Sylvia Earle’s warnings about Gulf deserve prime-time attention

Dolphins (c) Ron Wooten

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s warnings about Gulf deserve prime-time attention

By now most of us have seen those feel-good television spots featuring a Louisianan, an Alabaman, a Mississippian and a Floridian, all smiling and boasting good-naturedly about the relative advantages of their home state as a tourist destination. With a clear emphasis on the many pleasures of the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico shared by all.

The object is to draw visitors to spotless beaches and crystal waters, along with historical attractions, golf courses and, of course, food! Endless buffets of mouth-watering dishes served fresh from the bounty of the Gulf.

The message to prospective tourists is that the widely publicized miseries brought by the April 2010 BP spill are a thing of the distant past. A homegrown BP spokesman proclaims that things are better than ever, and urges one and all to come on down!

Crude OIl

The ads are sponsored and paid for by BP, as part of its settlement for the harm caused to these same waters and fragile coastlines by the 2010 Macondo spill offshore Louisiana. And they’re very effective. We’d guess they’ve raised the visibility and favorable images of all four states by a measurable amount.

We don’t for a minute believe that the Macondo spill, which claimed 11 lives and spread its tarry mess across environmentally sensitive areas for hundreds of miles, was a good thing in any way, shape or form. It was a nightmare that must not be repeated.

But we concede the spill may have served one unintended but constructive purpose: raising national and international awareness of the Gulf of Mexico’s many valuable uses – as home for a large and prosperous fishing industry, host to oil and gas rigs that supply 30 percent of our nation’s petroleum needs and not incidentally, as a place of subtle natural beauty that is attractive as a tourist destination.

If our neighbors to the east get an economic boost from the BP ads, and the Gulf itself claims a place in more people’s minds, so much the better. Up to a point.

That point is the one at which we make a 180-degree swivel to embrace the quite different views of oceanographer Sylvia Earle concerning these ads and the larger consequences of selling the Gulf to tourists.

For more than half a century, Earle has served as the conscience of the Gulf. Explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, the diminutive Earle is referred to by her legion of admirers as “Her Deepness,” for both her skills as an intrepid diver and her depth of thought about vital issues such as the long-term health of the Gulf and all of the world’s oceans.

Crude Oil to the Horizon (c) Ron Wooten Photography

If Sylvia Earle had her wish, the tone of BP’s advertising campaign would look and sound quite different:

  • It would make the case for creating a national parks system in Gulf waters that would mirror those inspired on land by the likes of President Teddy Roosevelt and the conservationist/photographer John Muir. During the administration of George H.W. Bush, the small but biologically rich Flower Garden Banks 100 miles south of the Louisiana/Texas border were declared a marine sanctuary, and George W. Bush used his power as president to establish the largest area in the ocean where even the fish have a safe haven around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It is an idea whose time has come.
  • It would de-emphasize gorging on shrimp, tuna, grouper, snapper and other native Gulf species in favor of “fish watching,” a la the bird watching done on the North American flyway on the coast not far from Houston.
  • It would make the case for giving what she calls the Great Blue Engine of the Gulf of Mexico a break from fishing and other extractive activities in special, vital areas. Giving back to the ecosystem that has given us so much.
  • It would showcase the bigger picture: Nearly 60 percent of the freshwater rivers, streams and creeks in North America eventually flow into the Gulf – and that is not always a good thing. Agribusiness in the Midwest on a huge scale has yielded enormous deposits of fertilizer that create seasonal “dead zones” downstream at the mouth of the Mississippi. These dead zones could soon spread as far west as Galveston Bay, harming highly valued recreational and fishing resources in this area.

We could elaborate. But Earle’s reputation speaks for itself. And she speaks ably in defense of the health of the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo: (c) Ron Wooten

Through her work with the National Geographic Society and her association with the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, she already has a sizable megaphone with which to communicate needed warnings about the dangers facing our aquatic front porch.

Wouldn’t it make for interesting viewing if BP chose to do a series of commercials featuring Sylvia Earle and some of her warnings about the Gulf?

We think so. In the interests of full disclosure about the problems still facing the Gulf of Mexico, those views deserve the kind of prime-time television platform a BP-sponsored ad campaign would offer. What say, BP?

Originally published (c) Houston Chronicle, Editorial

Supplemental Feature Photo (c) Ron Wooten Photography