Chasing Oil in the Gulf

Strategic Science

Besides being a professor of conservation at the University of Idaho Moscow, Gary Machlis, Ph.D. ’79, is serving as science advisor to the director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis. Machlis’ work was completely transformed by the spill. Soon after the disaster began, Jarvis asked him to visit all of the command centers to assess the extent to which science was effectively guiding the army of responders, from federal agencies to private companies.

Machlis reported back that efforts focused almost exclusively on immediate-response issues, such as capping the well, or on the intensive work under way to legally assess damages for later use in determining liability levels. “There wasn’t anybody doing strategic science and thinking ahead to what the likely consequences of various actions would be,” he said.

So Machlis proposed the creation of a unique team of scientists to consider the big picture and help guide the overall spill effort. Thirty-six hours after the idea was approved, he had assembled a group of nine researchers, ranging from marine scientists to an anthropologist. Though formed under the auspices of the Department of the Interior, this Strategic Sciences Working Group included federal and nonfederal scientists alike. They worked independently of the incident command structure and the formal damage assessment process to give them freedom to consider science policy and any potentially conflicting interests.

At their first meeting the group fleshed out a range of scenarios for what sorts of damages to expect under different estimates of how much oil would ultimately be spilled. In September, the group, which now had 13 members, met again with a broader charge to explore different long-term damage and recovery scenarios, including identifying potential problems and suggesting ways to accelerate restoration.

Machlis is now focused on sharing the team’s findings with leaders at all levels. “The meetings were quite extraordinary,” he said, “intense and innovative.”

Called to Gulf Duty

Elyzabeth Earnley, an F&ES master’s student, spent most of her summer working on an outreach program for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Milbridge as an intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), but she volunteered early on to work in the Gulf. “I wanted to help out in any way possible, and I thought it would be worthwhile to see the government in action,” she said. “I felt that I would have somewhat of an insider’s view of what was really going on.”

In August the agency sent her for a short stint working as a biologist patrolling beaches in Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River. She was part of a team of about 20 people from FWS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture who lived on a barge at a spot called Dennis Pass, several miles by boat from the nearest town, Venice.

By the time she arrived, the main oil visible was tarballs on the beaches there, though boats could still create an oily sheen when they churned the muddy bottom. The team’s mission was to search for dead and injured birds that could be sent to a rehabilitation facility. Though Earnley retrieved only a single ailing laughing gull, workers were still collecting a couple of dead or injured birds each day a month after the oil had stopped flowing in her area. 

Earnely said the bureaucratic web between herself and administrators assigning duties seemed a bit disorganized at times, but she still found it to be a valuable experience. “I was very impressed with the people working at the ground level,” she said. “The biologists in the field were a very professional group.”

Jamie Collins, another F&ES master’s student, got a much more extensive and intensive view of Gulf operations. Collins graduated with a degree in political science from Yale College in 2004 and decided to follow his father’s career path and join the Coast Guard. Collins served five and a half years as an officer, both on a 270-foot multimission cutter that intercepted migrant boats and enforced fisheries and marine-mammal protection laws around the Caribbean and South America, among other tasks, and on an icebreaker in New York Harbor. 

But in the fall of 2009 he decided he wanted to study environmental science and began graduate work at F&ES. He maintained a position with the Coast Guard Reserve, though, that would have a major effect on his studies.

Working with his advisor, Peter Raymond, professor of ecosystem ecology at F&ES, Collins had just deployed equipment on a buoy in Long Island Sound that would collect data critical to his thesis work on how rain affects nutrient levels and the Sound’s ecology when the spill occurred.

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