Experts question report on health of Gulf of Mexico after oil spill


A new report on the Gulf of Mexico after the oil spill suggests a bright future. By next year, it says, harvests of shrimp, crab, oysters and finfish should be almost back to normal.

Not so fast, say some members of the scientific community.

The report is based largely on old and inconclusive research, they say, and it was not reviewed by experts in the field and may paint an inaccurate picture.

“The concern is that a report that was written with haste and rather superficially pretends to have scientific basis,” said Frank Muller-Karger, a biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida. “And then it’s pushed on everyone and accepted as fact.”

The report is critical because it serves as a basis for how claims are paid to people who say their lives and jobs have been affected by the 87-day spill. The report was commissioned by Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of BP’s $20 billion compensation fund, who in turn used it to create his own report.

Feinberg hired Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute, to write the 39-page report over his holiday break. The report ultimately concludes that the four species of concern will be mostly back to normal by 2012.

But scientists and others who have been watching Feinberg’s actions closely began questioning the integrity of the Jan. 31 report after it began circulating through e-mail and the Internet.

The report appears to draw conclusions based on old oil spill cases and environmental studies, some of which are 30 to 40 years old, and it was not peer-reviewed like most scientific publications.

In the report, Tunnell acknowledges its shortcomings and concludes that making an exact call on when any fishery group will recover “is impossible.”

Nonetheless, he predicts that Gulf of Mexico shrimp and blue crabs did not appear to be widely affected and should return to normal in a year or two. Oysters in most areas should be fine and ready to harvest by 2012 or 2013, the report says, though in areas that are heavily oiled it could take up to a decade. Finfish such as grouper and red snapper were not significantly affected, the report said.

All that may or may not be true, Muller-Karger said, but the report shouldn’t be passed off as a factual or sound scientific study.

Based largely on estimates in the report and from other sources, Feinberg’s staff created an initial formula for BP payouts.

Damages paid to most claimants will be double the losses from 2010, minus any emergency money already received. Critics say that formula doesn’t cover potential long-term impacts of the spill.

But Feinberg has to start somewhere, others say, and no scientist has the luxury of doing years of field studies to determine the spill’s true effects while BP is under pressure to pay.

Steve Murawski, a former NOAA Fisheries chief scientist who is now a research professor at USF, defended the report and Tunnell, saying, “He’s doing the best he can.”

“At some point, somebody’s got to make decisions here,” Murawski said. “I wouldn’t get too excited about this.”

The report also grabbed the attention of those in the travel and tourism industry, who are less affected by the health of gulf marine life and more by the public’s perception.

Keith Overton, the chief operating officer of TradeWinds Resort, said he thought the report overestimated the gulf’s ability to recover.

“I don’t think anyone thinks it’s going to happen in 2012,” Overton said. “The concern is, don’t shortchange the claims process when we don’t know what the long-term impacts are yet.”

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at or (727) 893-8452.

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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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