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Baseline readied for potential oil disaster in Florida

By Anne Minard

Pensacola, Florida–Last weekend, as I hurriedly packed for the drive from Boulder, Colorado to Pensacola, Florida, I imagined descending on the coast as part of a pack of well-meaning journalists and a throng of eager volunteers, inspired like me by a heartfelt impulse to do anything in the world to help save the Gulf Coast from the oil spill.

I didn’t imagine that I’d be snorkeling off the coast on a sunny day, counting oysters on a fledgling reef, and calling it disaster assistance.

Without a doubt, the oil spill is on everyone’s mind here. People readily admit that they’re praying the big brown monster stays away. Fishermen are jumpy, quick to report a bird that’s acting strangely. But so far, life looks normal in Pensacola. Boats are running in the sound, the streets are full of workaday cars, and tanned men in khakis are clapping shoulders, shaking hands and doing business as usual.

Since the departure of last weekend’s pummeling storms, the weather has been on the city’s side. The wind has helped keep the spill offshore, and a couple of sunny, clear days have allowed boats to surround the most sensitive areas of coastline with booms, styled from numerous oil-deflecting materials.

And just as local governments and environmental groups are shoring up their disaster response strategies, local researchers are using the time to solidify their data about pre-impact water quality and the state of coastal wildlife.

Off the coast of Mississippi, for example, the Audubon Society is conducting nest counts for brown pelicans and terns. And on a tiny island nestled in Pensacola Bay, Pensacola ecologist Heather Reed is assessing the status of Florida’s first man-made, protective reef that will one day be made entirely of oysters—as long as the oil spill doesn’t kill off the first wave of shelled recruits.

Dead Man’s Island, about ten acres altogether, lies within sight of a busy, three-mile bridge connecting Pensacola to fingers of northwest Florida land jutting further out into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s accessible only by boat or stone paths and steep stairs crossing a handful of peaceful, shady private residences.


Dead Man’s Island.

Photo by Anne Minard

The island is ecologically and historically rich, having been used in various ages for a careening area, fish fertilizer factory, a glue factory and yellow fever quarantine station.

The island is surrounded by five shipwrecks, and thickly rusted, algae-coated ship artifacts wash ashore daily. The place name could be fairly innocuous in fishermen’s terms—a “dead man” is anything you can tie your boat to—although it’s a fact that Hurricane Dennis, in 2005, unearthed half a dozen graves that trace back to the 1800s.

Ecologically speaking, Dead Man’s Island is a rare treasure. It contains 10,000 years of history as a salt marsh. In a small area, it supports broad-leaved sub-tropical plants, a marine oak grove, and drier uplands boasting prickly pear cacti.

It’s all been hammered by erosion as development of the sound has progressed. Scouring currents have killed many of the original oaks, leaving twisted, silvery snags as remains. The wave action has steepened the angle of the sea floor and culled the shoreline. In fact “island” is a misnomer; the landform has been transformed over time into a peninsula.

The city of Gulf Breeze, the nearby community just across the bridge from Pensacola, has tried various means to protect the area since the 1970s, with mixed but minimal success.

In 2007 momentum grew for giving preservation another try. Heather Reed, founder of Pensacola’s Ecological Consulting Services, stepped forward. With her two decades of environmental research experience both as an independent contractor and with state and federal agencies, she was a natural fit to push the project forward.

Heather Reed.jpg

Heather Reed, founder of Ecological Consulting Services in Pensacola, Florida.

Photo by Anne Minard

Reed and her partner Shelly Alexander, Aquatic Preserve Manager for the state, quickly secured grant-funding from NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a cooperative called Five Star Restoration Program, which includes participation from utilities, state and federal agencies.

Using the eager help of the local community—including numerous volunteers—the Dead Man’s Island Restoration team has been re-establishing dune vegetation and sea grass as habitat for wildlife and birds. In the water, they’re trying the most ambitious component—a vertical oyster structure to interrupt the destructive currents under the water and stymie the wave action on the surface.

The structure is 840 feet long, mostly submerged except on the inland end, where Tropical Depression Ida yanked some of the rebar out of alignment last year. It comprises an interlocked row of waist-high triangular frames about four feet across per side. Each side of the frame is filled with oyster shells, some fossilized and others recycled from local restaurants.

Live oysters are naturally drawn to the old shells, and they’ve been gradually colonizing the whole wall.

“The oysters will grow and create a reef,” Reed explained. “The rebar itself is sacrificial metal, so it’s going to break down over time.”

Besides preventing further erosion of Dead Man’s Island, the oysters will clean detritus and toxins from the water. They make great habitat for fish and crabs, which is expected to kickstart a whole new ecological community. And that’s a good thing, Reed says: “Dead man’s island was pretty barren.”

But the oysters, which have so far colonized anywhere from 7 to 70 percent of the submerged metal, are sitting ducks if the oil spill should encroach.

On Tuesday, the city of Gulf Breeze asked Reed to be one of its research consultants to help prepare for the disaster—and a baseline inventory of the oysters is a key part of the job.

There’s no telling how invading oil would interact with the growing reef.

“It may wash around and settle on the oysters. We don’t know,” Reed said. “That’s why we’re doing the premonitoring today.”

The assessments didn’t feel much like work, as I snorkeled in a prone position and counted the number of oysters living in sections of a lightweight plastic grid clipped to individual faces of the vertical metal frames. The water is still in the low 70s, which feels chilly when you’re not moving—but the 80-degree, sunny air helped offset the discomfort, as do snack breaks on the sunlit, uncrowded Dead Man’s Island beach.

Just as we were wrapping up the day’s counting, we got a visitor. Rusty, a tanned fisherman in jeans and a cotton t-shirt, approached to let Reed know about a bird—loon or albatross, he thought—that seemed to be too lethargic. You can get within five feet of it and it won’t move; probably got hold of some oil, he reported in a thick drawl.

Ever the researcher, Reed took her camera and went to investigate. The bird, a loon, appeared fine, stretching its neck to scope the water below and raising itself off the surface, extending and shaking its evidently oil-free wings.

It was a false alarm, but a gentle reminder of the ominous scene that could still ensue if the wind shifts—a gentle reminder of why I’m here, and why counting oysters is a good thing to do.


Anne Minard takes a break on the beach at Dead Man’s Island.

Photo courtesy of Anne Minard

Anne Minard is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. She recently completed a Ted Scripps Fellowship for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is on the road again, pursuing stories.