The Gulf of Mexico: Marine Pollution

Thank you very much, everybody. I'd like to start with a little very brief Texas story. As part of my job of traveling the beach many, many days, I often come across a stranded or injured animal. And quite often that is a bird--a sea bird. People know this in Port Aransas and the surrounding community, and so I get calls all the time to come and pick up a bird or come and find a bird that's in distress on the beach.

And one day from Woody's Boat Basin and Bait Stand I got a call about a bird that was on the beach. So I went into Woody's and I went up to the counter there and I said, I have come for my bird. And the man looked at me. And he didn't say anything. And so I said, I've come for my bird. So he looked at me and scratched his head and reached up and picked up a Budweiser can and put it on the counter for me.
I do hope that I can communicate with this wonderful audience a little better than I did there.

I have a quotation here. I won't read it all, but it is interesting and it does say something about the interconnectedness of things. The quotation says, "We found the shore for many miles strewed with fragments of wrecks and boxes and bells of goods which had been thrown into the sea from vessels. We frequently found as we walked along the edge of the surf fresh coconuts, brazil nuts, and other fruits and plants of more southern latitudes which, no doubt, had made the voyage from the rivers of the seven continents on the gulf stream flowing from that direction to unite with the other or more northern branch of it. We observed entire sycamores and other trees from the forests of the north which, coming down the Mississippi and being carried to sea, were also deposited on the shore by the same current." And so on and so forth. It's a longer quote.

The narrator of this quote was one S. Compton Smith, M.D., acting surgeon general with the later President Zachary Taylor's division in Mexico. And he was describing the events following the wreck of the Rosella on Padre Island in the spring of 1846.

Well, you could go down Padre Island today, and perhaps you wouldn't see such magnificent trees of mahogany these days, but you would certainly see the wrecks and the bales and the boxes of materials that have been thrown from ships or otherwise found its way to our beaches. The difference, perhaps, being that then, in those days, these were treasures in general. Probably it was a bounty to find a cask of something washed ashore. But today these are far from being treasures.

And although I have come to know and love the Gulf of Mexico, and particularly its margin that is represented by the Barrier Islands, and I would love to show you in my talk today some of the beauty of this place, I am, unfortunately, going to show you some less beautiful objects that wash up these days.

I will start off with some beautiful pictures. The Gulf of Mexico looking from Mustang Island Beach, which is my adopted beach. The Gulf of Mexico is a very dynamic place. And the atmosphere, which Mary was talking about earlier, has such an effect on this that when a storm comes through, it changes the beach face almost immediately and also has an incredible effect on the circulation of these shallow waters of the coastal Gulf of Mexico.

This is one of the few places that has survived since that time--just after that time that the Rosella was wrecked. This is the Aransas Pass lighthouse. And this picture illustrates two factors about the Gulf of Mexico. One, it can be a rough place. Now, I have been to the Antarctic as you heard, and I have been in some extraordinarily rough seas. But there is something about a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. It's because the water is shallow, and because the waves have a short period, and because most of the vessels that go out there are a certain length, which is not particularly conducive to that period of the waves, that it can be very rough out there.

The University of Texas has their marvelous research vessel called the Longhorn. And one thing that I often feel when we take students out there is that we might be, in fact, discouraging them from ever taking up the pursuit of a career in oceanography.
Oh, the other thing before I get onto that--the other thing, of course, is the presence of commerce and of industry in the Gulf of Mexico, as illustrated here by this rig.

One of the favorite things that I do when I go out on the Longhorn is to sit on the bow in perhaps a little more clement weather than we have here and just observe the ocean going by. I've been doing this almost on all of my oceanographic cruises. At one time, I rode the bow of a research vessel coming all the way from the Antarctic to Seattle, Washington, during all daylight hours. And, in doing so, I've got a different feeling for the ocean than I have by sending instruments down and measuring its temperature and salinity and oxygen content.

And one of the things that I've noticed are the things that float to the surface of the sea. And they are in the Gulf of Mexico often wonderful and often less than wonderful.

Another feature of the exploitation of the Gulf of Mexico, other than its industry and commerce in the form of maritime transportation, is the shrimping industry--the primary fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

A feature of our coastal environment is the contrast between the long stretches of almost deserted beaches and the encroaching--ever encroaching development of our resources--our coastal environment.

