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The "Spill" on the Spill: Paul Tritaik's Story

A man and a woman standing in ankle deep water releasing a northern gannet

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Jenny Powers, National Park Service, and Wildlife Refuge Manager Paul Tritaik, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, release a northern gannet at Gulfside City Park in Sanibel Island, Fla., July 12, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen.

 

As manager of J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, Fla., I know a little  about being in the public eye. We welcome about 750,000 visitors a year at Ding, which makes it one of the most visited of our refuges. In addition, the local community on this beautiful barrier island off Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast feels a strong sense of pride and ownership where the refuge is concerned. For us, getting lots of public attention is the norm rather than the exception.

So when the call came to help establish and staff the Florida Peninsula Command Post in Miami to coordinate the response to the BP oil spill for the Florida peninsula, I didn’t hesitate to volunteer. I was asked to serve at the Joint Information Center and represent the Department of Interior as the Environmental Communications Specialist. Concerns about oil damaging the ecology and the economy of our tourist-dependent state and our federal lands were quickly growing, as was misinformation about the location of the oil relative to our coastline.  I have a professional background in public information and have worked with news media for many years. I welcomed the opportunity to be part of telling people the straight scoop on what was going on in Florida.

I spent 14 action-packed days in June helping to get the Incident Command’s Joint Information Center set up to provide constant coverage of media and public queries. I learned pretty quickly that we had to hit the ground running - to be responders even as we were still getting organized. The first press releases we put out concerned our Sentry Program, which deployed boats and aircraft to augment satellite data in order to provide an early warning system with real-time ocean monitoring. 

The big worry for people in Florida, particularly in the Keys, was that the oil would be pushed toward the shore by the Loop Current. We worked with media outlets to let the public know that the Incident Command had committed two vessels to continuously monitor the Loop Current looking for and collecting any oil or oil products that they found. A third vessel was deployed to monitor the top end of the Loop Current that formed a spin-off eddy.  In addition, we had a Coast Guard C-130 with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist aboard looking for oil on the surface and providing coordinates to the sentry vessels to check out suspicious sightings. We also had daily satellite data that provided a broader picture of where the oil and currents were and where they were projected to go. That, however, was proving to be both a blessing and a curse.

The satellite imagery was picking up anomalies on the water that appeared to be oil, and plotting them on maps available to the public. On closer examination, these anomalies proved to be either a type of seaweed called Sargassum, or nothing at all.  Sometimes, old, highly weathered tar balls would be found at sea or in cities such as Tampa and Key West, but none were a product of the spill. Media reports based on these anomalies, even after they had been confirmed to be unrelated to the spill, were furthering the misperception by the public that the threat to Florida was imminent. This was fueled by the drumbeat of negative publicity coming out of Louisiana, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle.

One of my tasks was to help the Incident Command figure out a way to convince a skeptical media community that what they were seeing on the maps wasn’t necessarily spill-related oil; that we were closely monitoring for oil products and testing anything we found; and that we had good evidence to suggest that there was no immediate danger to the Florida coastline.  The cost of allowing misinformation to go unchecked was significant: Concerns were growing to fever pitch. There were already calls for another Conch Rebellion in the Keys with claims from local officials that they would send out their own skimmer boats and deploy their own boom (with the potential to damage delicate habitats). There were also threats to prevent BP-hired contractors from entering the Keys by blockading U.S. 1. In addition, rental property owners and tourist businesses along the Florida coast were experiencing a flood of cancellations by vacationers based on their worries about the state of Florida’s beaches. It was imperative that we show the media and the public exactly what was happening.  Without minimizing their concerns, we wanted them to understand that we were being vigilant in our monitoring, that we were planning for the worst-case scenario, and were prepared to handle any threats to the natural resources of Florida.

I knew that “seeing is believing,” especially for media who felt that they hadn’t been given the straight story on some issues, such as the volume of oil spewing from the well. Nevertheless, taking media out on sentry vessels or allowing them to ride alongside in separate boats wasn’t practical for reasons of time and continuity of operations. Our solution to the problem was twofold.  First, we gave media on-land access to a sentry vessel and its scientist when the boat came into port to re-provision.  Media toured the vessel, were briefed on its operations, and saw demonstrations of tar ball netting and sampling techniques. Secondly, we invited media to participate in a Coast Guard C-130 flyover of the Gulf so that they could see for themselves what was happening on the water.

Before we boarded the plane, a media representative asked me, “What do you expect to see?” My answer: “Nothing but blue seas.”

That’s exactly what we saw; but in the process, the media were also able to have one-on-one interviews with the NOAA scientist onboard as he recorded and tabulated his observations and explained the features he was looking for. As the media looked at the Gulf from various elevations and different camera angles, it became clear how easy it would be for an untrained eye to mistake a cloud shadow, sargassum, algal blooms, jellyfish, or bacterial sheen on the water for oil or tar balls. We demonstrated the need for careful precision in evaluating potential oil products. The media also learned that tar balls collected were being tested at three different labs (Coast Guard, NOAA, and BP) to ascertain their origin. As of this writing, no tar balls collected in the Area of Responsibility for the Florida Peninsula Command have been found to be associated with the spill. Not only did our efforts pay off in terms of turning the tide toward greater accuracy in media coverage of the spill along the Florida Peninsula, but we were also able to make our case for protecting these priceless coastal resources from any and all threats to their, and our, future.

Since my deployment, I’ve stayed engaged in the oil spill response with my staff at “Ding” Darling Refuge by working on the National Resource Damage Assessment and Recovery (NRDAR) program.  We are doing beach bird surveys to come up with a baseline for normal wildlife mortality so that we will have reliable data sets if we do get impacts from the Deepwater Horizon spill. I’ve also been coordinating with the City of Sanibel to initiate a Coastal Watch Volunteer Program to monitor our shorelines and report on oil sightings or impacts. We’ve also had the gratifying task of releasing 32 Brown Pelicans and Northern Gannets at the refuge that were rescued and rehabilitated in the northern Gulf.

This experience has validated the importance of open communication in carrying out our conservation mission. Providing accurate and timely information, even if it’s not good news, is one of the best ways we have of growing the public’s trust in what we do. I’m grateful that I had the honor to be part of a team of dedicated individuals responding to this crisis, and to help give the American people a more accurate picture of what the true threat was to our Florida coast and what we have been doing to combat that threat.

Last updated: October 15, 2010