Tar balls are common from ships and ocean floor seepage in Florida.
Tar Balls Wash Up On Florida Keys | North America > United States from AllBusiness.com
USED TO BE COMMON
Tar balls were once so common that hotels provided guests with wrapped swabs to wash them off their feet, said Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. Tougher enforcement of laws against ocean dumping sharply reduced the number of incidents, he said, but they still wash up on beaches, usually in small amounts and causing little harm.
But in the summer of 2000, a massive drift of tar balls and oily mats washed up on beaches from northern Miami-Dade County to northern Broward County. The source was never discovered, although authorities assumed the oil had been illegally dumped by a passing ship. The oil killed an estimated 7,800 sea turtle hatchlings, about 24,000 pounds of fish and 12 seabirds.
Leatherman said tar balls can be bad news for beaches. Unless stopped at the shoreline, he said, the tar can burrow into the sand, staying there for years until exposed by a storm.
"You think you're rid of them, and there they are again," he said. "It's very unpleasant to see a beach like this. And then it gets on your body. It's a total turnoff to tourists. You've got to get this stuff at the shoreline before it gets into dry sand."
And what's a turnoff to tourists could be death for wildlife. Sea turtle hatchlings would be particularly vulnerable to tar balls because the hatchlings tend to swim out to drifts of seaweed and other debris, precisely the sort of materials that would catch tar balls.
Endangered leatherback turtles will start hatching from southeast Florida beaches in mid-June, said Paul Davis, Palm Beach County's sea turtle coordinator.
"If the oil gets over here on the east coast, that will be an additional threat to those hatchlings," he said.
A team of scientists from the University of South Florida tracking the spill said Tuesday that a branch of the slick has been caught up in the loop current, the powerful stream of water that sweeps from the Gulf through the Florida Straits and up the South Florida coast. They said it could reach Key West by Sunday or Monday and Miami by May 28.
BALLS 'PRETTY BENIGN'
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said a light sheen of oil, branching off the main slick, has moved close to or entered the loop current. But she said the slick, itself, remained dozens of miles from the current. The loop current joins the Gulf Stream in the Florida Straits and then veers away from the state into the Atlantic after passing Palm Beach County.
Scientists have said that any oil that does make the trip to the Florida Straits is likely to transform into tar balls along the way, as lighter components evaporate. While capable of causing environmental damage, scientists say tar balls would not be as harmful as a thick slick of fresh oil washing up on a beach.
As long as they floated on the surface, for example, they would be "pretty benign" for South Florida's coral reefs, said Richard Dodge, director of the National Coral Reef Institute of Nova Southeastern University.