Two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill dumped nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are just beginning to understand its impact beneath the surface. Two new studies done by NOAA and WHOI scientists and their partners have shed new light on the spill’s impact on deep water corals and marine mammals.
The first report, whose contributors include six scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and that was published this week, finds "compelling evidence" that the spill has impacted deep-sea corals in the region:
“These corals exhibited varying levels of stress, from bare skeleton, tissue loss, to excess mucous production, all associated with a covering of brown flocculent material,” said Tim Shank, a WHOI biologist and an expert in life in the deep ocean. “This was 11 kilometers southwest of the well and underscores the magnitude of the release and potential impact to other deep-water ecosystems. Corals like these in particular serve as hosts to other animals—crabs, shrimp and brittle stars that may be impacted by the loss of their habitat.”
The researchers used an exacting method of petroleum analysis, which allowed them to confirm that the oil found in the coral communities came from the Deepwater Horizon spill. As to the long-term effects on coral communities, we still don’t know much:
"We don’t know if the living corals will recover or not. We hope our continued monitoring of this site, including time-lapse imaging, will give us insight into the potential for long-term recovery."
The second study, done by NOAA and partners, has found that bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, are showing signs of severe ill health:
Based on comprehensive physicals of 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011, preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease. Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.
Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico – a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins per year.
So while attention to the Gulf oil spill’s consequences has fallen in the press, its effects are still very much with us.