Marine Biologist Notes Devastation, Gulf Spill's Silver Lining

Sweet Briar College marine biologist John Morrissey, Ph.D., sees an upside to the ongoing Gulf catastrophe even as he knows a generation of animals he is deeply invested in as a researcher are dying where the oil flows.

Morrissey, a marine biologist at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., maintains a reproducing colony of catsharks for research.

“There are embryonic sharks littering the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico near the spill that are trapped, are doomed, have nowhere to go and are being bathed in this oil spill as it percolates out of the rupture,” he said.

It will take years for many local species — from the deep sea-dwelling chain catshark that he studies in his laboratory to the shellfish that live in shallows — to recover from the events following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. But offshore drilling and its inherent dangers have the attention of the entire world. That’s Morrissey’s silver lining.

As co-author of a textbook, “Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life,” Morrissey devoted a section to oil spills and the skewed view that most people have of them.

“Everyone in the U.S. has heard of the Exxon Valdez spill, formerly the largest in U.S. waters, but few realize that in terms of magnitude it’s the 53rd largest recorded,” he said, including those occurring both on land and sea.

The largest spill ever recorded was caused by Desert Storm, when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of oil wells as his troops retreated from Kuwait.

“The Kuwait spill flowed from January to May 1991. The rate of flow was about one Exxon Valdez every 12 days,” he said. “The second-largest spill ever recorded was an oil well blow out off the coast of Mexico in the late 1970s.”

Morrissey referred to the Ixtoc I rig, which blew up in 1979 in an accident disturbingly similar to the one playing out now. Engineers then attempted the same ineffective technologies to stop or contain that spill that are failing BP engineers.

“I guess my point is, if asked about the biggest spills ever, I predict that most Americans would answer ‘the Exxon Valdez spill’ or ‘the Amoco Cadiz spill off Portsall in 1978’ or ‘the Atlantic Express and Aegean Captain collision off Trinidad and Tobago in 1979,’ ” Morrissey said. “Nobody would answer ‘war,’ which is No. 1 on the list or ‘offshore drilling,’ which is No. 2. Now, at least, people know about offshore drilling.”

Morrissey teaches biology at Sweet Briar, an all-women’s college that lies on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He maintains a reproducing colony of chain catsharks, a species small enough to thrive in aquariums 200 miles from their closest native habitat.

He studies catsharks in part for what they teach us about the deep sea, a mysterious place about which science knows too little because not enough attention is paid to it, he says. As in the case of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, no one knows what the lasting effects will be on the plants and animals that live at 5,000 feet. More clear is what will happen closer to the surface.

“All of the vital plankton, the base of the marine food web will be hit pretty hard,” Morrissey said in a recent interview with WSET ABC 13 in Lynchburg, Va. “It’s almost like erasing all grass and all trees on land.”

Because most fisheries are managed by leaving only enough adults to produce the next harvest, what is lost today likely means hard times for coastal residents who earn their livings from the Gulf waters. “Shellfish babies are probably being harmed pretty badly, so the effects will be felt for a long time,” Morrissey said.

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