Gulf Coast moves ‘Beyond Horizon’

A series of brown pelicans rescued from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill took flight last July from Egmont Key National Refuge. At least one of those banded birds remains here, off the coast of Anna Maria Island.

Oil from the massive spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico never reached here — the local waters or the shore. But the spill caused by the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana had an impact on local tourism, the fishing industry, the energy industry, and, perhaps, local wildlife and marinelife.

Out-of-state tourists called throughout the summer, wondering whether the Island was polluted. Cortez fishers were given orders to avoid certain areas in the Gulf. Wildlife rescuers were placed on alert. Big firm lawyers from Miami, New York City and Chicago arrived to seek clients in suits against BP and other companies. Protesters against exploring or drilling for more oil formed a human chain on the beach. Hundreds gathered for an Island town meeting to have their fears calmed. Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch volunteers underwent training in what to do if they saw tar balls or oiled animals.

Nearly a year after the Deepwater explosion, AMITW executive director Suzi Fox was surveying local waters. Near a dive shop in Cortez, she saw the banded brown pelican rescued from the Deepwater disaster.

The bird, which had been found heavily oiled last June, was “looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” she said.

Such observations show the resiliency of the Gulf and its wildlife, but Fox is not ignoring that “no one is out of the woods yet. Loads of that oil is still out there, but under sand and sediment. It will surface sometime.”

Additionally, numerous environmental groups calculating the environmental costs of the spill are estimating that 6,000 sea turtles, 26,000 dolphins, 82,000 birds and countless fish and invertebrates were harmed or killed.

“The numbers of animals injured by the Gulf spill are staggering,” said Tierra Curry of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The spill, the largest in U.S. history, originated April 20, 2010, when a blowout caused a rig explosion that killed 11 people and injured 17. The fire continued for two days, sinking the rig and sending oil gushing into the Gulf.

By mid-July, when the well was capped, at least 200 million gallons of oil had leaked into the Gulf and 1,000 miles of coastal habitat in the north were oiled.

“With the loss of 11 lives, the Deepwater Horizon was a human tragedy,” said former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. “It remains an environmental tragedy, both through the environmental havoc it wreaked and through the public’s loss of confidence in the industry and in government.”

Next month, Graham will participate in Beyond Horizon, a three-day conference at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota to explore the impact of the spill and develop a more comprehensive approach to managing the Gulf and its resources.

“This conference is an important step in … allowing all stakeholders to come together and work to preserve this irreplaceable treasure,” Graham said.

The conference will take place May 11-13, with representatives from Harte Research Institute, the University of South Florida, the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation and Mote, which quickly responded to the spill by dispatching scientists and deploying robots to the Gulf.

“For Mote, and for all the scientists who study the Gulf, the spill and its effects will remain a key scientific focus for years to come,” said Mote CEO and president Kumar Mahadevan. “This disaster really helped illustrate the need for more coordinated research efforts Gulfwide.”

A month after the conference, which is open to the public, another Deepwater-related event will take place. Hands Across the Sand, a grassroots demonstration that brought thousands to shores throughout the world last summer, will take place at noon June 25.

Organizers are asking people to join hands on their local beach in a display of “world unity for clean energy and turning away from our dependence on filthy fuels.”

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