Sampling in Pointe aux Chene and Terrebonne Bay

Blog post by Peter Brabeck, LABB Environmental Monitor

During the course of this week I had the pleasure to join Marine Toxicologist Dr. Dana Wetzel aboard some fishing vessels to conduct environmental sampling of areas affected by BP’s finest crude. On Tuesday the beautiful Bayou town of Pointe Aux Chene was our point of departure in which to travel along the bayou and estuary in search of areas impacted by the BP disaster. The beauty of the oaks lining the bayou and the flocks of birds inhabiting the wetlands were soon overshadowed by the striking reality of just how much the BP spill (or slow leaky accident as BP would tell you) has destroyed such critical habitat. Our first encounter with the devastation caused by this event was a wide stretch of marshland. The grasses lining the shore appeared to have been burned, and upon closer examination were, in fact, burned by the long stretches of weathered oil that blanketed the shoreline choking and burning anything that once lived in this habitat. This was the first of many similar scenes in which we encountered over the course of the week’s sampling.

The areas sampled were predominantly Marshlands and Barrier Islands. These two areas are of particular interest as they are extremely important habitat for migratory and resident bird populations, dolphins, crabs, oysters, shrimp and thousands of other organisms. When the BP oil hit these areas it wreaked havoc on the eco-system, possibly eradicating a generation of oysters. As the oil was dispersed in the water column the contaminants associated with the oil are consumed by marine organisms. First consumed by the plankton, mollusks and crustations and then with slowly makes its way up the food chain accumulating in ever greater proportions as it travels until it reaches the apex predators such as dolphins, tuna, you and me. This process is called bio-accumulation and can cause devastating effects to the health of an eco-system for years.

As an increasing number of affected areas are being re-opened for fishing I feel it is crucial to have a large catalog of independent sampling in which to draw upon to arrive at conclusions regarding the safety of Gulf seafood. As of September 2, NOAA reopened 5,130 miles of Gulf waters to fishing based of testing that included only 12 samples, totaling only 73 shrimp sampled altogether! Call me crazy but I don’t find 12 samples over 5,130 miles especially reassuring.

I conducted several samples to obtain as broad a profile as possible. Water, seafood and sediment samples were performed in two manners. The first was a simple collection of the water and sediment form the seabed. This can be used to test exactly what was in the testing matrix at the time of the test. The second type of testing I find far more useful. We used SPMD or Semi Permeable Membrane Devices that are able to passively record the contaminants in the water column as well as the sediment over a long period of time. This can give us a greater understanding of how these contaminants can bio-accumulate in the eco-system over time.

Perhaps the most disturbing sight I have seen whilst out sampling was the following day in Terrebone bay. The bay, a critical habitat for migratory birds, dolphins and hundreds of marine species, was recently opened for fishing. We were curious as to how safe the seafood in the area was. While aboard the small skiff we were using to gain access to the marshlands we noticed that as the motor from the skiff turned up the seabed sediment an oil slick blanketed the surface of the water. Clearly this was evidence that the seabed, home to shrimp, crabs and oysters could be widely contaminated.

Later that same day I managed to sneak myself into a BP cleanup camp on Last Island that had left for the day. Here I got an inside look at how BP was conducting the clean-up efforts. Im not sure how effective their clean-up methods are as the beach directly in front of the camp was littered with tarballs and visible weathered oil.

During the course of the week we were able to conduct testing in the bayou and estuaries nearby Pointe Aux Chene, Terrebone bay and even an air quality test form Grand Isle. It was a truly exciting experience. Im looking forward to seeing the results of these tests and will be posting them as soon as I receive them!

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