Oil spill has potential for serious effects, UD expert says

‘Fishes … have been found to suffer more significant consequences to oil exposure that doesn’t outright result in instantaneous mortality,’ he said.

oil spill
The spill was reported at Broadkill Beach and has spread along 11 miles of the Sussex coast.

There’s potential for “some very serious consequences” from this week’s oil spill on Sussex County beaches, a University of Delaware expert said today.

“The true consequences of this exact oil spill event are unknown at this point,” said Edward A. Hale, a Delaware Sea Grant marine advisory specialist at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment in Lewes. “And as far as I know, no predictions on how damaging this event may be to our commercial or recreational fisheries has been made.”

Other developments:

• More than 75 contractors, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control responders and Coast Guard personnel are working on the spill. A command post has been set up at the Slaughter Beach Volunteer Fire Department.

• Approximately two tons of oily sand and debris has been removed as of 7 p.m. Tuesday. Due to cleanup operations, the 4-wheel drive surf fishing crossing at Delaware Beach Plum Island Preserve is closed. “While no public beaches have been closed, DNREC advises visitors use caution to avoid the globs and pools of oil,” a DNREC representative said. 

“We are focused on cleanup operations and getting the oil off our beaches and out of our coastal communities as quickly as possible,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin, who was on scene today surveying affected areas. “Expediency is key. We want to capture as much of the oil as we can before it disperses further and causes more environmental harm.

• Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research has responded to reports of 24 oiled seagulls. The public is strongly advised to not handle any product found or attempt to assist affected wildlife along the shore and to report findings to DNREC’s environmental hotline at 800-662-8802. Residents of coastal communities are encouraged report any oil spotted on or offshore to  the same number.

• Dave Burris, owner of Henlopen Sea Salt said he’s stopping production indefinitely of his salt, harvested from Sussex seawater. “After learning of the spill, we went to our source locations, as well as several others up and down the coast, to monitor conditions,” he wrote in an email today to customers.

“While I’m confident that a huge percentage of the coast wasn’t affected, including our source locations, we will not take any risks,” he continued. “Until the situation is resolved beyond our satisfaction, we will halt production of Henlopen Sea Salt.”

“The good news is that we completed 100% of our targeted volume for our first sale – all of which was harvested well before this situation developed, and we will begin sales on Monday.”

• Some Lewes maritime businesses, such as Lewes Harbour Marina Fishing & Boating Outfitters and Anglers Fishing Center, said today they haven’t seen any impact or reaction yet from the spill, which was reported on Monday at Broadkill Beach.

Further impact

Any consequences from the spill could take a while to show up in the cycle of life, Hale said.

“Invertebrates, such as snails, have been found to be negatively impacted by oil exposure (e.g. ability to escape blue crabs by climbing up salt marsh grasses), which has the potential to result in ecological changes that may indirectly negatively impact blue crabs later,” he said.

“Some research has suggested that blue crabs are fairly resilient to direct oil exposure, with sublethal effects including a change in the time between molting events among other responses,” he added.

“Fishes, however, have been found to suffer more significant consequences to oil exposure that doesn’t outright result in instantaneous mortality,” he continued. “These impacts can include deformations in skeletal tissue, reduced growth, changes in respiration rates, fin erosion and reproductive impairment in adults.”

“To most folks, a reduction in larval or juvenile fish doesn’t mean much. But, if there is any impact to the year class of potential recruits, the population of these species will likely suffer as a result generating consequences that propagate through time.”

Delaware Bay is an important nursery for Atlantic croaker, Atlantic menhaden, Atlantic sturgeon, blue crab, silver perch, spot, summer flounder, weakfish and other species, he said.

The early estimate of the spill was 215 gallons, hitting Broadkill Beach. “The oil line from the spill now extends approximately 11 miles from Fowler Beach bordering Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and north of Broadkill Beach, to the ocean side of Cape Henlopen State Park at Gordon’s Pond,” DNREC tweeted.

Officials have said it would take days to clean up the beaches by hand. On Tuesday, the cleanup and assessment included the U.S. Coast Guard, cleanup contractor Lewis Environmental, Delaware State Police (for a helicopter inspection) and DNREC, the agency tweeted.

“How much oil is deposited and if/how it interacts with patchy marine life as a result of the net advection (movement of oil in response to wind, tidal and buoyancy driven currents) will likely determine what, if any interactions these species may see as a result of the oil spill,” Hale said.

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