Another In A Long List of Gulf Casualties: Pensacola’s East Bay Oyster Population Decimated By Mass Die-Off


You can add oysters from the Florida panhandle – an area slammed by the BP oil spill – to the widening list of marine life experiencing mass die-offs in the Gulf of Mexico. Dolphins, sea turtles, shrimp, blue crabs, sea stars, sand dollars and fish, such as red snapper and the minnow-like killifish, are being hit hard by disease, deformities, cellular abnormalities and, yes, die-offs. Now we have harvesters of Pensacola’s East Bay oysters, described by many seafood connoisseurs as the tastiest in America, pulling up “dead catches” ever since the season opened on Oct. 1.

Photo credit to Charles Walton IV

From an Oct. 30 Pensacola New Journal (PNJ) report:

“We’re finding very few alive,” said Pasco Gibson, a main supplier of the East Bay oysters. “This time of the year, we should be catching 500 to 1,000 pounds per boat a day. We’re not even catching a hundred pounds.”

Oyster season opened on Oct. 1, and oystermen were expecting great hauls. Instead, they were alarmed when they dipped their long, wooden tongs with metal jaws into beds that had been teaming with large, juicy and healthy oysters at the end of last season, on June 30, and pulled up mostly dead ones.

Locals harvesters, including Gibson, believe the cause of the die-off has to be some sort of sweeping event – say, perhaps, a massive oil spill. More from the PNJ:

“Something happened in August, and it had to be massive because some of these beds are 10 miles apart,” Gibson said of the beds scattered near the shorelines of East Bay.

As Gibson describes, the die-off runs across the entire East Bay, a bad situation that could ripple through other reefs and beds off the Florida coast. More from the PNJ report:

Now that (Heather) Reed (a restoration project manager) has learned the oyster die-off is more widespread, she is worried there won’t be enough baby oysters spawning from East Bay this year to reseed Deadman’s reef, something she was depending on. She is convinced the oyster die-off, similar to the mass die-off of sea stars and sand dollars in Santa Rosa Sound earlier this year, is an example of the long-term effects of the oil spill.

Last summer, oil came ashore on the pristine beaches of Pensacola, and it’s reported that large deposits of submerged oil continue to contaminate Pensacola Pass. Remember those massive underwater plumes of oil? They settled in the waters right off the Florida panhandle. From a May 28, 2010, Huffington Post report:

A thick, 22-mile plume of oil discovered by researchers off the BP spill site was nearing an underwater canyon, where it could poison the foodchain for sealife in the waters off Florida.

The discovery by researchers on the University of South Florida College of Marine Science’s Weatherbird II vessel is the second significant undersea plume reported since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20. The plume is more than 6 miles wide and its presence was reported Thursday.

The cloud was nearing a large underwater canyon whose currents fuel the foodchain in Gulf waters off Florida and could potentially wash the tiny plants and animals that feed larger organisms in a stew of toxic chemicals, another researcher said Friday.

Mr. Gibson’s account of severely depleted oyster catches sounds eerily familiar, mirroring a crush of other reports we’ve heard since last year’s 200-million-gallon spill. There’s an undeniable and troubling trend in the Gulf – a trend showing that something is very wrong from the top of the Gulf food chain all the way to the bottom.

Consider this from an Oct. 12 Mobile Press-Register report:

“We should be seeing one (death) a month at this time of year,” said Ruth Carmichael, a Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientist tasked with responding to reports of dead dolphins. “We’re getting one or more a week. It’s just never slowed down.”

An examination of the Gulfwide death toll, broken down by month, reveals that dolphins continue to die at rates four to 10 times higher than normal. For instance, 23 dolphins were found dead in August, compared to a monthly average of less than 3 each August between 2002 and 2009.

And this from an Oct. 4 Baton Rouge Advocate report:

The lack of shrimp around Grand Isle has forced some shrimpers to sail west toward Dulac and Delcambre, said Dean Blanchard, owner of a shrimp dock in Grand Isle. “Our Grand Isle beach is producing less than one percent of the shrimp it normally produces,” he said.

From a WWL-TV report, out of St. Bernard, Louisiana:

Bruce Guerra has been a crab fisherman in Yscloskey for 25 years. And since the BP oil spill, he began seeing alarming differences in his catch.

“I guess where he was, he probably was in oil,” said Guerra, as he showed Eyewitness News a crab he’d recently caught. “See how this is all black?”

Guerra said crabs have been coming up dead, discolored, or riddled with holes since last year’s spill.

Now Guerra, and many of the crabbers that work for him, said they’re trapping 75 percent fewer crabs than they were pre-oil spill.

And this from a Sept. 26 Washington Post report by Juliet Eilperin:

Killifish residing in areas affected by the spill showed cell abnormalities, including impaired gills, two months after the oil had disappeared, researchers found. Killifish embryos exposed in the lab to water from the same site, which had only trace amounts of chemicals in it, developed cellular abnormalities as well.

And not long ago, we witnessed another mass die-off on the Florida panhandle. From a June 2011 PNJ report:

At first glance, it looks like a coin machine exploded on the shoreline. Thousands of sand dollars cover the beach from the Fort Pickens gate area to at least a mile west. And they’re also directly across Santa Rosa Sound from that area, on the south shore of Gulf Breeze.

The nickel- and quarter-sized sand dollars are all dead. They’re not white; rather, they’re tinged green like a coin left in water. The mass die-off is raising concerns about what killed or is killing the sand dollars and hundreds of sea stars mixed in with them.

Does anybody else see a pattern here?

One of the most devastating parts about the East Bay oyster die-off is that it could take years before the oysters can be harvested again. Oysters have a relatively long maturation cycle so it will be a long tough haul for harvesters on the East Bay.

Read the PNJ report here:

See photos of oil on Pensacola Beach back in June 2010:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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