March 2011 – The sultry spring air along the sandy beaches of the city of Gulf Shores on the northwestern coastline of Florida is perfumed by the stinging scent of exhaust fumes and motor oil. Early tourists and residents turned their backs on the workers with the yellow helmets. Where children once left fleeting footprints in the moving sand, bulldozers had now taken over, cumbersome but merciless. Like stars on a cloudless night, the shiny quartz grains begin to sparkle as the first balmy sunrays fall upon them. From the wheeling pelican’s perspective the fine-grained sand could be mistaken for a layer of unblemished snow. The curious bird touches down and eyeballs the spectacle unfolding before him. The machines claw their way along the shore, digging the ground over left and right. Amidst the struggling vehicles, strange looking devices filter the sand in an attempt to extract the gritty remains of the oil spill. Overwhelmed by the stinging fumes and deafening noises, the perplexed pelican flies off again.
The scene described above took place in early March 2011. Two months later the heavy machinery took off. Although the catastrophic proportions of the oil spill may be lost in memory for many, it is more than just a passing event for others. On 22 April 2010, the offshore oil platform Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana, some fifty miles southeast of the Mississippi Delta. Over a period of three months, an estimated amount of 170 million gallons of oil streamed into the Gulf of Mexico. “It will take years, if not decades until we fully recover”, says Mark DeHaven, environmental specialist at the Marine Lab in Cedar Key (SGKML), located at the southern tip of Florida’s Hidden Coast. Unlike the northeastern Gulf shores, the oil never reached this southwestern part of Florida. But in 2010, most people living further inland were completely oblivious of this.
The Hidden Coast, a name aptly describing the swampy shores between Cedar Key in the south and the Aucilla River in the north, is known for its breathtaking and pristine landscape as well as its biodiversity. With Cedar Key as the stronghold of Florida’s clam industry, this coastal region supplies supermarkets and restaurants with fresh seafood across the entire North American continent. The imminent threat of oil reaching this part of the coast could have ended in an economic catastrophe but, fortunately, the region was spared from the oil. Only the northeastern shoreline of the Gulf coast was polluted, whereas the entire west coast of Florida, including the Panhandle and the Hidden Coast, remained untroubled. The initial joy, however, turned out to be short-lived.
The crusade of the international press
“Our clams have never been better! The oil never reached us. Not one single drop. Zero. But everyone thought it had”, explains Michael Kuhman, another environmental specialist of the SGKML. In January 2011, the Bivalve Bulletin of the University of Florida reported that “to date, oil products have not been found in any of the 39 shellfish harvesting areas throughout the state”. Jane Connors from Suwannee, journalist and editor of the Hidden Coastlines Community Magazine, surmises that such pacifying reports evidently received little international attention and that the positive news was mostly restricted to the local press.
Meanwhile, the oil spill was a welcome bone to chew on for the international press. The German magazine “Der Spiegel”, for example, reported that it was “the biggest ecological catastrophe the United States have ever encountered”. Indeed, the resulting media hype escalated into a modern crusade. In the months following the oil spill, Focus Online quoted the German Press Agency (dpa) as saying: “An estimated 885 kilometers of coastline have been polluted. All five Gulf states (Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida) have been affected.”
The consequences of misreporting
“The economy in our entire area – the Hidden Coast – was severely damaged by the mistaken perception that the oil had actually arrived here”, explains Jane Connors. The greatest challenge for the clam industry was its battle against the sustained misrepresentation of reality, but it was already too late. “The estimated market loss of Florida’s seafood industry amounted to 25% within a few months”, says Sarah Criser, Deputy Press Secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Florida. She explains that the clam industry alone had “suffered an estimated direct sales loss of 4.6 million dollars” and that the estimates of future losses “amount to another 5 million”.
Experts today agree that it was not only the responsibility of the press to report on areas directly affected by the oil spill, but also on the regions that escaped the catastrophe such as the Hidden Coast. Jane Connors comes straight to the point: “I believe the media prefer to cover bad news and tend to sensationalize catastrophes.” She points out that “the fault for this lies as much with human nature as with the media. People stay glued to their TV sets when the news is bad; but real life can be a lot more dramatic than fiction!”
Photographs by: Natalia Flemming