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UPDATED: May 2, 3 p.m. EST: The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is hitting Louisiana’s shores — threatening fragile ecosystems and the tens of thousands of people who depend on them for their livelihoods. Keith Ouchley, director of The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana, is providing us with the latest from the Louisiana coast and what the Conservancy is doing to help.

Cool Green Science: Keith, what are you hearing about the spill from those along the coast?
Keith Ouchley: Seas of 10 feet and greater throughout yesterday and last night continued to hamper responders’ efforts to deploy containment devices. Waves were running at 5 feet in the Mississippi River itself in the town of Venice throughout the day and night, where the bulk of the response is centered. Despite the conditions, some crews did manage to get out and deploy booms yesterday.

Winds were subsiding somewhat this morning, with squalls and thunderstorms moving across the area and expected to decrease overnight. Seas are predicted at 3 to 4 feet tomorrow and decrease into Tuesday. This morning’s reconnaissance flights showed no oil on Breton Island, a southern point in the Chandeleur Island chain and location of a large colonial waterbird nesting area. The booms earlier deployed at Breton were still in place as of this morning.

President Obama has arrived in New Orleans and will be visiting Venice this afternoon.

There are regular helicopter reconnaissance flights out of Venice, which is about 45 miles south of New Orleans and which is where the first waves of oil had started to come ashore on Friday. As of yesterday, oil had been spotted only on a small portion of marsh below Venice on the state wildlife area. There is some thought that the heavy wave action may actually be breaking up the spill and allowing for some volitalization.

Right now at Venice, the state and federal agencies are training literally hundreds of shrimpers and other fisherman on the proper techniques for boom deployment in hopes that, when the seas subside, these volunteers can start to work. Current weather forecasts indicate it may be Sunday night or Monday morning before that is possible. The governor had mobilized the National Guard as well.

As of this morning, efforts to stop the flow from the well are still not working. A new technique to apply dispersant at the leak source directly on the sea floor will be attempted by the Navy today. The weather has slowed down the efforts to get the other rig in place that will drill down and intercept this well and seal it off.

People and nature are tied very closely on the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana, of course, has been almost besieged by natural disasters over the last several years. What have been local people’s reactions to this news?

First, I think people here realize that there is risk associated with the oil and gas industry in Louisiana. We’ve had it for 75 to 100 years down here.

But it’s the magnitude of the crisis that’s caught everybody by surprise here. A lot of people here make a living in either the oil and gas industry or in the seafood industry. Louisiana is the largest producer of shrimp, crabs and oysters in the United States. There is a lot of concern about this spill from those people, who had just started to recover from the hurricanes of the last four-five years. So it’s a potential human tragedy as well as an ecological one.

Although we don’t know what the full impact to marine resources is going to be, what are the kinds of things Conservancy scientists are telling you we need to be concerned about down there as this spill comes ashore?

There are a couple of things. One right now is that one of the largest nesting seabird colonies in this area of the coast is right in the path of the slick — and we’re right in the middle of nesting season. These colonial birds have young in the nest, and it’s not like we can shoo them away. So that’s an impending problem.

Alongside that would be the threat to our marine resources — the shrimp, the oysters, the crabs and so on, which are the cornerstones of the ecosystem down here as well as critical to our economy. The impacts to these resources could ripple through the entire food chain in the Gulf and have an impact on a lot of species.

Beyond that, we simply don’t know enough right now. When you’re dealing with an oil spill, you have to take into account the differences in coastlines and the kind of oil that’s been spilled. The oil in this spill is a light sweet crude – it’s not heavy tarry substance. It’s different than other spills that have involved heavier oils because it doesn’t have the concentration of pollutants of heavier oil.

And this is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, and it will heal itself in time. It’s certainly going to be a tragedy, but I kind of liken it to a hurricane. You batten the hatches, tighten everything, get out of the way, then come back and assess the damages and devise strategies for recovery. The “hurricane” is just now hitting the coast and it’ll be weeks before we’re able to fully assess the impacts.

How is the Conservancy working with federal and state agencies that are responding to the spill?

Right now, we’re in constant contact with our state and federal partners – the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA, offering any help and support for them. The response to preclude as much damage as possible is massive – the U.S. Army and Navy are involved.

Are Conservancy projects going to be affected?

We’ve suspended construction of our large oyster reef project in Barataria Bay on the west side of the Mississippi River near Grand Isle until we have a better idea of the impacts of this event. Our current models and agency staff tell us that the risk to the Grand Isle area is lower than areas on the east side of the river, but we’re continuing to monitor how the spill is moving.

What are your emotions about this? What are you thinking about as this tragedy unfolds?

I think about how this is going to affect one of the most treasured ecological landscapes in North America. I wonder – when will it get back to normal? How long will that be? I know this place can recover. But the impact on natural resources and human income, I worry about that and when we can get all that back to normal.

— Text by Robert LalaszCool Green Science Blog