AP Enterprise: Scientists think Gulf can recover

BAY ST. LOUIS, MISS. (AP) - Want to know the future of the oil-stained Gulf of Mexico ecosystem? Look first to its muddy, polluted past.

The recent ecological history of the Gulf gives scientists reason for hope. In an extensive survey of Gulf of Mexico researchers by The Associated Press, at least 10 of them separately volunteered the same word to describe the body of water: “resilient.”

This is buttressed by a government report that claims that all but 53 million gallons of the leaked oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon well are gone. The report issued Wednesday says the cleanup extracted a lot of it, but the natural processes that break up, evaporate and dissolve oil took care of 84 million gallons _ more than twice the amount human efforts removed.

At the same time, more progress was made in sealing the well for good as BP finished pumping cement into it on Thursday.

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ It will take time to see the full effects of one of history’s largest oil spills on the Gulf of Mexico, but a survey of 75 scientists offers reason for hope. First in an occasional series, “Gulf Survival.”

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The Gulf’s impressive self-cleanup makes sense given its history and makeup. The Gulf regularly absorbs environmental insults: overfishing, trawlers raking sea floors, frequent hurricanes. And then there’s the dead zone, an area starved of oxygen because 40 percent of America’s runoff pours from the Mississippi River into the Gulf.

And yet the Gulf remains America’s most biologically diverse place, with 15,419 species. It is the nation’s buffet of life as well as its gas station and septic tank.

It’s too soon to know the full effects of the BP disaster. But to get a sense of where the Gulf has been and where it’s going, the AP surveyed 75 scientists about the health of the Gulf of Mexico before the spill. On a 0-to-100 scale, the scientists graded its general health a 71 on average. That’s a respectable C, considering 100 would be considered pristine and untouched by civilization.

“If having a strong system in place pre-spill makes a difference, and I think it might, then I think the system may bounce back sooner than expected,” said Brian Crother, a Southeastern Louisiana University wetlands biologist.

But nothing about the Gulf is simple. Just as often as scientists use the word “resilient,” they use the word “stress.”

“The Gulf of Mexico has been fairly resilient, but it’s been under stress,” Michael Carron, director of the Northern Gulf Institute, said as he steered his boat around the Bay St. Louis waters.

In the survey, which was sent to scientists through several research institutions and scientific societies, sea turtles, manatees, wetlands and water quality hovered around or below the failing point. Doing well were beaches and birds, including the once-endangered brown pelican, Louisiana’s state bird.

While others are optimistic, Jeremy Jackson, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is worried.

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