Ship Island’s pristine beaches and habitat still being impacted by oil [w/Video]

“When you have been to a place and experience the natural world I think you can appreciate more and want to do more to protect it."

12-07-2010 // Craig Guillot
Public Health Notice on Ship Island, Mississippi
Seven months after the start of the Gulf oil disaster, one of Mississippi’s most pristine islands is still being impacted by oil
. With large tar balls washing up daily and potential impacts in the food chain that have yet to be discovered, those familiar with the island say it may be a long time before it returns to its natural state.

Ship Island sits 12 miles off the coast of Gulfport, Miss., and is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, an area that includes seven islands and mainland coast stretching from Mississippi to Pensacola, Florida. Accessible to the public via a one-hour ferry ride from Gulfport, Ship Island sees more than 60,000 visitors per year. Far enough from the murky waters of the Mississippi and Louisiana coast, the island boasts clear blue waters on par with the Florida Panhandle. Day trippers come to the island to fish, swim, relax in the sun and explore Fort Massachusetts, a fort built in the early 1860s to help defend New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Despite its traffic during the summer months Ship Island remains a natural paradise. With the exception of a boardwalk across the island, a few restrooms and a concession stand, it is virtually untouched and undeveloped. Kathy Shelton, a South Mississippi Conservation Biologist for the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, said the ends of the island hosts large colonies of migratory birds. This includes rare and endangered species such as Brown Pelican, Piping Plover, Royal Tern, Least Tern and Osprey and breeding birds such as Black Skimmers.

“It is just an amazing place to be. It is not far from the mainland but it’s still pretty isolated. The draw for a lot of bird species is that they don’t get much disturbance,” said Shelton.

All that tranquility came to an end when oil started hitting the island in late-May. Louis Skrmetta runs the charter company Ship Island Excursions and said that even before oil reached the island, visitor numbers plummeted due to the perception that the Gulf was unsafe for swimming. And then when oil did reach the island, the real impacts on the wildlife started as oiled and dead wildlife started showing up on the beaches.

Skrmetta said while Ship Island never saw the massive sheets of oil as in coastal Louisiana, it has received a steady amount of tar balls. Seven months after the start of the disaster, that impact continues and tar balls can be found all along the south shore of the island. Some are almost a foot in diameter. Skrmetta said while BP contractors are constantly cleaning up affected beach areas, the tar balls continue to accumulate.

“[Tar balls] are showing up every time you have a weather event. Every time you have a high tide or southeast wind it seems like they’re showing up,” said Skrmetta.

According to an undisclosed source, BP contractors are removing between 600 and 1,000 pounds of tar balls per day.

Just how long the barrage of tar balls will continue has yet to be seen. Skrmetta fears that with untold amount of oil out there, they could be cleaning up the island for another two decades. Shelton said a more troublesome concern is the unseen impacts in the food chain and how they will affect birds and other wildlife with sub-lethal effects. Shelton points to the discovery of oil in crab larvae as a sign that impacts could accumulate in the food chain.

Covering news of continuing tar balls on Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico
“We really don’t know if we dodged the bullet because we don’t know what the impacts are to the food chain. A lot of these terns feed on small fish that are in the water eating plankton and they all could be impacted by the oil,” said Shelton.

Cathy Shropshire, executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, said that Ship Island serves a valuable role in helping educate the public about the importance and natural habitats of the barrier islands. Because it is one of the few accessible islands, it serves as a living museum and model for helping people understand the need to preserve and protect such pristine environments.

“When you have been to a place and experience the natural world I think you can appreciate more and want to do more to protect it,” she said.


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