Glenn Plumb: Oil spill is harming base of Gulf food chain

“If we anticipate that this is a short-lived event, with a short-lived disturbance of the ecosystems, then we’re probably not anticipating the right scenario,” Plumb said.

Some scientists believe oil from the Gulf Oil spill is harming the base of the region’s food chain. They say it will create a ripple effect that will reach all the way up to the fishing industry.

Glenn Plumb: If we anticipate that this is a short-lived event with a short-lived disturbance of the ecosystems, then we’re probably not anticipating the right scenario.

EarthSky spoke to Glenn Plumb, a chief scientist with Yellowstone National Park. In May 2010, Plumb was sent to the Gulf Coast by the U.S. Department of the Interior to help determine how the April 2010 ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill might affect the Gulf ecosystem. He told us that right now, along more than 100 miles of the Gulf coastline, the oil is harming tiny organisms at the very base of the food web.

Glenn Plumb: In the top two millimeters of the mudflats is the food factory that feeds much of the Gulf, the microscopic worms, the tiny invertebrates that then become part of the food web feeding the oysters and the small crabs and the small fish that then become the food for larger and larger animals.

If these tiny invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain die, he said, that ultimately harms bigger sea creatures and the entire fishing industry. Dr. Plumb said we can expect to see this ripple effect in the middle of the Gulf, too, where – according to Plumb and other scientists – oil is likely interfering with the life-cycles of tiny krill that are food for larger fish.

Glenn Plumb: I anticipate given the volume and distribution of oil that this is an event whose consequences will be expressed for years if not decades. It has disrupted the natural ecosystems and those effects are directly impacting key food webs including the bottom levels or the “food factiories” that support productive ecosystem like oyster beds and fisheries. And this disruption is translated into fishing closures which we have seen, and will see increase, leading to cascading effects on Gulf communities.

If the effects remain long-lived, he said, this will put stress on services in those communities for a long time to come. He said that just knowing this is a step in the right direction.

Glenn Plumb: This sets us up to plan for recovery, support, impacted society and economy. I think of the Gulf of Mexico as a coupled human-natural ecosystem… And this oil spill has disrupted that coupled system.

He talked, finally, about his work at Yellowstone, and how has influenced his view of the damage done by the Gulf oil spill.

Glenn Plumb: It’s the mission of the National Parks Service to preserve – unimpaired — these resources for future generations. Since 1872, Yellowstone National Park has endeavored to preserve an intact ecosystem and foodweb that continues to support thriving and thrilling wildlife like bison and bears.

He said that the Gulf ecosystem, like Yellowstone, is a part of America’s natural – and even cultural – heritage. He believes the Gulf spill threatens that heritage.

Beth Lebwohl