UGA Gulf Oil Spill Symposium Recap

On Wednesday, January 26, 2011, UGA – Georgia Sea Grant hosted a unique Symposium on the Gulf Oil Spill called Building Bridges in Crisis. The goal was to bring together members of the Scientific community, Government, Media, BP, and representatives from local sectors impacted in an effort to openly discuss the oil spill response and how the aforementioned groups can work together more effectively in times of crisis.  There was certainly a good amount of debate and frank discussion, which was clearly needed in order to make progress so that the next crisis can be more effectively coordinated.

UGA Gulf Oil Spill Symposium - Scientific Synergies Panel
One of the key takeaways was that despite the fact that we might not see stories of the oil spill in the media much anymore, the event itself is most certainly not over.  There is considerable impact to the system that is being analyzed now in an attempt to determine what potential long-term implications may exist for the food web, the water, and even public health.  As Dr. Samantha Joye noted, ‘This oil spill is not over. It will be decades, I think, until we really understand the true impacts of the spill on the system.’

Highlights from the Symposium can be viewed in the video below (if you can’t see the video, click here)

YouTube Preview Image
Another clear theme was the fact that there was tremendous impact on the people of the Gulf Coast both economically and emotionally.  The closure of the fisheries and the overall national attitude toward Gulf seafood and recreation has taken a tremendous toll on local businesses that rely on the confidence of visitors and seafood consumers for their livelihood. As Herb Malone, Executive Director of Tourism for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach reminded us, ‘This happened to us at the worst time of the year, on the eve of our high season’ and LaDon Swann from the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium stated ‘My number one concern is that great damage to the human side of the equation is going to be forgotten in the long term.’

There was also much discussion on the impact the media had on the situation and how the constant barrage of news reports affected the region’s tourism industry. And social media wasn’t immune to criticism either.  Interestingly, although there were many comments about the adverse impact of speculation and misinformation that were present in various social media channels, representatives from the US Coast Guard and NOAA were upbeat about its potential to help get information out to the public.  Both the USCG and NOAA utilized the web to communicate important information throughout this event. Click here for a short video where they describe how they used social media during the spill.

More videos can be found on our YouTube channel, including a deeper look at the Scientific discussion and an interview with Dr. Samantha Joye. For my recap of Sylvia Earle’s Keynote speech on Tuesday 1.25.11, click here.

Photo: Scientific Synergies Panel

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02 2011

Gulfscapes Magazine Article and Photo Essay

Gulfscapes MagazineWe were recently honored to be featured in the Spring 2011 issue of Gulfscapes Magazine. Photographer Terrell Clark worked with the Publisher Victoria Rogers on the photo selections for the article and the result is a beautiful spread that highlights our journey to the coast in August 2010. The story and photo essay can be found on page 39 and viewed through the widget below. To purchase a print copy of the magazine, click here to find a store near you.

Special thanks to Victoria Rogers at Gulfscapes for recognizing our work and featuring the story for her readers.

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02 2011

Dr. Sylvia Earle Speaks at UGA Oil Spill Symposium

This afternoon, I had the honor of attending the Keynote speech for this week’s UGA – Georgia Sea Grant Oil Spill Symposium.  The speaker was legendary NOAA scientist, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and champion of the sea, Dr. Sylvia Earle.  Dr. Earle gave a wonderful talk on the urgency of protecting our world’s oceans, including first-hand testimony of her findings over the 40 years that she has been exploring the sea.

Sylvia Earle at UGA Oil Spill Symposium
Early in her talk, she recognized Dr. Samantha (Mandy) Joye, Marine Biologist at UGA for her tireless efforts to spread the word about her research into the spill’s impact on the water in the Gulf of Mexico.  The room broke into applause as this legend in the field of Marine Science gave a heartfelt thank you to Mandy for her refusal to remain silent and for her ongoing research into this disaster.  Mandy will be appearing on one of the panels tomorrow, which will no doubt bring compelling information and expert testimony to the Symposium.

Dr. Earle’s account of her lifetime of exploring the world’s oceans was moving and inspiring beyond words, but I wanted to share a few quotes from her here:

“The greatest diversity of life in in the sea. …we need to have access to the sea”

“A turtle can’t know why these changes are taking place.  We are the ones”

“There is a series of species at risk due to our carelessness”

“We still know far less than we should know about what happened, what continues to happen” [re: oil spill]

“If people don’t know, they can’t care”

“Right now, our planet is blessed with insight and information that will serve us well if we choose to use it”

“We need to embrace different attitudes toward the natural world”

“Once you know, you can’t go back.  You are burdened with knowledge”

“Now that we know what we know, we can make better choices going forward”

“We can make a difference by making changes in our behavior”

Those last few quotes were incredibly inspiring to me, because they essentially cut to the heart of how Spirit of the Gulf Coast was born and why I traveled to Athens for the Symposium.  This initiative came about because of our desire to spread the word about the tragic impact of the BP oil spill by showing a glimpse of the lives of people that are on the front lines.  We hoped that by bringing the human element to the forefront, we might capture the attention of those who might have tuned out so that we could have a meaningful discussion on our role in this unprecedented event and its ongoing impact.

