Fisheries Conservation photo

Even in the cabin of a helicopter 2000 feet above, the fumes from the vast blanket of red crude oil spreading across the teal-blue Gulf of Mexico smelled as strong as pump-side at the local filling station. Too bad that wasn’t the worst of the news.


By Thursday night that oil began washing up on the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states – and it’s not expected to stop for two months, at the earliest. In the weeks ahead the delta of the Mississippi River will become the largest environmental battleground the nation has seen since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.

The damage to natural resources, experts are now saying, will eclipse even that horrendous event. Here’s why.

The area being poisoned:
1.) Produces the largest total seafood landings in the lower 48 states.

2.) Is a vital wintering or resting spot for more than 70 percent of the nation’s migratory waterfowl, a place where hunters usually lead the nation in duck harvest.

3.) Produces more catches of redfish and spotted sea-trout (speckled trout), tuna, wahoo, amberjack, snapper and other top sports species than any other states. The daily limit on specks is 25, and reds is 5. In a typical year Louisiana sportsmen catch a 9 million specks and 2.4 million reds.

4.) It produces 50 percent of the nation’s wild shrimp crop, 35 percent of its blue claw crabs and 40 percent of its oysters.

5.) Researchers say 90 percent of all the marine species in the Gulf of Mexico depend on coastal estuaries at some point in their lives, and most of those estuaries are in Louisiana.

6.) All 110 species of neo-tropical songbirds use the coast, about 50 nesting here, and the last week of April through the first week of May is the peak migration, when about 25 million birds a day are coming across the Gulf, many using Louisiana for their first landfall.

7.) Some 410 species of fish and wildlife – from whales and manatees, tuna and tarpon to ducks, geese and flounder – are imperiled by this spill, according to the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

As the battle is joined along the coast between a massive and growing army of government and private groups, the larger debate over the future of offshore drilling was rejoined. As someone who has lived his entire life with 4,000 rigs just beyond the horizon, I can offer these thoughts for sportsmen’s and other green groups.

Offshore oil drilling is like nuclear power – it has a pretty good safety record, but when an accident happens the results can be catastrophic. And accidents will happen.

We will not win the fight against continued offshore development. There is too much money at stake, and money has always been the ultimate power in these debates whether in Washington or your state house. But we can use this as an example of why the nation must proceed with stimulating development of clean energy sources. And we must press the case that fish, wildlife, and other environmental issues are considered on the front end of these decisions, even for clean energy alternatives.

For example, if we must drill offshore, there should be more redundancy built into safety features. Why wasn’t there a back-up shutoff device? Why must such a device be activated by humans on an exploding rig? Why hasn’t the industry developed deep-water equipment capable of performing a shutoff in 5,000 feet of water?

And – pay attention Florida – there are some areas so environmentally sensitive, so unique and irreplaceable – that they shouldn’t be put at risk.