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A Gulf Coast angler and fisheries conservationist reflects on the days following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—and the ongoing recovery efforts.
A longtime charter captain and friend, Darryl Carpenter, called me from Grand Isle at about noon on Tuesday, April 21, 2010. I was sitting at my desk at the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. It’s a conversation I will never forget.
“That rig explosion last night is very, very bad,” he said. “I heard they can’t find some of the crew and the rest have been brought back to Fourchon. The rig is still on fire and there’s oil all over the water. What have you guys heard?”
The truth was, despite my office’s firm grasp on the happenings along Louisiana’s coast, we didn’t know much at that point about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform about 50 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. I only knew what I’d read on some oil and gas trade websites and the little information that had trickled in from some local news reports and the Associated Press.
“I can say now that I had absolutely no idea of the scale of the accident or the amount of oil bellowing out of an unchecked drill pipe a mile below the Gulf’s surface—none of us did.”
The phone rang steadily all that day. Some calls were from charter captains and fellow fishermen, wanting to know if I had any “inside” information. A handful were from reporters, asking what our agency was prepared to do. I was the media relations director, so I should have known, but how could I? Our agency built wetlands and levees; we didn’t fight oil rig fires. We didn’t contain oil spills. The oil spill coordinator’s office should have those answers, I thought. I truly hoped it did.
By Thursday, the trickle of calls from reporters had become a flood. The next day, I reported to the state’s emergency operations headquarters, along with media relations staff from agencies for environmental quality, natural resources, wildlife and fisheries, and health and hospitals. It was like a family reunion when all of us trudged into a windowless 12-by-12-foot room, sparsely appointed with folding tables and chairs, a couple of TVsets, and about two dozen telephones. We had all worked shoulder-to-shoulder in similar quarters just 18 months before, when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike bared down on Louisiana’s coast, flooding towns from one end of the state to the other. Sadly, Louisiana had become well-seasoned in dealing with extreme weather, having endured and already started to recover from Katrina’s and Rita’s destruction in 2005.
The oil spill was much different. There was no end in sight. No way of predicting when the end would come or when the recovery would begin.
“We had no idea how long we’d be in that room. I suspected it would be more than a week, maybe more than a month.”
For 97 of the next 100 days, I sat there, sometimes 18 hours a day, answering the phone, writing situation reports, and poring over thousands of photographs to try and determine what we were seeing. On my three days off, I went fishing. I thought about how much I wanted to be fishing on every single one of the other 97 days and wondered where I would even be able to go. I wished I could do something on the water to combat the spill. Even if there was nothing I could do, I wanted to be anywhere but that room.
Innumerable calls came in from reporters around the world. They wanted to know howmuch marsh would die, how many fish were being killed, and what Louisiana was doing to stop the threat. Charter captains, desperate for information or looking to work on the cleanup effort, asked if I could help. Friends who were unable to access their favorite waters called to ask where they could go. I could answer some of these questions, but on some days I was ordered not to.
Having fished many of the areas the spill was threatening, I could identify each of the islands and shorelines in the volumes of photographs coming in. Three weeks after the rig exploded, the first tar balls, looking like melted candy bars, arrived on Louisiana’s beaches. A week later, images of oil-covered birds on Grand Terre Island, including Louisiana’s iconic brown pelican, were sent to me. I had fished that very same beach less than a year before. I was sick at the sight of it, and many other beaches, coated in thick, black or rust-colored crude.
At the time, I also hosted a weekly hunting and fishing radio show. On a Thursday night in early June, I passionately conveyed my disgust to my listeners. I told them that our communities didn’t deserve this. I said that the Gulf of Mexico, its fish, fishermen, beaches, and birds didn’t deserve this either. Oil and gas has played a vital economic role in my state for the better part of a century, and the industry provides jobs for our people. Louisianans have also taken a lot of pride in supplying the nation with domestic energy. Oil and gas has given a lot in revenue and job security, but taken a lot as well, by carving up coastal wetlands with canals. Still, we had a level of trust with that industry that was shattered by BP’s negligence. It took 11 workers from their families, cost Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf access to its precious waters, worsened what was already tremendous coastal habitat loss, and jeopardized the future of the region’s fisheries and wildlife.
This was not fair. It should not have happened, and we must insist that it never happens again.
The future of the Gulf’s habitat and fish is still uncertain exactly five years later. Since 2010, we’ve had fat and lean years. In 2011 and 2012, the speckled trout fishing was incredible. In 2013 and 2014, it was not. We had an abnormally cold winter in 2013. Absent the spill, that could have easily been the culprit. Because of the spill, there’s an ever-present suspicion that it’s not weather’s fault alone.
Beaches are still oiled. More than 10 tons of tar was removed from East Grand Terre Island just a few weeks ago. Contrary to BP’s assertion that the Gulf is returning to normal, 10 tons of tar on a beach that I fish is not normal.
It’s hard to draw a positive from the nation’s largest ecological disaster. But, the Gulf was far from a pristine ecosystem before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and the spill attracted attention to that fact. Sportsmen and the environmental community, often at odds, were united around the common goal of making sure habitat, science, wildlife, fish, and anglers would be priorities in the recovery effort. That unity helped motivate Congress to pass the Restore Act in June 2012—a landmark bill that directs 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties to the Gulf, to help restore ecosystems and economies. In all, more than $15 billion could be available from Restore and other recovery funds.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has worked with the Center for Coastal Conservation, the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association, The Nature Conservancy, and many others to identify and advance priority habitat and fisheries sustainability projects that should receive oil spill recovery dollars.
