Two Years Later, B.P. Oil Spill Still Killing Gulf Marine Life

Bottlenose dolphin, coral, and zooplankton are hardest hit and forever changed.

A dead, oily fish lies on the beach in Louisiana just after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On the surface, sea life might look like it's back to normal on the Gulf—but it's not. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and releasing as much as five million barrels of crude oil into the sea. Up to 53,000 barrels of oil a day flowed from the broken well until BP was able to plug the leak on July 15, 2010. It was the biggest offshore spill in U.S. history.

Two years later, Gulf of Mexico oil drillers are busier than ever, with eight new deepwater rigs expected this year, bringing the active number to 29—just short of the pre-spill number.

...swim a little deeper, according to various reports, and you’ll find that not all is well with the marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana.

Standing at the docks in Venice, Louisiana, at the tip of Plaquemine Parish, one can see sport fishing boats piled high with big red fish zip in and out, shrimpers loaded with ice and crew pull into the currents, and barges fitted with drill equipment bump against their moorings. It’s hard to see any evidence of the spill. The economy seems revived, fish would seem to be plentiful, and there’s no visible sheen on the water.

Things are looking good...at least from this vantage point.

But swim a little deeper, according to various reports, and you’ll find that not all is well with the marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana. “Although the oil has stopped flowing from the wellhead, the Gulf oil spill is not over,” Doug Inkley, senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, told the New Orleans Times Picayune.

A recent NWF report claims there are six key areas still at risk due to the spill —as well as a variety of creatures, including bottlenose dolphins, a variety of sea turtles, brown pelicans, and Atlantic bluefin tuna. It’s still too soon to assess the long-term impact on much of the region’s wetlands, but the NWF is asking Congress to pass the Restore Act, which would dedicate fines and penalties against BP and other responsible parties toward long-term restoration of the Gulf.

As for the seafood shipped from the Gulf across the country, the verdict is still out on how healthy it is. Seafood processors say last year’s brown-shrimp season was good, but the white-shrimp catch was off. Oyster beds unharmed by the floods of fresh Mississippi River water—released to keep the oil offshore or to relieve record flooding last year—have seen strong harvests. Areas where the harvest was delayed in 2010 because of concerns about oil tainting the shellfish have seen weaker harvests. A variety of studies and reports detailing just how much of that crude oil still lurks in both the ocean, and the fish, are anticipated soon.

Here are some sea organisms gravely hit by the spill:

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS

The most visibly at-risk creatures are the bottlenose dolphins, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has labeled in “poor health” since the spill, thanks to an “unexplained mortality event.” Stranded dolphins have been showing up on beaches from Louisiana to Peru since the spill, suffering from lung and liver disease and abnormally low levels of hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.

“They are at the top of the food chain in the Gulf, perhaps even more than we are, because they eat whole fish. They consume everything,” said George Crozier, retired director of Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama. “That creates a situation where they might be bio-accumulating any toxics in the food chain.”

Because they breathe air, the dolphins are also likely to have inhaled toxic fumes, in addition to have swum through oil. 

CORAL

Travel seven miles from the site of the spill, dive a mile deep and, according to a study cofunded by NOAA and BP, the corals lining the ocean floor are dead and dying and coated in “brown gunk.”

Extensive damage to the coral became apparent eight months after the spill. Many thought the bulk of the ecological damage would be limited to close to the surface, but thanks to the depth of the spill and cold temperatures, plumes of oil particles remained deep, causing unprecedented damage.

“A simple surface spill would be unlikely to have an impact at this depth,” says Chuck Fisher, a Penn State University professor, and one of the authors of the report.

Coral and starfish at the reef showed “widespread signs of stress,” including dead specimens, discoloration, and, in the case of the starfish, abnormal behavior.

“Things happen very slowly in the deep sea, whether it’s life or death. One of the surprising things we found when we came back is that it looked almost exactly as it did two months before,” says Fisher. “It will be a long time before we know the full effects of the spill.”

ZOOPLANKTON

It’s not just the charismatic sea creatures that suffered; scientists have confirmed that hydrocarbons from the spill have entered the ocean’s food chain through zooplankton, small organisms that drift through the ocean and are used as food by shrimp and baby fish.

The contaminated zooplankton serve as food for small fish and shrimps, thus acting as “conduits for the movement of oil contamination and pollutants into the food chain.”

In a study published in Science DailyDr. Michael Roman, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said “Traces of oil in the zooplankton prove that they had contact with the oil and the likelihood that oil compounds may be working their way up the food chain.”

BUGS

Insects have not escaped scrutiny, or the oil.

A Louisiana State University entomologist says that since the spill, her studies show falling numbers for a variety of bugs.

Linda Hooper-Bui of the LSU Agricultural Center collected insects about 20 or 25 times last year at 45 sites, from Cocodrie to Breton Sound, Louisiana, using both vacuums and nets. She has been studying the same sites since 2009, and has discovered that insects and spiders hit by the spill have declined in population. She reports seeing growth only in some species, while others are still low in numbers, or even collapsing.

“Every single time we go out there, the Pollyanna part of me thinks, ‘Now we’re going to measure recovery’” she said. “Then I get out there and say, ‘Whaaat?'’”

Do you think marine life in the Gulf will ever return to its pre-spill normalcy? 

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