SEAWORTHY: Reporting Live from the Gulf

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Explosion. Deaths. Slicks. Disaster. Closed fisheries. Shrimp boats grounded. Birds covered in crude.

It probably dawns on you pretty quickly that we’re talking about the Gulf of Mexico and the catastrophic oil blow out that is still ongoing as of the first week in June. Once that realization is made there may be an exhale, a slight relaxing of the clenched gut.  “It’s a sad thing that’s happening, but it’s so far away from here. I’m not affected. We’re all ok. Food supply is protected. Our shore birds are oil-free.” A kind of knee-jerk N.I.M.B.Y. reaction and once we realize it’s not in our backyards, it seems a little more bearable.  But it’s not the Gulf oil spill, it’s the U.S. oil spill. It’s our oil spill.

Of course scientists with an eye toward the ocean will feel a personal affront at some quarter million gallons a day being dumped into the briny deep. But it’s really an issue for all of us; the fishermen, the birders, the shorewalkers and those who love a tasty meal.

We can avert our eyes for a while. But if you have any interest in seeing the mighty Atlantic bluefin tuna roam the seas, then it’s your oil spill, too. Ever spied on gannets, terns, plovers, sandpipers, skimmers, herons or egrets? Your spill. And if you’ve dug into a meal that had domestic shrimp or slurped an oyster from the U.S., then this spill is your spill.

The demand for oil is what leads to offshore oil rigs (and onshore wells, too), so how can we hedge our bets? How can we increase our chances of avoiding another disaster like the one the Gulf is experiencing right now? There are many things that need to be done, including in the regulatory and emergency planning arenas, but there’s something we can all do every day-eating. If more of our food came from Long Island, our Suffolk County, or even (gasp!) our town, we would greatly reduce the amount of oil needed to transport it from across the country or around the world.

And if you still feel like it’s not your spill-do you ever drink coffee or enjoy a banana? Because then the spill belongs to you, too.

It may sound like we’re casting a wide net and we are. The ripple effect across the shimmering slick will be felt by all of us in one way or another. And some of those effects that we haven’t already endured are lurking in the next generation of the wildlife that was dealt the first blow.

We’ve all seen the pictures. A droopy looking seabird covered in black slime. The spill in the Gulf corresponded with the peak of spring migration for thousands of seabirds trying to make their way back north-stopping over in one of the world’s most productive estuaries for nourishment and a brief respite only to be greeted by noxious goo. Oil can have all kinds of terrible effects on birds: clumping their feathers-which robs them of insulation-and causing skin burns, and when they ingest oil while preening it can lead to hemorrhaging and other problems.

But you’re not a bird, so that’s not really your problem (though of course you’ll be sad to see fewer of them around these parts since they were waylaid on their journey home).

While millions of gallons of oil were streaming out of the uncapped wells, Atlantic bluefin tuna were trying to conceive the next generation of great ocean roamers. Breeding season for bluefin was rudely interrupted this year, the results of which only time will tell. Bluefin populations have been frighteningly low for too long and how they will endure this deathblow to the next generation is anyone’s guess.

Maybe that’s not really your issue. You were rooting for the Atlantic bluefin when they were up for CITES listing, but you gave up your o-toro ages ago.

Perhaps you’ve eaten shrimp or oysters in the recent past? Gulf waters are the source of 69 percent of all domestic shrimp and 70 percent of all domestic oysters, so if you were eating U.S. critters, then this spill has reached you.

Seems like the oil is oozing ever closer to us.

Coffee, bananas and other fruit make their way into the equation because these products are frequently shipped to the U.S. via Gulf ports. All the oil-avoiding routes and power-washing of ships’ hulls is adding travel time and shifting prices for products that are so ubiquitous, we forget they don’t come from around here.

All these ripples extend outward from the carcass of the Deepwater Horizon. What started out like a problem “down there” seems closer. And not just related to the birds we view out of windows or the fish we hope to hunt once more. Now it’s personal, the oil has invited itself to dinner. Jellyfish burgers are one thing, but petroleum patties? No, thank you.

What can we do about our spill from way up here? We can eat our way to an oil spill-free future (or at least one with much less oil). When we look for food, the closer it is, the more oil we’ve avoided. BP is reinforcing our interest in our own backyards and eating what’s growing there.

Let’s do the math:

Local food = fewer food miles.

Fewer miles = less oil.

So look around you in this season of abundance. Appreciate the bounty in your backyard. Marvel at the strutting shorebird that made it home. Then dig into the squash and peas. Enjoy the last of the strawberries. Drop your lines for bluefish and hit the stripers at night. Jig for some fluke. And pop a bottle of sauvignon blanc from the North Fork.

It’s time that we did our part, our delicious, delectable part, in putting off the next oil spill. Don’t avert your eyes from the ripples making their way to our shores, but see them, mourn for what was lost and then decide what you’re going to do to help, starting with your next meal.

Think Global. Eat Local.

Carl Safina lives in Amagansett and directs the Blue Ocean Institute, where Kate McLaughlin directs the seafood program.

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