Ocean Currents

Wetlands: Going, Going, Gone?


A quiet victim went unseen in many of the images of oil-soaked animals publicized during the BP oil disaster. While many of us were moved by the plight of animals caught up in this man-made disaster, we should also be concerned for the wetland plants quietly suffering in the background.

Because of an expanding human footprint and natural processes, Gulf wetlands are declining at an accelerated rate exacerbated by the BP oil disaster. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, reported on in The Advocate, shows the BP oil disaster doubled the erosion rates of wetlands in some areas.

This critical habitat offers hurricane protection to the coast and serves as the nursery grounds, homes, food source and safe-havens to countless marine species. The Mississippi River is still working, as it has for thousands of years, to create these remarkably productive wetlands.

According to the study, marsh plants in Barataria Bay that were covered 70-80% in oil died. The loss of the glue that holds marshlands together left the ground susceptible to increased erosion. Heavily oiled areas actually show twice the normal five foot rate of erosion in the year-and-a-half after the BP oil disaster: a loss of ten feet.

Research shows that when marsh grass was replanted, some seedlings survived  in slightly oily sediment, but others weren’t so lucky. Replanted marsh grass in areas of wetlands that suffered heavier oiling and an increased erosion rate induced by the BP oil disaster simply died.

It is good news that marsh plants can be reestablished in somewhat oily sediment; the bad news is that wetlands with higher levels of oil residue and erosion won’t be able to support life without help. BP must be held accountable for all impacts. Some results of the disaster, like the ones discovered in this study, are just beginning to be fully understood. A long-term research and monitoring program and a well-funded and robust science program will help to ensure that BP makes it right.

Ocean Conservancy is committed to doing everything we can, in coordination with all willing partners, to advocate for science-based restoration plans that go beyond the oil disaster and address the entire Gulf as one interconnected ecosystem. And while wetland restoration is a key component, we need further steps to complete the picture. We must:

  • protect the region’s cultural and natural heritage;
  • increase economic opportunities;
  • enhance recreational opportunities;
  • slow the rate of land loss;
  • and sustain the entire ecosystem.

Together, we will build a vision of a healthy and prosperous Gulf.

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