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Fabien Cousteau on the Big Spill

Famous diver’s grandson is on the case in Pensacola

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Ocean explorer Fabien Cousteau (CGS’89, MET’91) holds tar balls that washed ashore in Pensacola, Fla. Cousteau surveyed the effects of the BP oil spill in June with Florida Governor Charlie Crist and his staff. Photo by Julie Roberts

To Fabien Cousteau, a grandson of the undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, the scene off the shores of Pensacola, Fla., was painful to behold: tar balls on a deserted beach, an oily sheen on the ocean’s surface, the result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I’m sure the general public feels that same pain,” says Cousteau (CGS’89, MET’91), an environmental advocate and an ocean explorer, who has been diving since he was four years old. “But having been privy to the beauty and majesty and mystery and fireworks display of life under the oceans since an early age—it’s my backyard, my home—it’s heartrending, for sure.”

Cousteau visited Pensacola in late June with a team from Plant a Fish, a nonprofit he founded to help restore and protect injured bodies of water around the world. (Among its projects: replanting oysters in New York Harbor, mangroves in South Florida, and corals in the Maldives.) Besides surveying the effects of the disaster with Florida Governor Charlie Crist and his staff, both on the ground and in a helicopter, Cousteau and his team joined a sea turtle rescue.

BU Today spoke with Cousteau about the spill’s impact on marine life and what it will take to restore the Gulf of Mexico.

BU Today: Could you describe what’s happening on the beaches in Pensacola?
Cousteau:
Right now, they’re seeing tar balls and a little bit of sheen washing up on the beaches, but nothing that would stop someone from going on vacation there. Tar balls, although they’re numerous on that part of the beach in Florida, are fairly easy to deal with in the sense that they can be picked up and disposed of properly. The sheen is a different story, but it’s not a huge health hazard yet.

If you take a bird’s-eye view and go nearly six to eight miles out from shore, you start seeing not only the sheen—and it’s kind of a spider web effect all the way out to the horizon—you now start seeing veins of the darker crude, the red and brown stuff that obviously is even more concerning. Right now the weather’s cooperating to keep it offshore in that part of the Gulf, but any shift in wind or storm or, God forbid, a hurricane and all that can change in an instant.

Tell us about the sea turtle rescue.
Although it’s not our official capacity, my team and I went down there to help facilitate the transport of sea turtles from Mississippi. They were the first line of sea turtles to get injured—not directly from the oil spill, but from the fishermen who found out there was an oil spill and ran out to catch as many fish and shrimp as possible before the spill affected their catch. Unfortunately, they neglected a federal mandate to put TEDs on their fishing gear, which are turtle excluder devices. That has led to a lot of casualties.

The good news is that some of those sea turtles were rescued. In this case they were Kemp’s Ridleys, which are highly endangered sea turtles. We were able to get 11 to Florida—to SeaWorld and Epcot—for rehabilitation and eventual release.

Another thing I’m involved in is trying to streamline the process and communications among the dozens of different animal hospitals and the transportation groups. We’ve got to think of this as any disaster zone, whether it’s a hurricane disaster zone for humans, or in this case, an oil disaster zone for humans and animals. We have to look at this as treating our wounded.

We’ve seen the photos of pelicans covered in oil, but what are some of the other effects of the spill?
The reality is, we don’t know the full extent. There is oil all the way down the water column, in different quantities and different places. The oceans are a three-dimensional, dynamic system. So that makes it really complicated and difficult to try and figure out where the oil concentrations are. Even with the pioneers like my grandfather and others over the last hundred years, we’ve explored 5 percent of our oceans, if not less. So that fact alone should indicate how clueless we are about the impact on our environment.

I’m not going to say the spill is going to kill everything in the Gulf. That’s not true. I will say that it’s going to fundamentally impact the food web and the general ecosystem in a good portion of the Gulf and beyond for generations to come in ways that we have yet to comprehend.

How will it affect marine life?
Oil coats everything. Oil can be that heavy, nasty crude that we see being cleaned off the pelicans, and it can also be tiny droplets that are suspended in the water column and then attach themselves onto oxygen particles, onto zooplankton, and all sorts of things.

Corals are very sensitive animals, not only to temperature, but also to their environment, with regard to toxins. The oil is an extraordinary danger to these coral reefs. And about 70 percent of ocean life depends on corals and coral reefs.

Don’t forget that this oil disaster has been timed very unfortunately with a number of things. Number one: turtle nesting season. Typically at this point they lay their eggs and 20 to 45 days later, the turtle hatchlings emerge from the sand and go into the oceans. Those babies are the most sensitive and the most affected by the oil spill. They could be wiped out very easily. Number two: fish, such as the bluefin tuna, which are extraordinarily endangered in the Atlantic. They go into the Gulf and spawn at precisely this time of year. So their eggs will most likely not hatch.

So we’ve really set ourselves up for a huge hurt. And that’s why it behooves us all to care about what’s happening, and more important, to roll up our sleeves and all get involved as much as possible as soon as possible and for as long as possible.

Will we see the impact of this disaster in the Northeast?
It looks like, as far as forecasts are concerned, some of this oil will eventually be swept up by the Gulf Stream and affect the East Coast of the United States and of Canada and will eventually go up to Iceland and into western Europe: France, Spain, England. So it’s not just an American problem. It’s an international problem. Cuba, which has absolutely phenomenal diving, will be affected by this, as will the Bahamas and a lot of other places we all love and cherish. We’re talking about effects occurring anywhere from a month to 5 to 10 years. It’s really difficult to say because we, as people connected to the oceans, are still students, learning every day.

Is Plant a Fish getting involved in the restoration?
Once the cleanup is done, then we have to start replanting key species that have been damaged or wiped out in the Gulf, such as oysters, which is a huge market down there, turtles, which are iconic creatures, pelicans, mangroves, corals. And all those things are initiatives that we’re looking into in the Gulf once the cleanup efforts are completed.

There has been in the works since the beginning, before the oil spill, a program of mangrove restoration in Florida as part of the Plant a Fish initiative. Now I’m rolling up my sleeves and looking into what we can do on the Gulf side of the coast. Because we have very limited resources, I may have to reallocate resources to the Gulf, which is obviously much more urgent, and start doing some coral restoration. These initiatives, in terms of, say, corals, take months and months of preparation before we can start planting. Corals grow very slowly, and they’re very sensitive.

We heard the ocean’s call and we’re refocusing our efforts toward that area for when the cleanup is done. And of course, I invite citizens of this planet to join those efforts, whether it’s financially or physically.

A BP official recently said the company intends to restore the Gulf to the way it was before the spill. Is that even possible?
I commend his words. I’m very cautious about that for a couple of reasons. They have yet to show that they can clean it up by themselves. It’s impossible for one for-profit company to clean up this kind of mess. So we all have to participate in this, whether we’re nonprofits, government agencies, or individuals and concerned citizens. We all have to pitch in.

As much as I want to support the efforts that are being made by BP, they are too little and too far between, and we need the efforts to be redoubled tenfold. We can really make a big difference if we start figuring out how best to use the limited resources out there; $20 billion is nothing. It’s going to cost a lot more than that to fix what is broken. But we can do it. I’m not saying we can clean it up 100 percent. But we can clean it up as much as possible.

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.

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