Ocean Currents » Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 03 Jul 2015 18:30:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 The Evidence Mounts: Another Study Links Dolphin Deaths in the Gulf to BP http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/21/the-evidence-mounts-another-study-links-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-to-bp/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/21/the-evidence-mounts-another-study-links-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-to-bp/#comments Thu, 21 May 2015 12:30:38 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10239

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.”

These new findings are backed up by earlier studies. One publication reported dolphins in Barataria Bay had symptoms consistent with petroleum exposure that were threatening their survival. Another study analyzed where and when dolphins were stranding, and found areas contaminated with oil in 2010 and 2011 also had the highest numbers of dolphin deaths.

As researchers continue to publish the results of studies, we will further understand the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. We will also begin to understand if impacted animals and places are recovering. Bob Spies, former chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, recently said “If we care enough to understand impacts, I hope we care enough to understand recovery.” This reminds me that understanding the impacts is only the first step in restoring the Gulf. The people who live in the Gulf will rely on it throughout their lifetimes, and long-term research and environmental monitoring will provide us with the tools we need to continue to not only hold BP accountable, but also restore the Gulf.

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Update: Investigating Dolphin Deaths in the Gulf of Mexico http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/02/18/update-investigating-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-of-mexico/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/02/18/update-investigating-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-of-mexico/#comments Wed, 18 Feb 2015 21:00:50 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9895

Photo: Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network

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.

BP has repeatedly stated that the disaster didn’t adversely impact dolphins, but we know that oil negatively affects marine mammals and that the highest incidents of strandings were in oiled areas. Sure, it’s possible that other factors may have harmed these dolphins, such as changes in water temperature and salinity. It’s also possible that some of these dolphins may have suffered from infections, but overall, this area was heavily impacted by the BP oil disaster, and it’s also possible and probably more likely that the BP oil disaster tipped the scales for many of these dolphins, making them more vulnerable to other stressors (like cold water or infections).

Throughout their paper, the authors stress the importance of more detailed research to determine the exact causes of death in each of these clusters. This highlights the importance of sustained and long-term data collection. Without historic data we wouldn’t have the context needed to understand the significance or determine the causes of the dolphin deaths in the Gulf.

Marine mammal stranding networks are vital to understanding the health of dolphins in the Gulf. These experts act as first responders when a dolphin is found stranded on a beach or in shallow water, but budget cuts limit the capacity of these stranding networks to respond. Restoration dollars, provided by the penalties paid by BP and other responsible parties, can help these stranding networks save the lives of stranded dolphins. The future of our understanding of this unprecedented event depends on our commitment to gathering the data we need to make marine restoration a reality in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Where Did the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Go? http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/10/31/where-did-the-bp-deepwater-horizon-oil-go/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/10/31/where-did-the-bp-deepwater-horizon-oil-go/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 17:47:22 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9460

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.

The U.S. government estimates the Macondo well’s total discharge was 210 million gallons. The lead researchers of this study, Christopher Reddy and David Valentine, recognize the challenge of tracking millions of gallons of oil in the deep ocean. “Keep in mind that we’re trying to track 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 carbon atoms (and twice that number of hydrogen atoms) in a hostile, ever-moving environment,” the authors said in a recent blog. Their research sheds light on the mystery of the submerged oil that never came ashore or reached the Gulf surface.

You might remember earlier studies that supported the hypothesis that microbes in the water column and deep sea consumed large amounts of the BP oil and gas. At first glance, this new study seemed to contradict those findings, but in reality they are complimentary. To understand how all of these pieces fit together, we need to be thinking about two types of hydrocarbons, or the chemical structures of oil and gas particles. First, there are the water-soluble hydrocarbons, which are what the oil-consuming microbes eat. Second, there are the water-insoluble, non-digestible hydrocarbons, which are the types of oil products reported on for this new study. Both studies are helping us understand the fate and distribution of the oil and gas released during the BP oil disaster.

“The evidence is becoming clear that oily particles were raining down around these deep-sea corals, which provides a compelling explanation for the injury they suffered,” said Valentine. “The pattern of contamination we observe is fully consistent with the Deepwater Horizon event but not with natural seeps–the suggested alternative.”

