60 days after its start, UAB biologists reflect on oil spill impacts

At Dauphin Island’s Cedar Point Marsh, UAB biologists are using video and other methods to document the persistent threat and worsening impact of the Gulf oil spill on the struggling population of Alabama Diamondback Terrapin turtles that call the area home.

Further east, UAB also has documented the thriving and diverse species that live among the sea grasses of Cape San Blas in Florida’s St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

“We were looking at the population density in the sea grass beds and the size distribution of the species in those beds so that we can understand how those might change if animal populations crash or the environment is dramatically affected due to oil,” says Mickie Powell, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in biology.

Powell, who works in the UAB lab of Professor Stephen Watts, Ph.D., has spent years studying the sea urchins that call Cape San Blas home. For his part, Watts has spent two decades studying the cape’s unique ecosystem. They both share a concern for the region’s future; because they say just a single oil boom is protecting the wildlife that have been their life’s work.

“We were told that if the oil gets within 10 miles of the inlet that leads to the bay at Cape San Blas they will pull the boom across the inlet, but that now is the only protective measure that they are planning to take to try and keep the oil from coming in,” Powell says.

Watts says other strategies are being used to protect the rich marshes and bays along the Gulf Coast. During a recent trip to Gulf Shores, he was able to get a first-hand look as land-moving equipment used to build a sand bar to seal off the mouth of Little Lagoon.

“I thought that was a very smart thing to do because now they have closed off this area so the lagoon’s fish and other wildlife will be safe,” Watts says. “Without the sand bar, the lagoon would be open to the Gulf waters and directly threatened by the approaching oil slick.”

But beyond booms and sand bars, Watts believes the resilience of coastal residence could be the most powerful tool to combat the oil spill’s terrible impact.

“There was a lot of optimism among residents in those coastal cities that they will get through this, get past this and return to normalcy,” Watts says. “I saw a resolve in people that they will not let this tragedy ruin their way of life.”

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