As the furore over the Gulf oil
spill grows daily, concerns over its impact on Cayman grow with it.
The slick poses a threat far
removed from the scenario of oil-soaked pelicans and beaches fouled with tar
For one, the slick is unlikely to
come close to Cayman waters.
The Department of Environment’s
Deputy Director for Operations and Enforcement, Scott Slayburgh, said that the
movement of oil floating on the ocean’s surface is almost completely subject to
Right now, the Gulf oil spill is
being directed by the Gulf’s Loop Current, along with a mid-Gulf gyre, toward Florida’s
west coast, well away from Cayman waters. He said it would take an
extraordinary event to cause the oil to flow backward through the strait
between the Yucatan and Cuba and into the waters around Cayman.
“In theoretical trajectories, it
would take a 100 knot wind to redirect oil being carried by a three-knot
current,” he said.
He further noted that if a
hurricane did somehow hit that area, it would act like “the ultimate oil dispersant”,
rendering the slick unrecognisable compared to its appearance today.
“The biggest ‘threat’ to Cayman
from the oil is a knock-on effect on wildlife,” explained Department of
Environment Senior Research Officer John Bothwell, noting that his comments
were not in any way the official position of the Department because of the high
degree of uncertainty involved in all of these possibilities.
“Looking at the official numbers of
large animals killed by the spill, they’ve found 250 dead turtles so far and
rescued 50,” he said. “That is based on Monday’s Consolidated Fish and Wildlife
Collection Report from the Unified Command, the best source of accurate,
official, information on the spill and its effects.”
The latest statistics can be found
“While there is no way to tie all
of these deaths to the spill at this time, obviously loss of turtles is of
interest to the Cayman Islands because our turtles have been shown to migrate
to the Florida area and so could possibly pass through the gulf and be impacted
by the oil,” said Mr. Bothwell.
“For example Rogest, one of the sea
turtles we’ve satellite tracked from our beaches, went around western Cuba and
up to the Florida keys, is probably using some of the same Gulf Stream Loop
Current that people worry will take the oil to the keys and the Atlantic side
of Florida to aid her.”
Rogest’s travels can be tracked at
Mr. Bothwell said that of
potentially greater impact is the possibility of the suspended ‘micro-droplets’
of oil being ingested or absorbed by planktonic larvae within the Gulf. He said
this could kill the larvae or otherwise impair their growth and future health.
“Again, no one is really sure what
will happen, and there may never be any way to tie it to the BP leak if
anything did happen, but that uncertainty is not the same as not believing that
it will have some sort of negative impact,” said Mr. Bothwell.
“Many pelagic [ocean-dwelling]
species in the Caribbean are possibly part of a large interlinked population.
Just as our turtles travel to other parts of the Caribbean, our pelagic fish
could rely either directly or indirectly on healthy planktonic juvenile populations
in the Gulf.”
He said this is only a very
potential impact because no one knows how the various fish stocks in the
greater Caribbean are connected.
“We just suspect that many of them
are in some way,” said Mr. Bothwell. “However, all that being said, I don’t
think there are any species that are a particular worry for us. All of these
potential impacts are just that: potential. We don’t know which if any species
will be impacted and even if in a few years time we see a reduction in turtle
or fish populations, we won’t have any way of tying it to the BP spill.”
He pointed out that any impact to
locally relevant species will be akin to a ‘natural change’ and not something
anyone in Cayman can really do anything about.
“All we’ll be able to do is adjust
local management – if there is any for that species – to take in to account
their new, lessened, status,” said Mr. Bothwell.
“What we’d be more interested in
seeing is that the countries with hydrocarbon and other marine resources be
more wary when managing them to reduce potential future knock-on effect to
others from their current actions, and that the idea of turning the Caribbean
Sea into a ‘special area’ so that no dumping of anything at sea occurs gains
This proposal is being pushed by
the Caribbean Environment Programme, with which the Cayman Islands is
“This won’t do anything about oil
from a blown well, but it will reduce another significant stress on these same
pelagic species of fish and turtles and mammals and birds,” noted Mr. Bothwell.
“When one stress, like oil in the
water, goes up, sometimes our best management response is to reduce other
stresses, like other forms of marine pollution.