Broadly, these priorities were identified in a 2013 report, “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery, and Sustainability.” Specifically, we identified 25 projects all across the Gulf that can help get habitat, fisheries data collection, and access to quality fishing opportunities on the right track.
It’s a good first step, but the reality is that the process of recovery has only just begun. It is imperative for sportsmen to remain highly involved and engaged in ensuring fish habitat and fishing are a priority for those deciding how to spend the money.
“If we can do that, we should see achievements—rather than wish lists—for improved habitat, better science, and more sustainable fishing, by the tenth anniversary of the spill.”
Ultimately, the penalties against BP for its gross negligence must be painful enough to ensure that my state and my fellow Gulf anglers never have to experience another spill like the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Though nothing will ever fully compensate the Gulf’s fishermen—or its fish and wildlife—for what the spill took away, it is possible to make a good down payment on a productive and healthy fishery using the penalties.
The danger now is in complacency. I try to remind myself of the uncertainty—and my disgust—in the days following the spill, and of the hope I found in fishing. This was not fair. It should not have happened, and we must insist that it never happens again.
More than 100 hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations, including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Trout Unlimited, Dallas Safari Club, Pope & Young Club, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, and more than 80 state-based groups, have released a letter to local and national decision-makers opposing the sale or transfer of federally-managed public lands. Recipients include House members meeting Wednesday, April 15, to discuss federal land acquisition, and its impacts on communities and the environment, and Senators who recently passed a budget resolution that could encourage the sale or transfer of public lands.
“We’re calling on lawmakers to end this conversation now,” says Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO, whose recent blog post addressed the Senate amendment, which passed 51-49 on March 26. “Nothing galvanizes sportsmen like the loss of access for hunting and fishing, and continuing to indulge this controversial idea is keeping us from the real task of managing our public lands.”
America’s 640 million acres of federal public lands—including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands—provide hunting and fishing opportunities to millions of sportsmen and women. Since late last year, efforts to wrest public lands from the federal government and put them under state ownership have been matched by the unanimous outcry of sportsmen across the country. “Decision-makers need to know what they are stepping into,” says Joel Webster, director of western public lands for the TRCP. “Over 72% of western hunters depend on public lands for access, and sportsmen are not going to stand idly by as they’re sold away.”
Sportsmen from across the West are speaking out on this pivotal issue:
If you agree with our message, please visit sportsmensaccess.org and sign the petition or share the website through your social media channels.
Tomorrow, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will vote on recently-introduced legislation from Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) that will harm our ability to protect coldwater fisheries, indispensable waterfowl habitat, and drinking water for one in three Americans. If this legislation becomes law, it will derail a deliberative rulemaking effort that’s been nearly 15 years in the making.
Hunters and anglers everywhere are counting on this rule to clarify Clean Water Act protections for wetlands and headwater streams. Over 200 hunting, fishing, and sporting groups from across the country have said that the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers need to take action to better protect America’s wetlands and headwater streams.
Efforts to derail the rulemaking at this point will do a major disservice to the hunters, anglers, farmers, and business owners who have submitted more than one million comments in order to improve a version of the rule proposed in March 2014. The EPA and Army Corps have said that these comments have made a definite impact on their clearer and more predictable final rule, and Congress should reserve their judgment until we can evaluate this impact.
Delays caused by Rep. Shuster’s bill are unnecessary. Confusion around jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act can be traced back 15 years but, since then, legal issues have been hashed out, the science has been analyzed, peer-reviewed, and compiled, and the public and key stakeholders have weighed in. Simply put, the agencies have all the information they need to make an informed decision. Let’s not kick the can down the road any further.
This is the best chance we have to clarify the Clean Water Act, and sportsmen should urge their legislators to vote against this bill.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
After a two week break, both chambers are in session this week—the House from Monday through Thursday, and the Senate from Monday through Friday.
It’s cherry blossom season in the rest of D.C., but inside Congress it’s appropriations season. After passing its budget resolution last month, Congress is back in session with the intent to pass its twelve annual spending bills for fiscal year 2016. A memo from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy stated that the first appropriations bill for the upcoming fiscal year will make it to the floor during the last week of April, leaving plenty of work to be done. During the recess, House and Senate negotiators drafted a compromise budget between the two chambers, and lawmakers are expected to reconcile this in the coming weeks.
Appropriators must come to a final agreement to provide guidelines for spending limits by May 15, and neither the House nor Senate can move forward to floor consideration of appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016 until the final budget is adopted. The first two measures headed to the floor are the easiest of the twelve to pass—but the process allows for members to offer an unlimited number of amendments during this time.
Fish and Wildlife Under Review
The Senate regulatory oversight subpanel of the Environment and Public Works Committee panel will meet Tuesday to examine the management of several environmental agencies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of the Department of the Interior, will be among those under the microscope, and the focus will likely be on management of federal programs that provide grants to restore and manage sport fishing and wildlife. The hearing will provide Republicans, who have been highly critical of the Obama administration’s management and leadership, an opportunity to scrutinize agency practices.
A New Move to Derail Clean Water Protections
Hearings in both chambers this week could derail the process for clarifying protections for headwater streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Sportsmen, including opponents of Pebble Mine, are urging Congress to let the rulemaking process play out, rather than slam the efforts of hunters, anglers, farmers, and business owners who have submitted more than one million comments on the original proposed rule since last March.
Also this week:
Tuesday, April 14
Wednesday, April 15
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More