Alumna applies legal, biological expertise to aid wildlife

If you turned on the TV at all this summer, there’s a good chance you saw images of oil-covered birds or oil-sodden wetlands flashing across the screen. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the Gulf oil spill had a significant impact on wildlife and ecosystems in the Gulf.

While some legal experts were sorting out the claims process or evaluating legal precedents in previous disasters, Heather Halter’s (JD 07) focus turned toward Gulf wildlife. Halter is a marine biologist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources. She works to protect marine mammals, sea turtles and species listed under the Endangered Species Act using her unique background, which combines biology, policy and law.

“To me personally this is just devastating,” Halter said. “I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas and I grew up swimming in the Gulf.”

During the spill Halter worked in NOAA’s incident command center in Silver Spring, Md., where she served as a “watch stander” for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Halter said she served as a conduit for questions and information flowing in and out of the center. She directed questions to the appropriate offices and relayed information to NOAA’s other incident command centers on issues like fishery closures, which were changing on a daily basis.

Halter said NOAA employees provided valuable expertise in handling the cleanup in the Gulf. Besides helping clean and release oiled turtles that were nesting on oily shores, they discovered that early cleanup strategies of burning oil off the water’s surface was actually burning juvenile sea turtles alive, she said. Oil would collect in big bunches of sargassum – a type of seaweed – on the surface, which made for ideal places for controlled burns.

“Juvenile sea turtles like to hang out under the protection of that sargassum,” Halter said.

One of the sea turtle species most affected by the spill is the Kemp’s Ridley, which was nesting on the Louisiana shores at the time of the spill, she said. As of mid-October, NOAA reported 465 documented dead Kemp’s Ridley turtles, compared to 64 dead loggerheads, 27 dead green turtles and 40 dead unknown turtle species. The resulting casualties will no doubt result in fewer nests next year.

In addition to hosting nesting turtles, the wetlands act as nurseries for juvenile fish and sharks, and serve as nutrient sinks that boost the water quality in coastal areas. All will be affected by the spill.

“The environmental baselines of the Gulf ecosystems as we knew them have definitely changed as a result of this oil spill,” Halter said. “This raises many questions for the future, such as ‘What was lost that we cannot see at this time? What long-term effects might oil in these ecosystems have?’ These and other questions are part of the natural resource damage assessment that comes next.”