decided to investigate further, contacting coastal scientists and emailing out photos from the trip. No one was able to discern from the photos whether the discoloration was oil or algae. Once the weather cleared, the team lined up a boat captain to take them out to the area of discolored water. Joining NWF’s Amanda Moore and Maura Wood on the boat were Karen Westphal, a scientist from Audubon, and Andy Baker, a biologist from Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Karen took samples and slides. Andy took dissolved oxygen readings.

“When we found the reddish water, we still didn’t know what it was. It was hard to pinpoint anything out there because the ecosystem is so stressed right now from the oil, dispersants, and typical nutrient-loading that occurs in the delta.”

The team sent samples to Sibel Bargu, a professor at Louisiana State University. The results showed that the discoloration was likely due to an algal bloom. While it is not clear whether or not the bloom was caused by the spill, one scientist speculated that the stress on the ecosystem and the food chain due to the oil spill could have been a factor in this bloom and its very large size.


Questions remain

Even though this mystery was solved, many questions remain about the future of the Gulf. How much oil is still out there? What are the human health risks for cleanup workers exposed to the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil? What are the long term impacts for fish and wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico?

“Monitoring of the Gulf is as important now as it ever was and NWF continues to be a regular presence in the field,” said Moore. “National Wildlife Federation is committed to sharing the full story of the oil disaster with the nation and being a part of the Gulf’s recovery.”

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