Sunday, November 27, 2016
OF OIL, COAL, BLUEFIN TUNA--AND YOU
Times of change can be times of worry, particularly after a presidential election brings change to the White House, in the form of a new governing party and a president-elect who, in philosophy, experience and style, is very different from his immediate predecessor.
Opponents of the winning candidate often bewail his victory in apocalyptic terms. Whether the winner was Ronald Reagan or Barak Obama, there were those who predicted that the incoming administration signaled the end of America-as-we-know-it, and foretold the onset of a world that was dark, sinister and—most threatening of all—different from what went before.
The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump was certainly no exception to that rule. Some who opposed his election claim that the new administration is a threat to Americans’ civil rights. Others, who supported the losing candidate, feel that it will be bad for organized labor. Still others express concerns about the new administration’s approach to foreign policy.
We can only wait and watch as things unwind, in order to learn whether such fears were justified, or merely the sort of sour-grapes musings typical of those who did not win the race.
Probably no one feared a Trump victory as much as the various people and organizations that support clean air, clean water and other basic environmental issues. Now that he has won, they, too, are warning of a coming cataclysm.
Their fears are clearly being stoked by the words of the president-elect himself.
Donald J. Trump’s staff has created a website, www.greatagain.gov , which offers a foreshadowing for what a Trump administration will look like. The site’s “Energy Independence” page includes the statements that
“Rather than continuing the current patch to block and undermine America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump Administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters…We will end the war on coal, and rescind the coal mining lease moratorium, the excessive Interior Department stream rule, and conduct a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama administration…”
I’ll leave it to others to decide how such a plan will impact America’s wilderness areas, the last remaining Appalachian brook trout streams and the troubled marshes of the Louisiana coast, and concentrate on the sort of things that I’ve always addressed before, the fish that swim off America’s coast, and particularly those of our offshore waters, such as the bluefin tuna.
The new administration certainly sounds like bad news for them.
Although there has been some recent scientific dissent, most biologists agree that all bluefin tuna that spawn on the west side of the Atlantic basin do so in a relatively small area in the Gulf of Mexico, and view the waters that flow over the outer continental shelf in the northern Gulf as an important nursery ground.
Unfortunately, the sea floor beneath, and up-current from, that nursery area holds large deposits of petroleum, and the methods used to extract that petroleum are not immune to mechanical mishap and human error.
That became tragically clear in the spring of 2010, when the BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and created the largest accidental oil spill ever recorded. Such spill coincided with the peak of the bluefin tuna’s spawning season, which led scientists from Stanford University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the impacts.
“the timing of the oil spill directly overlapped with the maximum extent of adult bluefin tuna foraging and spawning activity in the Gulf of Mexico. At its peak in May 2010, the spill covered more than 5 percent of the spawning habitat of the Atlantic bluefin tuna in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.
“Exposure to oil has previously been shown to have physiological consequences to the heart, and can cause deformations and death in eggs and larval fish, making it crucial to understanding the effects in order to assess the impacts of oil spills. The effect of oil on spawning adult fish is not well understood but the crude oil may add stressors to all life history stages in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Stanford professor Barbara Block, an internationally-recognized expert on Atlantic bluefin tuna and a member of the research team, noted that
“The bluefin tuna population in the Gulf of Mexico has been struggling to rebuild to healthy levels for over 30 years. These fish are a genetically unique population, and thus stressors such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even if minor, may have population-level effects…”
Although we will hopefully never again see an oil spill as large as that created by BP and its Deepwater Horizon operation, an expansion of offshore drilling will inevitably lead to a host of smaller spills, both from the wellhead and as a result of transporting crude oil, which could have a significant cumulative impact on fish populations.
And don’t believe that only bluefins would be affected.
