January 24, 2011

Aboard ship in the Gulf of Mexico, ecologist and author Carl Safina of Stony Brook University’s Blue Ocean Institute talks with Sylvia Earle about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its aftermath. “It was a wake-up call,” says Carl, “and I hope we don’t hit the snooze button because it will happen again. There are thousands of rigs. There is pipe all over the seafloor carrying oil and gas all the time. There’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong.”
Earle: I’m really glad you could come on board and join this expedition, Carl.
Safina: I’m honored to be invited here. Thank you.
Earle: We’ve had some good news and bad news so far. We’ve had the little sub over a couple of times, and Edie Widder’s little system called the Medusa–a camera that’s baited, goes down deep, and attracts critters.
And we’ve also had some bad news. The bad news is the weather, which is keeping us from achieving all of our objectives.
Safina: As can happen at sea.
Earle: I really want to see you in one of those little submarines.
Safina: I want to see out the window of one of those little submarines from down on the bottom.
Earle: It’s going to happen in the future, but right now, we really are making the most out of this opportunity to be out here, looking at the whole system and reflecting on the events of 2010 that have given this beautiful body of water a big blow. You’ve been out here observing it.

Safina: I was here a few times during the blowout. I flew over the site. I saw the big perspective from the air, which was horrifying. I was ashore in various places from Louisiana all the way to here in Pensacola.
There was oil everywhere, but the way it was configuring itself on the beaches was very different. It was pretty light here. It was pretty hard by the time it got ashore in what they call tar balls here. In Louisiana, it was still very oily, a terrible mess.
Earle: The news report yesterday here in Pensacola said that there are tar balls coming on shore right now here, and that someone reported a tar mat just offshore. So it’s not over.
Safina: The taxi driver was telling me that as we were coming from the airport.
Earle: A reliable source!
Safina: The mess is not entirely over, but I think that it might have been much worse than it was. In a way, it’s great that it wasn’t and in a way, I think it’s going to give people a false sense of security. It was a wake-up call, and I hope we don’t hit the snooze button because it will happen again.
There are thousands of rigs. There is pipe all over the seafloor carrying oil and gas all the time. There’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong. BP and the government and the other contractors were totally unprepared for the possibility of a blowout, which is mind-boggling, because blowouts happen. You would think they would be prepared for it, because they happen, and they’re not prepared yet for the next one. That’s important.
Earle: The greatest tragedy of all of this whole Gulf of Mexico phenomenon of the past year will be if we fail to learn from it and take action as a consequence of it. But I think there are promising signs, not just that nature is resilient and we’re seeing some recovery, but also that not everyone says, “Oh, it’s just gone away and therefore nothing more to worry about.” I think that it has left an enduring impact, and will change policy.
Safina: I think the residents of the region know very well that there’s something to worry about, and unless there are some fundamental changes in the approach to safety and preparedness, it will happen again. I think people here realize that, and I hope that the changes will come before the next time.
Earle: One of the objectives of this expedition is to look at the Gulf with a mindset of “Let’s find the places that are still in pretty good shape to see if there are recommendations that can be made about protection for some places that will give back to the Gulf and help restore.” That’s not just because of the massive oil blowout of 2010, but also from years of taking too much out and putting too much of other things in–the upstream pollution that flows into the Gulf from the heart of the country.
I’m so glad that you took the time and put in the intellectual juice that it takes to write about this, the oil spill, in the book that’s coming out in the spring. What are you calling it, what’s the title?
Safina: It’s called A Sea in Flames, and it’ll be out in mid-April of this year, 2011.
Earle: Well, you keep writing! The book that’s just come out is about your perch up there in the Great Northeast, and the title of that is?
Earle: But you’re anything but lazy.
Safina: No, the place is lazy, not me! But you know one thing about the Gulf here that I think is really important–and it shows how much we take for granted–is that we have these oil leases on the seafloor. These are places reserved for taking oil. And we have almost no place reserved for protection. It’s just whatever is not being used up, by default. What we need to do is say, well, we reserve these places for taking, we need to reserve some other places for leaving.
Earle: For not taking–keep it in the bank. For one thing, there’s all of the future to contemplate. Why burn through the assets in a few decades? That’s kind of what we’re doing.
Safina: Another way I sometimes think of it is if you can take from everywhere, it’s like every place is a store. And if you only have stores and no factories, you will run out of goods.
Earle: That’s right, and we need to keep the factories alive and well. That’s fish habitat, it’s the sea grass meadows, it’s the coral reefs, it’s places like where the tuna spawn. The bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico were right in the path of the spill.
Safina: Yes. And that’s the only spawning ground between here and the Mediterranean sea for those fish.
Earle: That’s one of the recommendations we would like to endorse. We’re not alone in saying we’ve got to give these big beautiful fish a break.
Safina: Yes, at some point, they can’t be up for grabs every day every place.
Earle: Just because they taste good.
Safina: Just because they taste good.
Earle: We still have some time left on this expedition, and I’m so glad you’re here to bring your good mind and spirit to the cause. We’re going to have a chance to get out and get in the sub. I can’t wait to see the expression on your face when you get in the sub, and even more when you get out of the sub! This is cause for celebration that you’re here.
Safina: I really appreciate the honor of being invited. Thank you.

Support for the Mission Blue Gulf of Mexico expedition is provided by the National Geographic Society, Google Inc., the Waitt Institute, and Hope Spots LLC. Follow along in context by clicking on the ship icon near Pensacola, Florida using Google Earth.

Read all Mission Blue expedition coverage here.

Photos of Carl Safina and Sylvia Earle in the Deepworker sub by Ford Cochran

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