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Embattled Author and Critics Agree: Gulf Recovery Assessment 'Not Based on Data'

With the fate of the commercial seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico hanging in the balance, the manager of the $20-billion victims compensation fund has issued this week a seven-page draft methodology on how he plans to compensate those affected in the tourism and fishing industry. The bottom line: Kenneth Feinberg believes the industry should recover to pre-spill levels by 2012, and he has set compensation structure accordingly. But is the analysis based on solid science? Do we know enough to say if and when the region will fully recover?

The rules are based heavily on a 27-page analysis by marine biologist Wes Tunnell of Texas A&M University, Corpus Cristi, an expert on the impacts of oil spills. In that report, Tunnell says that the available data suggests that most populations of shrimp, crabs, finfish, and oysters will "likely" recover by next year. But he says some areas of oiled habitat—most notably oyster reefs—"may not recover for 6-8, or even 10 years."

Some of Tunnell's colleagues are outraged over the report's speculation, believing that it goes beyond the available evidence. But Tunnell fends off most of the criticism, calling it a misunderstanding of the report's aim.

The studies that could provide data on actual impacts on the four species Tunnell was asked to look at are simply not yet available, he acknowledges. "I did the best I could. … It's an expert opinion not based on data but based on 35 years of experience working with oil spills," says Tunnell. "The longer we wait the more we'll know, but [Feinberg] wasn't under the same wait-and-see [attitude], they wanted to move ahead."

The inclusion of plenty of caveats—"the true loss to the ecosystem and fisheries may not be accurately known for years, or even decades," for example—has not mollified the critics. Yes, they say, the report points out correctly that damaged ecosystems in warm water tend to recover faster than those harmed in cold water, among other mitigating factors. But it's too early to know for sure, says Charles "Pete" Peterson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: "There are studies under way that will test these assumptions." "These kinds of indirect effects are not sufficiently pursued in this crystal-ball gazing exercize," says marine biologist Steve Otwell of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Work is underway on the biggest questions. BP has given out $50 million for studies of the gulf, doled out by four regional research centers to fund dozens of research cruises. Peterson is particularly eager to hear the results of two studies, one on blue crabs and another on seaweed, a key player in the coastal habitat. The National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have spent millions more on cruises; most of the papers that have been published thus far have focused on the effects of the dispersed oil on the water column in the deep, which might affect fin fish. The effects on coastal ecosystems that are the prime habitat for the crabs, oysters, and shrimp are still largely unknown.

Drawing upon Tunnell's findings, Fienberg has proposed setting final payments for affected parties at twice their documented 2010 losses, roughly 2 years' worth of impact. Under the proposal, open for 2 weeks of public comment before being finalized, oyster fishers are eligible for four times their 2010 losses. Any individuals or businesses that opt to receive the final payments must sign agreements limiting their ability to file lawsuits to recoup additional damages.