Gulf’s recovery may rest with marsh grass

The future of the Louisiana coast may depend on whether marsh grasses can survive the oil from the BP well. The future of the Louisiana coast may depend on whether marsh grasses can survive the oil from the BP well. (Patrick Semansky/ Associated Press)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post / August 2, 2010

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ON TAMBOUR BAY, La. — In the next act of the drama of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, two of the most important heroes don’t look like heroes. They are just thin green stalks, sticking out of blackened patches of grass.

They are cordgrass and wiregrass, common species that wave in the winds in south Louisiana’s coastal marshes. Except, in some places, they aren’t waving anymore: Where oil has sloshed into the marshes, their stalks are matted and gooey and, perhaps, on their way to a slow death.

What happens next — whether these two grasses rebound or vanish — will be a very important piece of the gulf’s larger environmental story. Now that the well has been capped, the next question is whether marsh and marine ecosystems can shrug off the oil’s damage, or whether it will leave them with lasting wounds.

“Many of us are much more worried about the marsh than we are about fish and shrimp and all that,’’ said Denise Reed, a wetlands expert at the University of New Orleans. “If those plants die, they don’t come back. And the marsh is gone.’’

Louisiana’s coastal marshes are vital to ecosystems that extend far into deep, open water: They shelter juvenile shrimp, crabs, and fish until these creatures are large enough to venture into open water. For these places, grasses are as vital as water. Their roots hold the land together, giving support to loose, wet sediment that would otherwise erode.

“They are the marsh, basically,’’ said Andy Nyman of Louisiana State University. “Once they die . . . it just floats away.’’ Humans, too, depend on the grasses, since the marshes are a natural barrier against storm surges headed toward New Orleans.

Already, there are about 200 square miles of oiled coastline in Louisiana alone, said Robert Barham, secretary of the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He said most of that is marshland, which means around 5 percent of the state’s 3,900 square miles of marsh is oily.

That number may not seem overwhelming, but Louisiana is already losing 24 square miles of wetlands to erosion every year. Scientists say the state cannot afford to lose another large chunk all at once.

The question now is: How much will die?

Humans will play some role in determining the answer. On a recent boat ride through the marshes south of Cocodrie, La., some workers could be seen trying the delicate approach to marsh cleaning, using a long stick with a plastic mop on the end to dab oil out of grass.

Some could be seen trying another approach. One crew was throwing white absorbent “boom’’ down onto a heavily oiled patch, then stomping it down to sop up the oil. There were also reports of damage from the boom itself, driven in by the most recent storm.

Scientists say that it is hard to get all the oil out of an oiled patch, and that trying too aggressively could just mash oil deeper into the plants’ roots.

“It’s like going to a doctor, you know: ‘Do no harm’ as the first rule,’ ’’ said Eugene Turner, another scientist at LSU. He said that even an attempt to wipe off clumps of grass with paper-towel-like sheets could backfire, since it spreads the oil around.

If a blade is hit by oil, it could die by smothering: The crude could coat the blade and cut off the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that plants depend on for photosynthesis. If oil hasn’t been “weathered’’ by the sun and bacteria, the grass could take toxins in through its roots.

Or the oil could sink into the sediments around the plant’s roots and upset the chemical balances the plant depends on, or kill the tiny crabs and worms whose burrowing allows needed oxygen to reach those roots.

Thankfully, this is not wimpy grass. Scientists say many oiled plants will simply shed dead stalks and put up new ones. If those are killed by another slug of oil, it will put up others.

It’s already happening. One recent day, Alexander Kolker of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium went out onto the state’s Barataria Bay to look at heavily oiled patches of grass. In among the black, he said, there were little spots of green.

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