Sylvia Earle and Brandon Sutton
Ultimately, this disaster is an opportunity for us to wake up and come to some tough realizations on how our collective behavior has brought us to this perilous point in human history.  I echo Dr. Earle’s feeling that not only do we need to embrace different attitudes toward the natural world, but that we can each make a difference by making changes in our behavior.  We can no longer ignore the ramifications of our past behavior and now that we know what we know, we can make better choices going forward.

This quote is from the end of our film. I thought it was particularly appropriate given Sylvia’s message today:

“We’re in jeopardy of losing this area, losing the ecosystem, losing the people, losing the wetlands, and I think we all need to pay attention.  We need to really take a look at what role we all play, as individuals and as society in that impact, so that we can hopefully make better choices in the future.”

If you want to be part of the solution but you’re not sure where to begin, there are links on the Taking Action area of our site that will give you a starting point.  We won’t solve the problem overnight, but we can each take the first step.

We each have choices. The question is, what will we do with those choices?  I hope you will join us in looking inward and taking steps toward reducing our collective impact on the Gulf and our environment overall.  If you’re ready, please share your thoughts in the comments or email us so we can work together.

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01 2011

Visit to Coastal Alabama and Mississippi

In the last post, I highlighted some of my experience from Navarre Beach, Florida the week of January 10, 2011.  On Saturday, Jan. 15th, I had the opportunity to revisit 2 of the families that we interviewed in our documentary last August.

My first stop was in Coden, Alabama to visit with Lori and Dennis Bosarge. Lori is an outspoken critic of the way the government and BP has handled the cleanup in coastal Alabama, and with the use of chemical dispersants in particular. Lori’s artwork in her yard depicting the impacts of the cleanup was what drew us to her originally, and these same pieces are still on display out front.

Brandon, Lori and Dennis in Coden, AL
Lori described some recent health concerns that she has been dealing with in the past few weeks.  She has been having some adverse reactions to something in her environment, but she has been unable to isolate what is really going on.  Understandably, she is concerned that the use of toxic dispersants in the cleanup very close to her home could have contributed to the problem.  Lori went on to tell me about the process of trying to find a doctor in the area that is conducting blood testing for the compounds involved in the cleanup that might shed light on the situation.  She had not been successful in locating one at the time we spoke.

Lori is still concerned with the long-term impact on public health and the fishery along the coast of Alabama.  Her and Dennis live less than a mile from where the local cleanup operation was stationed in Portersville Bay and she has seen too much to simply stay silent and hope things are going to be ok.  We took a ride over to the Bay where our team visited in August 2010, but unlike what we saw last Summer (boat washing stations, large white chemical containers, and fuel tanks lining the docks), there is very little visual evidence of the cleanup operation currently.

Coincidentally, later that afternoon, the community had a meeting at the Coastal Response Center to discuss the oil spill and ongoing Hurricane Katrina impacts.  Outside of the coast, the country may have moved on, but in the bayou, the legacy of these disasters is fresh in the minds of local citizens.  I had to leave before the meeting began, but spoke briefly with several of the community leaders that shared Lori’s concern and had a general distrust that everything is fine and the oil spill has been effectively cleaned up.  I was also given a stack of books by Riki OttThe Sound Truth & Corprate Myth$.  Riki is an Exxon Valdez survivor and marine toxicologist that visited the Gulf Coast during the spill.  She gave several cases of books to the community, and Lori helps distribute them to people who are willing to listen.

After leaving Coden, I headed over to Pearlington, MS to visit with Daryl Arnold and his family. Daryl has been in the area all his life and despite his house being totally destroyed by Katrina, he has committed to staying in Pearlington. I wrote about his resilience in a previous post, and true to form, Daryl gave me another tour of the new home he is building on the site of the one that was destroyed 5 1/2 years ago. It towers above the camping trailer where he continues to live with his mother and girlfriend, and his new cat, which took quite a liking to me when I arrived.

When I asked about the oil spill, he described the somewhat chaotic process that he experienced when he filed his claim.  An attorney from outside the area came to the area and essentially rounded up hundreds of people in town to get them to file their claims.  After a couple of tries, Daryl finally managed to beat the rush at the meetings and got his claim filed.  He’s waiting to hear the results of the process, but is optimistic about the outcome. Otherwise, Daryl’s primary focus is on finishing the construction of the new house.

Before leaving, Daryl’s mother Betty handed me a copy of a book that was written by a woman who spent several formative years of her life in Pearlington – Mama Nettie’s Time to Love by Gail C. Fusco. In the book’s introduction, the author chronicles what life was like growing up in the area as well as her return to the area seeing the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and how it affected life in this small town. She goes on to account the story of how Daryl had pulled his mother from the rising flood waters out through the window of the house and into his boat where they rode out the storm. It really is a remarkable story of survival against all odds that is still hard to fathom.

This very brief trip across the coast provided me with an opportunity to meaningfully reconnect with the people of the Gulf Coast.  I continue to look for additional opportunities to visit the area and share stories of those most impacted. Later today, I travel to Athens, Ga. to attend the UGA Georgia Sea Grant Oil Spill Symposium, which includes discussions by multiple scientists, writers, and community leaders.  The Keynote speaker is Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in Residence and former chief scientist for NOAA.  I will post updates from the Symposium on Twitter and her on the blog as info becomes available.  Thank you for allowing me to share my experiences with you here.

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01 2011