This is my beach. You are looking at the Aransas Pass, one of the only inlets between the Gulf of Mexico and our extensive bays and lagoonal systems for many miles, both to the north and the south. You are looking south. You can see the wonderful curvature of the beach. And you are looking at part of the town of Port Aransas, Texas. This is the south jetty of the Aransas Pass, and the survey, which I do, starts somewhere around here, and I go seven miles to the south, and I count a lot of things that are countable.

Unfortunately (although it sounded rather poetic that I was like a lone character wandering the beach) I have so much equipment with me now that I have to use a vehicle to do that wandering. And, whereas at one time, I had a clipboard which I was able to rest on the steering wheel, I now have a marvelous little computer which I have had for eleven years or so. I can enter counts of the various things that I find on the beach into that computer. This varies from the birds (I am using the birds themselves as sort of an indicator species to indicate the health of the beach) to cars, dogs, helic..............................................................................opters, people, and a number of things, including the debris and litter on the beach.

I am going to go through very quickly--I violated Bob Ballard's one-minute-per-slide rule here, but I am going to go through rather quickly here to show you some of the horrors of what we find on the beaches and the perimeters of our coastal environment.

This was what I called the day of the milk jugs. You're looking at about 600 one-gallon milk jugs in this one picture. If you look very closely at this material you can see a mixture of the natural and not so natural things. That is my dime by the way. These are the bleached blades of the sea grass syringodium (manatee grass) which have probably come from somewhere in Central America or Mexico.
These are plastic ferrules or pellets which are the basic raw material for the injection-molded plastics industry. Almost anything that you have in the way of a plastic comb or other plastic object is made by injection molding, and this is the raw material which finds its way onto our beaches.

These are various containers that I've found on the beach--sometimes sealed, sometimes unsealed, mostly empty, sometimes full, sometimes leaking their contents on the beach, sometimes having cryptic seals on them, often having no labels so that you can't blame whoever is responsible. As I say, sometimes leaking their contents--unknown contents--on the beach. This, incidentally, did have a label on it. It came from an Indonesian tanker which was transporting palm kernel oil. I thought this was some evil chemical substance. It turned out to be palm oil. And I learned then by reading the label that some of those tankers that you see are not carrying petroleum products, but are carrying palm oil--gallons and gallons, hundreds of thousands of gallons of it.

Sometimes we find the larger containers, some 55-gallon drums. The national seashore has collected hundreds of 55-gallon drums over the years. Now, because of the unknown contents of some of these, it is estimated that if the Coast Guard is called in to remove them, it costs $1,000 to remove a single drum off the beach.

This is some familiar caulking material which has interacted with the sea water to form a rather interesting "sculpture." Somebody decided it would be fun to drive over that 5-gallon container once it came on the beach and it spewed its yellow contents onto the beach.

Containers with warning labels. Containers that are leaking. Here is a one-gallon milk jug that has no milk in it, but probably contains used motor oil. You can see that it's leaking a sheen into the precious sea.

Freon--in our throwaway society, there are 50-pound cylinders of freon gas, used extensively in the refrigeration industry. They're non-reuseable. On this particular day, I found fourteen of these on the beach!

Now, I'm going to show you briefly something of the impact on the sea life of this material discarded into the sea. This is a hawksbill sea turtle. This is an onion sack. You might wonder what an onion sack is doing in the Gulf of Mexico. Believe me, there are lots of onion sacks that wash up on the beaches, and they're used, as far as I can determine, primarily by the shrimping industry as a convenient container on the brine boats to contain the shrimp. The animal is alive, although it doesn't look it. In days gone by, this would be made out of maybe some vegetable fiber, but now it's made out of plastic. And although it starts to break apart, it forms a very effective snare. For some reason, hawksbill turtles have a particular affinity for onion sacks, and I've found nine of them over the years that have been entangled in this fashion in onion sacks. Fortunately, only one has been dead, and we've been able to rehabilitate all of the others.

Here is a loggerhead turtle. Here is another one of the hazards, a fishhook with fishline attached. And, believe me, it is not a very pleasant task to open the jaws of a sea turtle like that and try and extract a fishhook. In fact, in some cases, we cannot do it. We are not veterinarians, and so we have sent off some of these turtles to the Houston zoo, and have them actually operate to remove fishhooks. This one was successful, and we sent it back to sea.

Here is a much smaller loggerhead turtle with some fishing line around its neck that it has worn for so long that it has actually begun to grow around it. And you can see the edema, the swelling of the neck there. Again, once we found this animal, we were able to remove the fishing line and rehabilitate it and send it out to sea.

