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GULF OF MEXICO – On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, located on the Macondo Project in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded, killing 11 people and spewing 210 million gallons of oil for 87 days. Considered the largest marine oil spill in history, this disaster had far-reaching environmental impacts, but the largest impact on Bay County was its economic impact.

“You could really feel the effect of the oil spill,” said Jessica Bibza, who worked out of Pensacola as a Florida and Alabama policy specialist at the National Wildlife Foundation at the time of the spill. Beaches and restaurants were empty and, while she said there were plenty of boats still on the water, none were recreational. They were all working on the cleanup.

“The economy and ecology are really intricately tied together,” said Bibza. “People come to Florida for our clean water, our beautiful beaches, our abundant fishing.”

While the brunt of the environmental impact was not felt locally, it was not a local injury, said Mel Landry, Louisiana restoration area lead for NOAA. The spill was an “ecosystem-scale injury,” he said, for which there was no way of calculating the effects on any one species. Instead, they had to calculate the effects on the whole of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ten years later, the 15,000-species ecosystem is still recovering, and will be for decades to come, he said.

“There were so many species affected,” said Bibza. Bibza’s report, “10 Species, 10 Years Later,” outlines 10 of the most at-risk species due [to] the oil spill.

Bibza said that the oil spill affected the reproductive rates of several long-lived species including Bryde’s whales, bottlenose dolphins, and sea turtles, some of which are still alive today. “When you only have a handful of individuals in a population, the loss of even a few,” said Bibza, “the reduced calving over just a few generations is going to be dramatic.”

Jessica Bibza talks about how the oil spill affected Bryde’s whales and bottlenose dolphins.

Bibza also mentioned the butterfly effect of the Louisiana wetland erosion, accelerated by the oil spill. The wetlands, which are the main source of food for the bottlenose dolphins, we’re already seeing erosion, she said. The oil spill sped up that erosion by about 50% for the first three years after the spill but is now back to its baseline rate of erosion.

Fisheries took a delayed toll, she said. “When the oil spill was going on, and in the immediate aftermath, a lot of fisheries were shut down to harvest, and there was actually a short-term pulse in the fish stock,” said Bibza. Over time, studies showed that the impact of the oil spill eliminated large amounts of fish larvae, devastating the populations of these species as well.

Research by the University of Southern Florida released last week found trace amounts of oil in the majority of fish living in the Gulf. “It’s not to the point where it’s dangerous and not safe for consumption, but it does show a lingering impact,” said Bibza. But the truth is, there is a lot of oil floating around the ocean and there is no way to be sure that it is a direct result of the Deepwater Horizon spill, she said.

Jessica Bibza talks about how the oil spill affected fisheries.

Research also showed that the spill had a larger effect than meets the eye. By combining the oil with ultraviolet light, Igal Berenshtein and his team were able to capture photographs of toxic concentrations of invisible oil leftover from the oil spill covering an area 30% larger than the original satellite images showed.

“Oil spills are more than meets the eye, meaning that they extend further, both in time and in space, beyond what is captured with satellites,” said Berenshtein, a postdoctoral associate researching ecosystem remodeling at the University of Miami.

Bibza said that there were a lot of unintended consequences as a result of clean-up efforts. “As crews went out onto beaches to try and clean up the oil, they ended up damaging the dunes in the process,” she said. This, along with burning oil-coated sargassum seaweed—home to communities of adolescent sea turtles—in the gulf were necessary steps in preventing further oil damage.

“It was a tragedy but it was an unintended consequence and they had to get rid of the oil before it reached the shore and affected even more species,” she said.

After long legal disputes and settlements following the spill, restoration is just getting started, said Bibza. There have been a number of oyster restoration and water quality projects that will, in turn, improve the seagrass health and help rebuild the ecosystem.

With promising steps made regarding restoration, Berenshtein said that it is important to learn from events like this because they may have more far-reaching effects over time. Much of the oil in the Gulf is transported with the Gulf Stream into the Atlantic Ocean, he said. More studies are needed to track the long-term effects of the oil spill, he added.

Experts say that environmental policy has been on a downward slope.

“In the aftermath of the oil spills there were a number of recommendations made and studies commissioned for an improvement and under the Obama administration a lot of those recommendations were put into practice,” said Bibza. “But, unfortunately, under our current administration, those regulations and recommendations are slowly being dismantled and walked back.”

Jessica Bibza talks about how the oil spill affected sea turtles.

But its future holds promise.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act, a bill permanently banning offshore drilling off of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has also been known to oppose the expansion of offshore drilling.

Many projects in Bay County funded by settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon spill, or administered under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment or the RESTORE Act are dedicated to diversifying its economy. There are also environmental restoration efforts including restoring offshore reefs, scallop populations and oyster habitats and improving boating ramps.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is implementing the following projects in the Bay County area:

  1. Artificial Reef Creation and Restoration Project (NRDA) – provides grant funding through FWC to the City of Mexico Beach and Bay County to deploy nearshore and offshore reefs in state waters.
  2. Scallop Enhancement Project (NRDA) – provides funding to FWC to enhance scallop populations in St. Joe’s Bay, as well as, trying to restore scallop populations in St. Andrew’s Bay and Pensacola Bay/Santa Rosa Sound to self-sustaining populations that would support recreational harvest.
  3. Boat Access Improvement Project (NRDA) – provides grant funding through FWC to local governments to improve existing boat ramps. For the Panama City region, there are three ramps: 1) City of Mexico Beach Marina, 2) Panama City’s St. Andrew’s Marina, and 3) City of Parker’s Earl Gilbert Dock and Boat Ramp. The work at these three locations has been completed.
  4. Oyster Reef Habitat Restoration in St. Andrew’s Bay (NFWF) – provides funding to FWC to restore oyster habitat in west bay.