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Gulf Coast Plankton Suffer After Oil Spill

deepwater horizon, oil, planktonThe associated press recently reported on a new study of plankton along the Gulf Coast.  The study was designed to look at the impact of the dispersants used to "clear up" the oil in the gulf.  Over 1.8 million gallons of dispersants were used to try to assist in the response to the oil spill.  Unfortunately, at least for the plankton, it appears it is the dispersants, not the oil that have turned out to be the real problem.

The study showed that plankton actually responded positively to the oil itself.  This should not be terribly surprising given the degree to which plankton feed on simple carbons.  The dispersants, however, seem to eliminate the plankton entirely.  For the Gulf Coast this potentially spells disaster.  Plankton, an essential mid-layer of the marine food chain are absolutely essential to healthy fisheries and healthy ecosystem function.  As an aside, phytoplankton are additionally imperative to global oxygen supplies.  If the study's findings are correct, the worst impacts of the deepwater horizon oil spill have yet to be seen.  Marine fisheries will be impacted only as lower levels of the marine food chain collapse under the pressure of scarce plankton to feed upon.

This study is just another reminder that the natural systems we tinker with so carelessly are terribly complex.  Historically there are hundreds of examples in which the "solution" turned out to be a serious problem in itself.  For example, many of the invasive plant and animal species we now find spreading across the globe were actually introduced as pest control, erosion control, and as a component of restoration.

Some would argue that this is evidence that we ought not tinker with nature at all.  I actually don't think this is an option for us any longer.  We have been tinkering far too long to just step back and watch at this point.  I believe we have an obligation to play a major role in ecosystem service preservation.  This requires that we do a much better job at understanding and intervening in natural systems.

But how?  How do we get our mind around the complex ecology of the place we call home?  How do we do a better job of stewarding this place?  Any thoughts?

Vincent M. Smith

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