Photo: Gulf oil spill devastating for jobs and economy

Eyeless shrimp, from a catch of 180 kilograms of eyeless shrimp, said to be caught September 22, 2011, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Credit: Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera)

By Carin Bondar.

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.

And now?

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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

May 11, 2012

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May 11, 2012
11:11 PM

I agree with your analysis of the Gulf

May 12, 2012
10:23 AM

This also exemplifies the need for vigorous government support of ongoing environmental and biological research. The fact that there are questions as to whether this spill, vs other pollution sources, and natural causes, had anything to do with the damage to wildlife, shows that too little study may have taken place in the past to prove the source of harm today. I think firms we allow to be engaged in activity that potentially pollutes the environment should be contributing the funds required to support the ongoing research. The information should be readily available to the public for evaluation by individuals as the stakeholders in environmental health.

The whole notion that you can put a price on everything and just pay to remedy pollution damage when your caught is a false one right from the start. The costs of all such damage are incalculable from a fundamental standpoint because you can never quite put things back the way they were. Each insult adds to last one. I find the entire attitude on the part of governments, and big business that it's more important to nurture beliefs and laws that permit systemic greed, and overconsumption to take precedence over the wonderful things nature provides, grossly offensive at all levels.

Sep 08, 2012
7:49 AM

There was however a major market distortion. In order to help small firms compete with large firms like BP, liability was capped at $2 billion. This gave BP an incentive to take greater risks when designing Deep Horizon. Anoter problem is that half the land in the western United States is government owned and that the government has been restrictive on energy exploration including clean natural gas.

After BP was bullied into paying more than legally required, oil cleanup has resulted in gulf oil dropping below natural levels. Although the oil balls or unique to oil spills, millions of barrels of oil enter the ocean though natural vents.

Firms that cause environmental damage must be libel for the costs incurred, but the world will always have risk

Sep 09, 2013
11:00 PM

Nice post thanks for sharing with us.

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