In my last article on the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I closed by stating that in some ways it's a good thing that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in such a populated place. The disastrous 1989 Exxon oil spill in Prince William Sound was easy to ignore because it happened in a place few of us will ever see. The Gulf of Mexico is pretty much the opposite; it's home to about 21 million people and many of the most important fisheries in the United States. Before the spill, the crustacean, mollusc, benthic (bottom-dwelling) and pelagic (mid-depth) fisheries in the Gulf were worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and employed thousands of workers.
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Research published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences1 provides a detailed synopsis of the economic losses from the Gulf oil spill. First, the authors summarize the percentage loss of each fishery for 2010 based on the immediate effects of the oil. For shellfish and crustaceans, it was a whopping 100 per cent; these fisheries were closed. Marketability of pelagic fish was slightly higher at 50 per cent and the benthic fish fared the best, losing approximately 10 to 30 per cent of the annual catch in 2010. One must keep in mind that since the BP spill was from a deepwater well, the oil penetrated all levels of the ocean, not simply the surface and coastal waters. Also included in this synopsis is an estimated market recovery time. For crustaceans and shellfish it's between one and six years, and for benthic and pelagic fish around one year; however, we are now at the two-year mark and the palatability of seafood from the Gulf is debatable. A recent Al Jazeera article described massive catches of eyeless shrimp and fish with open lesions. Not exactly fodder for the dinner table.
If we assume that the fisheries will recover in the timeframes indicated in the survey (despite the fact that these are generous estimates), unemployment and overall economic losses are still astoundingly high. Job losses for three fishing industries: commercial, recreational and mariculture (cultivation of shellfish in ocean waters) combined with spinoff industries like boat building and fuel support are estimated to be 22,000 — with a total economic impact of $8.7 billion. These numbers do not take into account lost revenues from the tourism industry, which is predicted by Oxford Economics to be worth over $22 billion in the Gulf of Mexico2.
The take-home message:
We must stop being so reliant on oil. Accidental spills represent too large of a risk in terms of both economics (fisheries) and environment. Here in B.C., Enbridge proposes that construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline will create up to 3,000 short-term jobs, while long-term jobs will amount to a only a few hundred. Compare that to the several thousand people in British Columbia employed by fisheries or some directly related industry. Can our economy survive a collapse in fisheries caused by an oil spill? There is only one correct answer: No.
Carin Bondar is a biologist, TV host and science communicator with a PhD in population ecology from the University of British Columbia. She blogs for Scientific American and Huffington Post and has appeared in a scientific capacity on various international television networks. Her writing has been featured online at National Geographic Wild, Jezebel, Forbes, The Guardian, The Daily Beast and the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Find Dr. Bondar online , on twitter @drbondar or on her facebook page: Dr. Carin Bondar — Biologist With a Twist.
1 U.R. Sumaila, A.M. Cisneros-Montemayor, A. Dyck, L. Huang, J. Jacquet, K. Kleisner, V. Lam, A. McCrea-Strub, W. Swartz, R. Watson, D. Zeller, and D. Pauly. 2012. Impact of the Deepwater Horizon well blowout on the economics of US Gulf fisheries. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 69: 499-510.
2 Oxford Economics. 2010. Potential impact of the Gulf oil spill ontourism [online]. US Travel Association. From: Gulf_Oil_Spill_Analysis_Oxford_Economics_710.pdf