Chemicals found in crude oil can affect a wide variety of fish and other animals. As part of the study of the Deepwater Horizon spill, Barbara Block and her colleagues found that
“Crude oil is a complex mixture of chemicals, some of which are known to be toxic to marine animals. Past research has focused in particular on “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” (PAHs), which can also be found in coal tar, creosote, air pollution and stormwater runoff from land. In the aftermath of an oil spill, PAHs can persist for many years in marine habitats and cause a variety of adverse environmental effects…
“The researchers found that oil blocks the potassium channels distributed in heart cell membranes, increasing the time to restart the heart on every beat. This prolongs the normal cardiac action potential, and ultimately slows the heartbeat. The potassium ion channel impacted in the tuna is responsible for restarting the heart muscle cell contraction cycle after every beat, and is highly conserved throughout vertebrates, raising the possibility that animals as diverse as tuna, turtles and dolphins might be affected similarly by crude oil exposure. Oil also resulted in arrhythmias in some ventricular cells.”
Thus, any increase in drilling on the outer continental shelf is likely to put not only bluefin tuna, but any other fish that is likely to have its eggs and larvae come in contact with crude oil (fish such as summer flounder, menhaden and bluefish, should drilling ultimately be allowed off the Atlantic coast) into greater jeopardy.
And it’s not hard to imagine that any compound that adversely impacts the hearts of animals as varied as tuna, turtles and dolphins is likely to be bad for people, too.
However, to see a more direct connection between the incoming administration’s proclamations on “Energy Independence,” fish and human health impacts, we need to take a look at the dirtiest energy source of all—coal.
The incoming administration clearly supports expanding coal mining, and that only makes sense if more coal is to be burned, as well. Most opponents of coal object to such expansion because of the dangers posed by increased soot levels, acid rain and coal’s contribution to accelerated global warming, but there is another hazard that often flies under their radar. That is the fact that coal often contains traces of mercury, and that burning such coal releases such mercury, a very toxic element, into the environment.
Mercury moves through the food web, and tends to concentrate in large predatory fish. A table provided by the United States Food and Drug Administration lists the mercury content in a number of popular food fish, and discloses that the highest levels are found in Gulf of Mexico tilefish (average concentration1.45 parts per million), swordfish (0.995 ppm), shark (0.979 ppm), king mackerel (0.73 ppm) and fresh or frozen bigeye tuna (0.689 ppm).
A CNN article from March 2016 discusses the importance of the issue, noting that
“The [Environmental Working Group] tested 254 hair samples from women of childbearing age from 40 states who reported eating as much or slightly more fish than the government recommendations over a period of two months. The study found that 29% of the women had more mercury in their bodies than the [Environmental Protection Agency] considers safe, 1 part per million…
“The study found that mercury levels in women who frequently eat fish are 11 times higher than in women who rarely eat seafood…
“Mercury exposure during pregnancy can significantly alter the developing brain and nervous system of the unborn baby and cause lifelong deficits in learning, memory and reaction times, according to the study. There are also issues for women who are not pregnant and men: Mercury can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, according to the World Health Organization…”
The good news is that mercury levels in fish seem to be dropping.
Researchers at Stony Brook University’s (New York) School of Marine and Atmospheric Science analyzed tissue samples from more than 1,000 Atlantic bluefin tuna caught between 2004 and 2012, seeking to determine whether the level of mercury contained in the fish had changed over that time.
It turns out that the average level of mercury had, in fact, fallen, by an average of 19%.
That reduction tracks a 2.8% decline in the burning of coal in North American that occurred between 1990 and 2007, which was paralleled by a 4.3% drop in the amount of mercury found in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. The study also noted that the amount of mercury in the air over the North Atlantic Ocean dropped by 20% between 2001 and 2009.
No direct relationship has yet been established between the reduced mercury levels in bluefin tuna, the reduced use of coal in North America and the reduced levels of mercury in the air and ocean. However, the correlation is difficult to ignore.
And if mercury levels are dropping in bluefin because of the reduced use of coal, there’s also a decent chance that they could be dropping in bigeye, swordfish and other popular food fish as well.
That would bode well for the health of future generations.
However, it is a change that could be easily undone if the incoming administration carries through with its “Energy Independence” plan.
For increased offshore drilling and increased use of coal wouldn’t just be bad for bluefin tuna.
It would be bad for me, you, and for descendants who you haven’t yet met, for they have not yet been born.
We've made our share of mistakes, and probably deserve the life we now have. But those unborn kids, at least, deserve a fair shake at the start.