Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pensacola Beach produces...

“They don't produce anything off Pensacola Beach.” – James Carville, on the impact of this oil spill on Pensacola Beach.

The BP oil spill has been called one of the greatest environmental disasters in American history will affect all of us--along the Gulf Coast, in the southeast, across the United States, and around the world. For some coastal communities it will be devastating. And while the effects will be felt greatly here, this disaster is bigger than any one person, community, or region.

I was particularly disappointed to hear that Pensacola Beach doesn’t “produce” anything. Sure, our beaches are known more for swimming and basking in the sun than for wildlife. Even if this were just a vacation place for people, though, there is a value in that. People need rest and relaxation. The sound of the waves breaking on the beach can wash away the stress of the work-a-day world, recharging us for the rest of the year of the daily grind. Vacation produces good workers and keeps our country and economy moving smoothly.

But there is another side to our beaches, one that most of us don’t see on our vacations. Sure, we see fish swimming near our legs or go ghost crabbing with the kids. We like to watch the shorebirds run near the surf and the pelicans swoop down for a meal. And who is not enchanted by the sight of dolphins jumping? There is also, of course, the wildlife we dread, like the jellyfish.

Our beaches, though, also teem with life that we rarely glimpse. One of the great things about having kids is that I have gotten to take them to many educational programs where I have learned so much. Programs like a sea turtle presentation at the public library, where we learned that the gender of sea turtles is affected by the temperature. Beaches on the northern Gulf coast tend to be cooler, producing more males. However, some females are born here, too, ensuring that eggs are laid here year after year (turtles return to their natal beach to lay eggs). Maintaining nesting sites across their range is essential for turtle survival, and with all species threatened or endangered, they need all the help they can get. (Don’t forget, too, that turtles enjoy eating our beach nemesis, the jellyfish, so we should all be rooting for the turtles.)

I have also learned about other wildlife at our beaches, thanks to snorkeling and seining programs at the Gulf Island National Seashore and Big Lagoon State Park. On these outings, kids and adults have scooped up amazing creatures like pipefish, juvenile shrimp, and baby blue crabs, along with many, many hermit crabs. I hope that the programs at both the national and state parks will continue this summer since now, more than ever, we need to be aware of the fragile ecosystem right outside our doors. If they can’t continue or you can’t make it out there, I do hope you’ll watch the Gulf Islands National Seashore program recently produced by WSRE which highlights some of the wildlife under our waters and on our shores.

The rangers I’ve talked with at these programs (some of whom are on the WSRE program) have been very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. They are eager to share the importance of our local environment with everyone, whether locals or tourists, with the understanding that we’re more likely to protect what we know.

Mr. Carville, please take back those cynical words. Our beaches matter. Our flora and fauna, even our jellyfish are important. And vacations at the beach recharge the workforce. Why don’t you come to Pensacola. It’s a vibrant community. We’ll show you we what we produce... But right now we’re busy, working together to clean up the beaches and water that we love.