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About Alexis Baldera
Alexis is a Conservation Biologist for the Gulf Restoration program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she tracks research related to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. She loves all things ocean, wetland and oyster. When not thinking about one of these things, she is probably dreaming of her future ranch or taking names on the sand volleyball court.
We know that not everyone has the time to peruse hundreds of pages of information, so Ocean Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation partnered to summarize what we now know about impacts. This summary is based on five years of government research, which recently became available when the details of the BP settlement were released last month.
Yesterday, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published new results from a series of studies in which they have investigated the unusually high number of dolphin deaths occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2010, scientists have conducted autopsies on dead dolphins to try and understand why they are dying.
They found significantly higher numbers of dolphins with severe lung disease and lesions on their adrenal glands in oiled areas than in non-oiled areas. Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson described the adrenal disease as forcing dolphins to precariously balance on a ledge which cold temperatures, pregnancy and infection can push them off, resulting in death. The lesions observed in dolphins were “some of the most severe lung lesions ever seen in wild dolphins throughout the U.S.” according to lead Pathologist, Dr. Katie Colegrove. NOAA is decisive in concluding that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster caused the dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf: “The timing, location, and nature of the detected lesions support that contaminants from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused these lesions and contributed to the high numbers of dolphin deaths within this oil spill’s footprint.”
Over the past five years, unusually high numbers of dolphins have been dying in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Marine Fisheries Service declared an unusual mortality event back in December 2010. While it’s easy to assume that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is to blame for these sick and dying dolphins, it’s important to have the scientific evidence to hold BP accountable.
Last week a group of 16 scientists published a paper with detailed information when and where dolphins are dying across the five Gulf states. Since first reading this paper last week, I’ve been thinking about what it means that the clusters of dolphins with the highest and longest mortality rates were those in Barataria Bay following the oil disaster, and also those where oil landed in Mississippi and Alabama in 2011. The authors of the study don’t hesitate to make inferences about the connection to the oil disaster, and so neither should we.
You may remember images like this one following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster—oil smeared across Gulf Coast beaches like a dirty bathtub ring. New research released this week suggests that a similar oily bathtub ring is lying on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists determined that an oily patch created by the BP oil disaster remains on the Gulf seafloor, stretching across roughly 1,250 square miles. They came to these conclusions using data collected as part of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment at over 500 sampling locations in the Gulf. The source of the oil is most likely the subsea oil plumes that moved underwater—oil that spewed from the Macondo wellhead but never made it to the surface. As oiled particles fell out of the plume and settled on the Gulf seafloor, they created what the researchers are calling a “patchwork mosaic” of contaminated sites. The patches get more spread out the further they are from the wellhead, leading the scientists to conclude that there is still more oil lying beyond the edge of the bathtub ring, but it probably just hasn’t been detected yet.
When I think of the great filter-feeding whales, I don’t tend to think of the Gulf of Mexico. However, I was recently reminded that the Gulf is home to some of these amazing whales. They are called Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-dus) whales, and they are found around the world, but only 33 of them live in the northern Gulf. A recent genetic study by NOAA biologists reveals that this small group of whales may be a completely unique subspecies!
Dr. Samantha Joye aboard the research vessel Atlantis with the submersible Alvin in the background. Credit: Antonia Juhasz
This blog is part of a series of interviews with scientists who are championing marine research in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dr. Samantha Joye is a Professor of Marine Sciences in the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She is an expert in biogeochemistry and microbial ecology and works in open-ocean, deep-sea and coastal ecosystems. Her work is interdisciplinary, bridging the fields of chemistry, microbiology and geology. Following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Dr. Joye joined a team of scientists in the Gulf, investigating oil plumes from the disaster in the open ocean of the Gulf, which at the time BP claimed did not exist. Her team’s discoveries proved that there was more oil and gas in the water than BP and government agencies had predicted. She continues to study the impacts of the BP oil disaster, as well as the ecological processes at natural oil and gas seeps in the Gulf, Arctic Ocean and in the Guaymas Basin.
University of South Florida Professor Steven Murawski began studying diseases in fin fishes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill when Gulf of Mexico fishermen began reporting a surge in fish with visible lesions. Credit: C-Image. Caption from phys.org
Fishermen are on the water every day, which means they are often the first to notice when something changes. After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, we heard reports from fishermen that they were catching more fish with lesions than they had ever seen before. Immediately after hearing these reports, Dr. Jim Cowan at LSU began investigating the frequency, location and cause of the reported lesions. Many other scientists have collected data on this same issue, and last week a group from the University of South Florida published the first round of results in a scientific journal.