One of the most absurd things about pollution of this sort is what you find in the stomachs of dead turtles that wash up on the beach. I have, in fact, if anybody is interested, some "show and tell." Pam Plotkin, a student, opened up 110 loggerhead turtles that washed up dead on the beach over a year-and-a-half period. She looked at their stomach contents, primarily because her thesis was to find out what loggerhead turtles were eating. What she found out was they were eating plastics. Over 50 percent of all those sea turtles had plastic in their stomachs. I actually have behind there a box of all those plastic pieces that came out of the stomachs and guts, which anybody's welcome to come and look at afterwards.

But this was one of the most absurd items found. It is one of those tags on a pillow that you're not supposed to remove. Otherwise, you go to jail. And somehow this turtle ingested it, along with its other food material here. But you also see other bits of plastic along with it.

Here is a Morton Ship-N-Shore salt bag. This also is used by the shrimping industry. I show this for two reasons. One is that the shrimping industry has been blamed, although they vehemently deny it, as being one of the major polluters of our beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. But I show it for that and also because if you turn that over you would see what that salt was used for. It's used for separating trash fish from your catch. It's written right on the back of the salt sack. But I also want you to note these diamond-shaped holes in it. These are turtle bites. We don't quite know why turtles bite these plastics, but we believe that for millennia, hundreds of millennia, turtles have been able to bite anything that floats to the surface, and it was probably food. Well, now, it's certainly not guaranteed to be food.
And the birds get entangled, of course. Here is an immature herring gull--second or third year herring gull, trailing a length of monofilament line attached to its leg.

This is a bird which I followed for a long time. It's a ring-billed gull with a piece of plastic that restricted its leg until the leg went gangrenous, atrophied, and actually fell off. And it survived for a year after that and then disappeared.

Here is a redfish. This is the joy of the Texas coastal fisherman. But this one has a gasket from a big oil filter around its gills. It must have lived with this for months and months because it eventually eroded the gills away so that the animal could not longer respire. And big redfish, by the way, live for fifty or even sixty years.

Here is an even smaller fish that is entangled in the funny little diamond-shape holes in the six-pack rings. You've heard, I'm sure, of birds getting their necks in six-pack rings. But here is a halfbeak gilled by a six-pack ring!

Perhaps the saddest incident of all that I've been involved with concerning plastics is this 18-foot Minke whale, a baby Minke whale, which washed up on Matagorda Peninsula a few years ago during a norther--and really cold Texas norther weather. It was alive. It weighed about four tons. It died on the beach. And when it's stomach was examined, it had one single piece of plastic and nothing else in its stomach. And we believe that that was probably what caused the death of this baby animal.

Well, the other thing that we have to deal with here is the industry that involves the extraction of oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico. And one of the features of our beaches is the quantity of tar that you often find there. Several years ago, the IXTOC I well blew in the Gulf of Campeche, to our south in Mexican waters. For 295 days, or thereabouts, it spilled oil into the Gulf. The University of Texas Marine Science Institute did quite a bit of research on how that oil would flow with the currents, and eventually when it would come ashore on the beach. Then, ironically, a little bit later, the oil tanker Burmah Agate exploded and caught fire to our north. Currents were coming down from the north, and currents were coming up from the south, and we were right in the middle. And this was the result on our beaches. I followed the reefs of oil that persisted off Mustang Island for a period of eight years. I believe they are still there now, but I think they're buried in sand.

The removal of tar from a beach like this is a terrible process--it's a nightmare process. I will say, however, that we have seen far less in the way of tar balls washing up on our beaches in recent years. Maybe it's because I've removed so many with my sneakers. I don't know. But it's one of the hazards--in fact, all the condos in Port Aransas and elsewhere have little cardboard boxes in front of their doors with cleaning fluid, and they ask you to remove the tar from your feet.

You're looking at what resemble miniature volcanos here at the edge of the surf. These are the burrows of the ghost shrimp, a very common invertebrate locally. What happened with oil from the IXTOC spill--when it became mixed with sand, it flowed down the burrows. When I excavated them, I found perfect casts made out of tar. One method of studying animal burrows is to pour epoxy resin down the burrow and then excavate the sand when the epoxy was hardened. In this case, the "resin" was tar. Taking a cross-section, you can see where the animal cemented the sand together. Now, the burrow is permeated with oil, with liquid oil in the middle.

