Friday, January 21, 2022

Is the Coast Clear?



The commencement of Hurricane Season and especially an imminent threat of a hurricane have always added an environmental dimension of high anxiety and urgency to protect the coast – its beaches, inlets, and estuaries and all the species that depend on these fragile environments. The southwest coast of Florida is diverse, complicated and dynamic as one travels from Tampa Bay to Chokoloskee. Some aspects of this coast are so obvious – gorgeous sandy shores, soaring pelicans, multitudes of shells, graceful mangroves, or flagging sea oats. But there is much, much more alive at a closer look and much that must be protected to keep the whole system thriving.

The coastline, literally alive, evolving over seasons and years; building dunes, diminishing again; shifting mangrove islands – changes that are the nature of the Florida peninsula. The fascinating creatures, plants and formations that occur on the beach and in the estuaries, keep the southwest Florida’s living beaches at the top of many adventurers, sportsmen and beachcombers’ number one lists.

Now with British Petroleum’s DeepWater Horizon oil disaster looming on the horizon (no pun intended) for southwest Florida, the environmental anxiety and urgency are at a level never experienced before. Like watching the Weather Channel as a hurricane creeps through the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current is the entity that has this coast’s, the Keys and the east coast of Florida’s attention. Daily, the surface plumes trajectories of the oil slick are plotted with all of southwest Florida’s eyes on the circuit of the oceanic phenomenon, the Loop Current. The Loop Current, part of the Gulfstream, heads north from Cuba and the Yucatan, loops west then south, exiting the Gulf through the Florida Straits. It basically is the warmer water that circles over the continental shelf where there is a depth variance of the Gulf of Mexico. It varies with seasons, temperatures and weather.

There was slight optimism that the Loop Current will ultimately protect the southwest Florida coast, but now as the plumes creep into the current, all agencies are on alert preparing for containing and clean

Nancy Richie

Nancy Richie

up. Tracking the surface oil slicks is relatively easy, but the sub-surface components of this oil disaster are not. To date there is no information or mapping of what the oil in the water column and dispersed oil plumes are doing below the surface. NOAA’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program (DARRP) is conducting a HYPERLINK “” t “_blank” Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). The obvious concern is oil impacts to fish, shellfish, marine mammals, turtles, birds and other sensitive resources, as well as their habitats, including wetlands, mudflats, beaches, bottom sediments and the water column – the living coastline. Any lost uses of these resources, for example, fishery and beach closures, will also be evaluated. The focus currently is to assemble existing data on resources and their habitats and collect baseline (pre-spill impact) data. Samples of soil and water throughout the southwest Florida coast are being collected via NRDA protocol.

The preparedness and environmental protection planning should not be taken lightly and it isn’t. The United States Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service are taking the lead on the Gulfwide oil spill response and in Florida the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be the lead for our state.  Over forty entities and scientists from coastal agencies, groups and governments who have responsibility of coastal and inlet areas gathered to be briefed by the United States Coast Guard St. Pete Unified Command. An extensive plan to specifically protect environmentally sensitive areas along the southwest coast in the event of a chemical/oil disaster is in place and was reviewed for any gaps to ensure all materials are available; techniques and protocols required for preventing and combating oil impact to the coastline are in place.

Locally, groups and individuals can sign up to volunteer in an event that beach clean up, oiled wildlife recovery, etc is required. Go to http// to register. Volunteers will be notified if and when assistance is necessary.  Training may be necessary for certain tasks.

For more information on the oil spill and current responses, please go to the following websites:

Nancy Richie is the Environmental Specialist for the City of Marco Island, you can reach her at 239-389-5003.

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