By Pat Byington

Several times I have been invited to the weekly meetings of the Rotary Club of Birmingham. Like any busy business club meeting, with a couple of hundred people in attendance, there is a chorus of knives, forks and spoons, clanging ever so slightly as members try to finish their meal when a speaker begins to speak. This past May, when Bill Finch, former director of Conservation at the Nature Conservancy and longtime nature writer spoke to Rotary it took only 30 seconds before the room fell completely silent.

He was speaking about the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Only a few weeks after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, Finch described the slow moving invasion that was taking place on Alabama’s and the Gulf Coast’s shores and its devastating impact on our people and the environment. When he finished his presentation, the audience was shell-shocked. I remember walking amongst the members of the club after the meeting – heads were shaking, and shoulders slightly lowered. The members were somber.

According to Finch, we are in the midst of a “severe ecological rearrangement.”

Oil sheens had invaded Grand Bay, Alabama’s model estuary. On Petit Bois Island, an area west of Dauphin Island, 60 tons of oil pebbles and patties have already been picked up. The beaches looked like a Dalmatian.

In some places the effects may not be obvious for a year or two. Because of the toxicity and the oxygen deprivation caused by the spill, whole generations of fish, crabs, and shrimp will be impacted this year, next year and beyond. Life in our estuaries, the beaches and wildlife will change, and in some cases disappear altogether. Whole links in the food chain are broken.

One of the questions within Rotary’s four-way test, the guiding principles members ask of each other is: “Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” We need to start developing strategies and solutions that will benefit all Gulf residents as well as our delicate environment.

One such benefit and strategy has been developed by the Nature Conservancy and endorsed by the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Mobile Baykeeper, Alabama Coastal Foundation and the Alabama Department of Conservation, which calls for the construction in three to five years of 100 miles of oyster reefs and 1,000 acres of marsh and sea grasses in Mobile Bay. The new reefs will help nurse our local fisheries back to health. Over the last century, we have lost 90 percent of our marshes, sea-grasses and oyster reefs in the bay. The oil spill threatens the remaining fragile habitat which we need to ensure a viable seafood industry. This strategy will repel the effects of the oil spill and start the natural and ecological recovery process.

This crisis will be unlike any other confronted by our state and region. It will take years; maybe even a generation, to address the harm that has been caused. Be mindful, Alaskans are still dealing with the adverse effects of the Exxon Valdez spill, more than 20 years later. This spill is many times greater than that disaster.

In response, Gov. Riley needs to create a permanent non-partisan task force in Alabama to develop beneficial strategies that will nurse the gulf back to health. This is not just a Mobile-South Alabama crisis. We all need to pitch in and help our fellow Alabamians.

Along with the task force, we must insist, that every candidate for Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General pledge to work immediately on the oil spill once elected in November, if not sooner. There is no time for a transition.

The motto for Rotary International is “Service Above Self.” Maybe that is why the Rotarians leaving that meeting were so somber. They understood the enormous generational task ahead.
Byington is a longtime Alabama environmental advocate and currently the director of the Eastern Forest Partnership.
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