And, of course, it has an effect on the birds. Hundreds of shore birds were oiled following that and several other spills that we had later. This was interesting--somebody who'd just got interested in birds came to me in great excitement saying they'd discovered a new species of seagull. It was, in fact, not a new species. It was a laughing gull that had fallen into something. I never found out what. It could fly, and I wasn't able to catch it.

Well, I'll leave you with a few thoughts on the beauty of the beach, rather than "the beauty and beast," and how I do still see the Gulf of Mexico and its borders as beautiful. But I do believe that we must be vigilant in the way that we treat our waste products. I think there are lots of forward-going projects now to prevent us from dumping so much in the sea. We must educate, and we must really do something about this problem so that we can keep the Gulf looking like this.

One of the most marvelous sights that I see in the early mornings, both in spring and fall, are the mass migrations of herons and egrets. In this scene there are snowy egrets, cattle egrets, little blue herons, tri-colored herons, and great egrets all flying by at the same time in the early-morning sun. It's a wonderful sight. But I just briefly want to show you how it's not only the Gulf of Mexico that this problem affects. Here is one of my favorite places in all of the world, the beautiful Antarctic Ocean. And this is what we have done to some of those remote islands by leaving our junk there. These are elephant seals which have sought refuge in some discarded hose material. I don't know whether they thought they were kin or what, but they couldn't be moved. You don't try and move a one-ton elephant seal, even though they are rather lethargic.

And I'm just going to leave you with two more slides with a thought about the interconnectedness, if you like, of the sea. What you're looking at here--and this is exactly as I found it on the beach--is a black drum which was caught somehow swallowing a hard-head catfish, and the reason why it was caught in that position was that at the very instant that it was swallowing that fish, a much larger fish came and bit a chunk out of its tail and finished its existence. So big fish eat little fish, and so on, ad infinitum.
So I'll leave you with that and be happy to answer any questions.

Bill Moyers: That's an optimistic way to begin the afternoon. But I do appreciate the confrontation you present with reality, Tony. I want to ask the first question. On a scale of one to ten--in terms of saving the oceans--where are we?

Tony Amos: I think we're probably about halfway there. I think, as I said, a lot of progress has been made. I've recently sat on a committee to investigate the problem of shipborne litter. Industry has become very aware of this problem because it's not very good for their image. And so many of the industrial firms have educational programs for their workers, and they've had to, of course, because we have an international agreement now called MARPOL Annex V. It's been in effect for over five years now.

And our Coast Guard does inspect vessels that come into our ports, and they inspect them to see how many people are on board and whether the amount of garbage that they have still on board is commensurate with the number of people. And if it's not, they can get them even if they don't find the garbage, because they know they've had to throw it over the side.

I think we're making progress. And I have seen--maybe a six out of ten--I have seen an improvement in my beach survey in the last four or five years.

Bill Moyers: Do you think that's true elsewhere in the world?

Tony Amos: The other world is following. The U.S. was perhaps the first country to become really aware of this program and do something. There is a vast volunteer effort, as many of you probably know, that is done every year. It was started here in Texas, by the way. It's called the Great Texas Trash-Off here. But every September, and here in Texas every April as well, thousands of volunteers come to clean our beaches. And although it may be disheartening for them to clean the beaches, if they were to come back the next day and see it just as bad as they saw it before they cleaned it, that might be disheartening. But what is really good is the people get to look at that. It should be required viewing for people to go and see how much plastic has permeated our environment and how much waste material there is.

So the educational project has been--progress has been great. And now that's worldwide. There is even a cleanup going on in Antarctica this year--and about time, too.

Bill Moyers: If you could make one change that would eliminate maritime waste at its origin, what would it be?

Tony Amos: Well, it would be less packaging material. Now, of course, packaging and plastics have been our salvation for many things--prevention of disease, preservation of food, and so on. But I think that we've gone too far, in our packaging materials, to make them attractive so that people will buy them. And that we need--I think we're trending towards that now in fact, to go back a little bit and use things more perhaps in bulk, especially on ships.

I've recently been on a Russian ship where they put very little garbage into the sea, primarily because--not because they're any different human beings in their nature than we are, but because they don't have so much packaging materials. Their materials come in sacks, if they come in anything, or cardboard boxes, but not in all that plastic.

Bill Moyers: Have you noticed any significant change in public attitudes in these years that you've been here?

