Gulf Coast marshes may be irreversibly damaged from Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Volunteers help plant and restore a salt marsh in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana

Volunteers help plant and restore a salt marsh in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana

Much has been written about what’s called the worst oil spill in U.S. history – Deepwater Horizon. Now there’s even a major motion picture about it.

What has only received limited national press has been the devastating effect and impact on Louisiana’s marshes, home to over 5 million migratory waterfowl each year as well a large population of brown pelicans, terns, and other tropical birds and a variety of other endangered species. A 2014 pictorial view of the Louisiana coastline was one of the few and sobering accounts of the devastation long after the fact.

Now a study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, finds the oil spill caused widespread erosion in the salt marshes along the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. And researchers say there’s a chance these marshes might never completely grow back.

Scientists have been concerned about how the marshes fared after the oil spill, which they believe affected at least 1,300 miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida.

Evident erosion of Louisiana's Barataria Bay marshland

Evident erosion of Louisiana’s Barataria Bay marshland

Lead study author Brian Silliman, Rachel Carson Associate Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the new large-scale analysis, says that the study “documents one of the largest declines in an ecosystem following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Marshes that experienced elevated erosion due to high levels of oiling didn’t recover; they’re now gone, having been converted to mudflats in the shallow underwater environment of the Gulf.”

And a report earlier this year by conservation organization Oceana synthesized research pointing to a wide range of effects. These include endangered sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, coral reefs, shorebirds and all kinds of fish have suffered increased mortality, developmental defects or reproductive declines as a result of exposure to the oil.

Two years after the disaster, scientists acknowledged that the worst effects would show up over time. Now they are and the prognosis is grim. There are those who are working feverishly to try to stop the serious erosion with a variety of schemes. Will they be enough?

Human beings have a penchant for acting after the fact, when it’s almost too late to recover. Sad but true.

Still, if sheer determination counts for anything, there may be a glimmer of hope for the Louisiana marshlands. As to the marine life that calls it home, the answer is we just don’t know.

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