by Eric Niiler
“It’s one year after the BP oil spill and things are better along the Gulf Coast. Shrimpers are expecting a big harvest, tourists are returning, and fishermen are working again. But grading the fate of wildlife that live in and around the Gulf of Mexico since that massive BP spill one year ago isn't so easy. "I don't think anyone knows yet where we are," said Tom Brosnan, an environmental scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government's lead agency in dealing with the spill. "We're doing variety of studies from deepwater habitats to the pelagic zone to the shoreline, and it's going to take some time to figure it out."
For starters, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. The surface waters have cleared and NOAA lifted closures that kept fishing boats out of the water for months last summer. Beaches considered by the agency to be "moderately or heavy oiled" have dropped to 66 miles this spring from 1,050 miles during the worst of the spill. Many marshes seem to be returning to productivity. But beneath the waves, there are worrying signs.
MacDonald noted that after the Exxon Valdez spill, the killer whale population in Prince William Sound dropped by 40 to 45 percent. However researchers were unable to prove that it was linked to the oil spill. Something similar happened to the region's herring population, which took three years to crash after the Alaska spill and hasn't recovered yet. Another ominous sign is less visible. Researchers using robot subs are finding oil coating fragile deepwater coral ecosystems. Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia researcher, found these dead patches of sea floor during five expeditions after the spill. "The oil isn't gone; it's just not where we can see it," Joye told the Associated Press.
Despite the uncertainty about the long-term impacts of the BP spill, Washington is moving aggressively to return to business as usual. The Obama administration approved 10 exploratory permits in recent weeks, while Republicans in Congress are sponsoring bills to lift restrictions for drilling in new areas of the U.S. coast."