Tony Amos: Yes. And I think the media is, in fact, responsible for some of that, too. We often knock the media, but there is no doubt that the media does make available to the public certain indelible images. There's nothing like an indelible image like some of those trashed-out beaches. I think that has probably changed public opinion, or helped to change public opinion, as well as education--education of the very young. I'm sure many of your children or grandchildren know now that you don't just chuck your candy wrapper on the floor, that it might, in fact, affect some distant organism.

Question: Now, garbage is something that's close to an archaeologist's heart, something I can relate to. One of the most common things that you find out about shipwrecks, particularly the Spanish treasure ships, is that the beaches are full of the coins that were on those vessels. That is true in Florida, and it was also true in the case of the 1554 Spanish treasure ships here in Texas. And, in fact, those same Zachary Taylor soldiers--a group of them went down Padre Island on the way to the war--found some of the coins on the beach from the Padre Island treasure ships.

So in a way it's also interesting because sometimes these sites aren't really lost. I mean, everybody knew those coin beaches were there, and there's only one reason the coin beaches are there. It's because there's a wreck offshore. And that leads to another thought--that the watermen often know where all the wrecks are also. They don't necessarily know which wreck's which, but they snag their nets on the wrecks.

Tony Amos: Can I relate a modern anecdote about that? We have some people on Mustang Island who go out looking for money right now. It's a different kind of money. It's drug money that is dumped into the Gulf of Mexico and often washes up on the beach in large quantities. I think the only thing I ever found was a dollar bill.

Question: I have a question. One of the things that--I don't know if it's pervasive through the United States, but certainly in the community where I live, is this Adopt-a-Highway where different organizations, different people take on one mile of freeway and see to it that it's clean. Either they pay to have it cleaned, or their people go out, if it's a local McDonald's, and they--or you see them going up and down the highway constantly keeping it clean. And it does a lot of things to you. It makes you feel good about people that care, but it also makes you conscious in some ways of the price that's involved.

Have you ever seen any sort of thing like that where a community or someone might adopt a section of the beach and make it their responsibility to keep it clean, which also just instills in young people the realization it can get dirty in the first place.

Tony Amos: Yes, indeed. There is a Texas Adopt-a-Beach program that's been in place for several years. It was originated by the Texas General Land Office Commissioner, Gary Mauro. And that is a very viable program. The other thing, which I didn't mention, is that the volunteers for all of these cleanups are asked to fill out data cards, and so, not only do they know what they've picked up, but then we, as scientists, know what they pick up. Now, there have been some criticisms about whether that data base is going to be statistically viable. There is a big national program just starting, or will start next year, where volunteers will clean up beaches at monthly intervals, using identical methods (recommended by the scientific community) so that we will be able to ask that question which I spoke about earlier. "Is it getting better or is it getting worse?" My own measurements say it's getting better locally. Other people say it's not, but I think nationwide we might be able to answer that soon.

I don't remember the length of all Texas Gulf beaches. A very small proportion is adopted, but I would say every year, about 180 miles of our beach actually gets cleaned. It's somewhere in that area. It's two-mile sections they adopt.

Bill Moyers: I asked a friend of mine on Wall Street if he was optimistic about the market. And he said, Yes, I'm optimistic. And I said, Then why do you look so worried? And he said, Because I'm afraid my optimism's not justified. I have that fear, Tony, that your optimism may not be as justified as I want to believe it is.

Tony Amos: Well, I will admit I'm an optimist. I have a certain faith in humankind. If you show them what's going on, and you see the interest that people take in some of these animals that wash up on the beach, you realize that people do have concern. They're just bloody careless at times. That's all.

Bill Moyers: If there is a cause for optimism, it's in no small part because there are people inspired to imagine a future that is more hospitable and more compatible to what we're talking about, and to work toward it. And one of them grew up right here across the bay.

Tony came to us from England via Bermuda, but John Wesley Tunnell actually grew up on the other side of the bay and has stayed at home to work in this field. It was his concept that has led to what will soon be a new $10-million center for environmental studies and services building which will soon be completed at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. And from there will certainly come a whole new crop of young men and women devoted to continuing the turnabout that many people think we have made in our understanding of environmental sciences and marine exploration.

Wes Tunnell is one of the pioneers in Texas's own revisioning its future. He is director of the Center for Coastal Studies and professor of biology here at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He has been a Fulbright scholar. I asked him how he got started in this work, and he said, "Well, it was natural. I began as a dentist." And his journey from there to here is an interesting story. He says, I do what I do because I'm in love with the sea. Wes Tunnell.