Briefing highlights importance of ecosystem services in Gulf of Mexico

On November 16, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership joined with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS) and the National Research Council of the National Academies to sponsor House and Senate briefings on restoring the ecosystem services that support economic vitality in the Gulf of Mexico. The briefing highlighted findings from a recent National Academies report that examined changes to ecosystem services in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The report intends to provide guidance on methods to identify and assess important ecosystem services in the Gulf region in the wake of the oil spill. Reps. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Kathy Castor (D-FL) made appearances at the briefing, expressing their support for legislation that would foster economic and environmental recovery in the region.  Scalise and Castor co-chair  the House Gulf Coast Caucus. Rep. Scalise is a sponsor of H.R. 3096, Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act of 2011. The RESTORE Act would dedicate at least 80 percent of penalties paid by the responsible parties under the Clean Water Act (CWA) to Gulf Coast states to invest in the long-term health of the coastal ecosystem and bring about environmental and economic recovery in the region. Companion legislation (S. 1400) has been introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). The Greater Houston Partnership, Chamber Southwest Louisiana, and Greater New Orleans Inc., joined with several other commerce organizations in writing to House and Senate leaders in support of the bill. “The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the five states of the Gulf Coast region was almost $2.4 trillion in 2009, representing 30 percent of the nation’s GDP,” the letter states. “We believe that enacting the RESTORE Act is vital to the environmental and economic recovery of a region still dealing with the devastating impact of the disaster.” According to one of her congressional aides, Rep. Castor has not cosponsored the RESTORE Act because she is working with Rep. Scalise on improvements to the bill, but she has voiced her support for getting 80 percent of the CWA fines for the Gulf region. Rep. Castor has sponsored H.R. 480, the Gulf of Mexico Economic and Environmental Restoration Act of 2011, a similar bill that would also direct 80 percent of BP’s fines towards Gulf Coast restoration. The briefing’s speakers included David Yoskwitz of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies; Nancy Rabalais, Executive Director and Professor at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium; Heather Allis, Lead Scientist at the Natural Capital Project; Robin Barnes, Executive Vice President of Greater New Orleans Inc. and Timothy Reilly, Managing Partner at CatVest Petroleum Services,...

Read More

Out of the ashes: The Gulf, one year later

Last year the world’s eyes turned to the Gulf of Mexico when British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling unit exploded, causing what became the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.  Eleven people lost their lives in the explosion that resulted in 205.8 million gallons of crude oil leaking into the Gulf, 17 were injured, and countless more had to rebuild their livelihoods. This time last year Deepwater Horizon was still spewing about 53,000 barrels per day into the Gulf, in a community still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.  This year, Gulf residents are bracing themselves for another assault—one that arrives every summer. That is, the Mississippi River deposits nutrients into the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The influx of nutrients sets off a chain reaction that transforms a large area of the Gulf into a massive “dead zone” where virtually no aquatic organism can survive. This area,  off the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas is the largest hypoxic zone  currently impacting the United States, and it is second worldwide only to the Baltic Sea. Moreover, this year’s is predicted to be the biggest ever due to excessive flooding (see the above image showing sediment from the Mississippi River). The Gulf just can’t seem to get a break. So where does the problem start? When it rains, it pours. Rain that falls almost anywhere between the Rocky Mountains in the West and the Appalachian Mountains in the East (about 40% of the land area of the lower 48 states), with some exceptions, drains into the Mississippi. The majority of the land in this area is farmland, and the majority of farms in the Midwest are dependent on chemical fertilizers. “As agricultural commodity prices have plummeted and farm communities continue to decline,” according to a factsheet published by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “many farmers feel they have no choice but to intensively fertilize and maximize production of a few low-value commodities.” This winter and spring brought record snowfall and record amounts of precipitation to the central US, causing the  Mississippi River floods of this spring. And big floods carry large amounts of fertilizer. Mississippi’s 1.2 million square mile watershed essentially funnels agricultural fertilizer straight into the Gulf. If you’ve ever wondered why nutrients could be so bad for marine ecosystems, hypoxia, which means oxygen depletion, is your answer. Nutrients from chemical fertilizers feed giant algae blooms, which in turn feed a population boom in algae-eating zooplankton. Dead algae and zooplankton fecal pellets sink down to the sea floor and are feasted on by bacteria, a process that consumes oxygen. In...

Read More

Mississippi floods out humans and wildlife

In late April, two major storm systems across the Mississippi River watershed brought about one of the most catastrophic floods upon the Delta region in generations. Thousands of homes have had to be evacuated and there have been a number of deaths. President Barack Obama has declared bordering counties in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky as federal disaster areas. The flooding along the Mississippi River has also sparked a great migration among the numerous species of wildlife. In one of the worst cases of overflow since the Great Depression, the Mississippi River has flooded three million acres across Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. The Mississippi River has the third-largest drainage basin in the world, absorbing 41 percent of the drainage from the 48 contiguous United States, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The massive river covers more than 1,245,000 square miles. According to the National Weather Service, a number of cities are currently experiencing record flood levels. In Natchez, Mississippi, the water now stands at 58.3 feet, shattering the 1937 watermark of 53.04 feet. In Memphis, the Mississippi crested May 9 at 47.8 feet, just under a foot below the city’s record, set in 1937. A wide range of wildlife is on the move, trying to escape the rising waters.  Animals such as deer have been frequently spotted swimming across stretches of water in search of higher ground. Wild turkeys, which nest this time of year, have lost nesting spots and hatchlings to the floodwaters. Other creatures swept up in the floodwaters include alligators, spiders, rats and even fire ants. Venomous water moccasins have been reportedly appearing everywhere from residential trees to yard porches and sheds. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, it is also mating season for the water moccasins, making the reptiles more aggressive than usual. The Tennessee government has issued a press statement advising residents to avoid the displaced snakes and offering tips on how to treat snake bites. However, some species may benefit from the floods. Biologists have noted that flood waters, which wash increased amounts of worms and insects into the water, provide extra food to fish such as catfish, common carp, bluegill and crappie. However, an aggressive non-native species, the Asian carp, is also expected to flourish. Contamination of the water is also a concern, with the Tennessee and Mississippi State Departments of Health warning residents to steer clear of the water for health reasons.  The greater Mississippi River is expected to contain a number of contaminants, from trash and farm runoff to untreated raw sewage and chemicals. Testing performed by ABC News found E. coli and coliform at 2,000 times the...

