Robert Campo held out a sun-darkened, weathered hand in the shape of gun. "If somebody had a gun to your head, and they said, 'You gotta catch one live oyster on this reef,' you'd have to say, 'Pull the trigger.'"
Campo, a fisherman and owner of Campo's Marina in Shell Beach, Louisiana, was describing some of the once-rich oyster reefs along the Gulf Coast that have been barren—"as clean as this floor"—ever since the 2010 BP oil spill. He said he's seen fish with deformities, too.
He'd just finished telling his story of the spill to a crowd of New Orleans residents and marine scientists who'd descended on the city for an international conference on oil spills this week. The event Monday evening represented an anomaly among the hundreds of research presentations, workshops and sessions during the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference. As a collaboration with the Story Collider podcast series, it focused on the personal stories, not the science, of oil spills.
Campo—the lone fisherman at the event that night—recalled the beautiful sunrise the morning of the spill, before he'd heard the news. Later, oil covered everything, birds and crabs with their bellies full of eggs. Fishermen were recruited to help stem the oil's advance toward the marshlands by installing floating booms.
Campo considers himself a "strong guy," and though he tried to hide his feelings from his crew as they fought the spill during the day, he'd go home at night, "and it was killing me."
Charlie Henry told the crowd about getting that call in April 2010 in the middle of the night, one of 40 to 60 he receives in a year as the director of the Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He'd been chasing oil spills for 25 years by then. Each spill is an "unplanned and uncontrolled scientific experiment," he said, one in which the goal is always "minimal regret." And while each call starts the same way, "It had, even at that time, the feeling of something very big."
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 people and pumped an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days. In just the first year, it cost Louisiana's seafood industry an estimated $94 million, at a minimum. Deemed the largest oil spill in US history, it also spurred what researchers call an unprecedented growth in oil spill research, at a rate four times that of other fields and to the tune of $1 billion, said Dave Westerholm, the director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration, during a keynote address to the conference.
In addition to overhauling its safety practices and procedures, BP launched a $500 million, 10-year research project, dubbed the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, as one of a dozen conference organizers. (Representatives of BP, as well as other oil companies, were at the conference.)
There is so much new research, in fact, that state and federal authorities tasked with planning, preparing and responding to oil spills told the conference they're struggling to keep up.
"The magnitude of information is a bit overwhelming for responders," said John Caplis, an oil spill response expert at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior.
That is partly the reason the conference exists: to give researchers, industry, governments and non-governmental organizations a chance to get up to speed (to the extent that's possible). But this year's conference had an added component—how to turn that abundance of science into practical strategies for oil spill response and coastline restoration.
Researchers are still considering a multitude of questions. What are the impacts and behaviours of dispersants—chemicals used heavily during the BP spill to combat the oil? What's the best method to clean up sea surface oil slicks? How damaging are lost crab traps to efforts to restore seafloor ecosystems? What should be done about the growth of the red lionfish, an invasive fish species, in the Gulf after the BP spill?
In Louisiana—a state easily won by Donald Trump—it's an inauspicious time to be talking about protecting the environment and integrating scientific research into government policy. The new president campaigned in part on trashing the very idea of climate change, including musing that it could be a Chinese hoax. His first few weeks in office have been marred by controversy over efforts to curb communication between environmental and health departments in the public; removing a government web page about climate change; appointing Rick Perry, a climate skeptic, as energy secretary; and Scott Pruitt, an opponent to environmental regulations, to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
During a panel about government policy and oil spill research filled mostly with government officials, no one mentioned Trump.
"These folks here are representing national agencies for the most part, and so they're going to have to be nuanced in what they say," said panelist Nancy Kinner, a leading oil spill response scientist and head of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire (a carefully-chosen location for her research, since New Hampshire is not an oil-producing state).
She's still hopeful that this particular brand of research could be insulated from federal politics. Because regional planning for oil spills is informed by regional advisory committees, "applying this research can be done at the local level," she said.
Robert Campo is not a scientist, nor is he exactly trusting of them. His intimacy with the sea is a family legacy, inherited from 117 years of Campo fishermen. He has, he jokes, saltwater in his veins. But like researchers, he, too, continues to try to make sense of the spill and its impact on his community.
"I saw a fish this summer, a menhaden, that still had spinal deformities. Speckled trout born with kinks in their spines. I've seen bottlenose dolphins with big blotches on them," Campo said. "That's not normal."
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