Bay Jimmy Highlights the Impact of Oil on Wetland Losses [w/Video]

Bay appears to have just as much oil as it did near the start of the disaster

11-09-2010 // Craig Guillot
Bay Jimmy Oiled Grass

More than six months after the start of the Gulf oil disaster, some areas of the Gulf Coast remain covered in oil. Nestled in the wetlands of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, Bay Jimmy appears to have just as much oil as it did near the start of the disaster. As accumulating oil starts to smother and eat away at the salt grasses which hold the shoreline in place, what is happening in Bay Jimmy serves as a prime example of how the Gulf oil disaster has potentially accelerated the loss of wetlands.

National Wildlife Federation staff has visited the bay on a number of occasions over the past few months. NWF Coastal Louisiana Restoration Project Organizer Amanda Moore said the situation remains just as dire as it was in the summer. Due to the bay’s location near channels that link directly to the Gulf, it has been continuously hit by oil since the disaster unfolded. Moore most recently visited the Bay in late October.

“It was so heavily oiled you could smell it. It was clear at the six-month mark that there was still a lot of oil. You could see birds walking around on the shoreline in oil looking for food,” said Moore.

Oil Accumulating Fast

BP contractors have been siphoning out an average of 30,000 gallons of oil per week from the bay, according to P.J. Hahn, Director of Coastal Zone Management for Plaquemines Parish. The oil is vacuumed into 450-gallon tanks and offloaded onto barges but it often accumulates as fast as it’s hauled away. A rising tide and northerly winds constantly bring oil into the marsh then leaves the grasses saturated in oil as the tide recedes. While the Deepwater Horizon well was capped on July 15, Hahn suspects oil is being churned up from the bottom and surrounding waters.

“It is frightening when you look at the amount of oil out there, where it is and the challenge of trying to get it out of there,” said Hahn.

The biggest threat isn’t necessarily the toxicity of the oil but the fact that it is smothering and killing off the grasses. Denise Reed, PhD, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans, said that vegetation is critical in holding the marsh together. Salt marsh grasses such as spartina alterniflora (more commonly known as salt marsh cordgrass) go through regular cycles, sprouting high and green in the summer then browning and retracting during the winter. Spartina alterniflora survives in the salty harsh environment by taking in oxygen through their leaves then transmitting it down to the roots. When its leaves are covered it oil, it essentially smothers the plant.

“If a plant gets totally covered in oil it can no longer do that as the oil on the leaves interferes with gas exchangement,” said Reed.

Bay Jimmy Bird
Without Grasses, Marshes Cannot Survive

If that oxygen deprivation kills the grass down to its roots, it won’t come back in the spring. Once the vegetation dies, the marsh no longer has the ability to hold that fragile land in place as waves and erosion quickly wash away what was left. Unlike fish and other species which have the ability to quickly regenerate populations, a marsh is unlikely to naturally rebound once the grass dies.

Once it is dead it is dead and has lost its ability to regenerate the marsh naturally. If that vegetation dies then it won’t come back by itself,” said Reed.

Maura Wood, Senior Program Manager of the NWF Coastal Louisiana Restoration Project, said that what is happening in Bay Jimmy is part of a larger problem of wetland loss that has been accelerated by the oil spill.

“Every square inch counts at this point and if you multiply a couple of feet by five hundred miles, you’re talking real land. As the fronts continue to come in and the grass roots die, it is going to continue to eat away at the marsh,” said Wood.

Watch NWF's exclusive video to see more of what is happening on the ground in Bay Jimmy:


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