Read More

ESA Policy News: January 28

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: REORGANIZED COMMITTEES TAKE SHAPE Congressional leadership has spent the past few weeks reorganizing House committees, which will now be led by Republican chairmen. In proportion to the new majority gains, minority committee rosters will also shrink as many Democrats who survived re-election will still loose slots on top committees. Membership on committees in general will decrease slightly as Republicans had pledged to reduce their overall size. The following committees are expected to play some role in science and environmental issues as they are debated in the 112th Congress: Appropriations House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-KY) intends to follow the GOP’s pledge to ban earmarks as part of its agenda to cut federal discretionary spending, a sentiment recently echoed by President Obama. The first order of business for the committee could be the Continuing Resolution, which expires March 4. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has stated the House could take up an extension covering the remainder of FY 2011 the week of Feb. 14. Energy and Commerce Chairman Upton has divided the former Energy and Environment Subcommittee into two different panels. Rep. Whitfield will chair the Energy and Power Subcommittee while Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) will serve as the subcommittee’s ranking member. Rep. John Schimkus (R-IL) will chair the Environment and Economy Subcommittee while Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) will serve as the ranking member. Upton and Whitfield have already joined with Senate Environment Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe in strategizing a proposal to permanently block EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Natural Resources House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) has been critical of the Department of Interior’s current land management and energy regulatory efforts. Many of the views of the new subcommittee chairmen also forecast a dramatic ideological shift from the previous Congress. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) will chair the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. Rep. Bishop has pushed for increased access to mineral resources on public lands. Rep. Raul Grijalva will serve as the subcommittee’s ranking member. Science, Space and Technology Representative Ralph Hall (R–TX), the new chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee announced this month that freshmen will lead four of the five subcommittees on his panel. The unusual lineup, for a body in which seniority is still the best ticket to leadership positions, is the result of senior members on the science panel holding subcommittee chairs on more prestigious committees. The lone holdover from the previous Congress, when Republicans were the minority party,...

Read More

ESA Policy News: January 13

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN TO REFOCUS PRIORITIES, PROBE CLIMATE SCIENCE Among the new priorities of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the 112th Congress will be an  investigation of climate science. Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) opposes cap-and-trade policies and the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Hall has repeatedly suggested that so-called “Climategate” e-mails between climate scientists posted on the Internet in 2009 raise doubts about the overall quality of climate science, a stance that landed him on the liberal Center for American Progress’ list of “climate zombie” lawmakers who question the scientific consensus on global climate change. Hall said his committee’s vice chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), an outspoken climate skeptic and former committee chairman, will take the lead on the issue. Sensenbrenner also served as the top Republican on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was abolished this year when his party took control of the House. EPA: HOUSE AND SENATE LEADERS SPAR OVER CLIMATE RULES Committee leaders within the House and Senate have already begun sparing over legislative attempts to block the Obama administration’s global climate change and air pollution rules. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) criticized the House GOP majority for targeting rules covering healthcare and the environment. Chairwoman Boxer asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is following the will of Congress in implementing its carbon regulations, she said, pointing to a 2007 Supreme Court decision that found that the Clean Air Act grants the agency the authority to do so. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) is planning an early series of hearings on the Obama EPA rules that target power plants, petroleum refiners and other major stationary industrial sources. He’s also said that he’s considering legislation that would stop the agency’s efforts until a series of lawsuits have been resolved. PUBLIC LANDS: HOUSE CHAIRMAN TO TARGET BLM ‘WILD LANDS’ POLICY Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee,  plans to contest whether the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has the authority to impose temporary wilderness restrictions on federal lands in the West. GULF SPILL: PANEL RELEASES RECOMMENDATION REPORT ON OFFSHORE DRILLING The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, tasked by President Obama to investigate the causes and effects of the disaster in the Gulf, released its final report Jan. 11. The commission report concludes that the...

Read More

Rest stops for fall migration

Many animals migrate in the fall to exotic locales and warmer, more abundant southern climates. Among the more famous migrating winged species are monarch butterflies, but there are several species of birds that also migrate during the fall. Some of these birds, such as hawks, rest and “refuel” in the Gulf region of the United States as they traverse southward.

Read More

Gulf seafood safety and the government’s response

Since oil began leaking from a rig in the Gulf of Mexico last April, concerns regarding the safety of the region’s seafood abounded. Now, more than two months after the leak was sealed, public officials, federal scientists and even President Obama have all been saying that seafood from the Gulf region is safe to eat. So why aren’t consumers digging in? Several local leaders from the region impacted by the oil spill addressed this topic last week during the most recent hearing of the National Commission on the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in Washington, D.C.

Read More

ESA Policy News: September 30

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Terence Houston.

Read More