In light of recent attempts by BP to minimize the oil disaster, this study is another link that ties BP to the impacts in the deep waters of the Gulf. As science progresses and new findings emerge, more and more studies are reminding us that this was an offshore disaster, and projects to restore the Gulf are needed offshore, as well as on the coast. So far the vast majority of restoration projects have targeted damaged coastal habitats or lost recreation days due to closed fisheries and beaches. These projects are no doubt important, but in order to achieve full restoration to the Gulf ecosystem there needs to be a shift to a more balanced portfolio that addresses the marine resources, such as fish, sea turtles, dolphins and deep-sea corals, in addition to our beaches, marshes and fishing piers.

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The Gulf is Home to a Small Group of Really Big Whales http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/10/03/the-gulf-is-home-to-a-small-group-of-really-big-whales/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/10/03/the-gulf-is-home-to-a-small-group-of-really-big-whales/#comments Fri, 03 Oct 2014 19:45:10 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9312

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!

These Bryde’s whales are unique in their size, as well as in the calls that they use to communicate with each other. Through genetic analysis, scientists have determined that this subspecies has undergone a dramatic decline in population. “It’s unclear based on the genetics exactly when [the decline] occurred,” said Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “It’s possible humans were involved in the decline, through whaling or industrial activities.”

With only 33 whales and little genetic diversity, the newfound subspecies is particularly vulnerable to threats such as ship strikes, noise and pollution. The Bryde’s whales’ home range is also adjacent to the Mississippi Canyon, the area where the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster occurred, raising questions about how this small group of whales may have been impacted by that disaster.

The NRDC has submitted a petition to have the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale federally listed as endangered. As a genetically distinct subspecies, these whales are eligible for additional protections under U.S. law—protections that are necessary if we want to improve their chance for survival and recovery.

Scientists are continuing to study these whales. The information they gain will help them understand the history, biology, status and conservation needs of Bryde’s whales and others that live in the area—such as the Gulf of Mexico sperm whale population discovered last year —because the first step in protecting something is understanding what it needs to survive. This information is also a key part of restoring the Gulf of Mexico to the vibrant, diverse ecosystem that we depend on.

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Interview: Deep-Sea Researcher Dr. Samantha Joye on Microbes in the Gulf http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/06/interview-deep-sea-researcher-dr-samantha-joye-on-microbes-in-the-gulf/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/06/interview-deep-sea-researcher-dr-samantha-joye-on-microbes-in-the-gulf/#comments Wed, 06 Aug 2014 13:29:13 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8943

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.

OC: How long have you been conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico, and what are your current research interests?

Dr. Joye: I embarked on my first Gulf of Mexico cruise in 1994, and I did my first submersible dive on that cruise. I was completely enthralled and totally hooked on deep-water exploration from that instant. I began working in the Gulf in earnest when I joined the faculty at Texas A&M University (College Station) in 1995. I have been working in the Gulf since that time. My research interests include understanding the environmental and physiological factors that regulate microbial hydrocarbon degradation in the Gulf’s waters and in both shallow (upper meter) and deep (>5 meters) sediments. We are interested in the cycling of a wide spectrum of hydrocarbons, ranging from methane to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. We are also interested in the metabolic potential and capacity for hydrocarbon degradation (i.e., determining which microorganisms are there naturally, their abundance, and how fast and how well do they respond to large hydrocarbon infusions like that resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster).

OC: Here at the Ocean Conservancy offices, we have been following the deep-sea expeditions in the Gulf this summer, watching the live feeds, and listening to the scientists discuss what they are seeing. We would love to hear more about these cruises from you. What types of information have you been collecting? What have you learned on the cruises?

Dr. Joye: Our cruise in April 2014 was on board the R/V Atlantis. It was the first official research cruise using the newly renovated human occupied vehicle, Alvin, which was very exciting for us. The goal of this particular cruise was to visit and sample sites impacted by the Macondo blowout and to sample two types of very salty seafloor ecosystems called brines. Seawater is salty; it contains about 35 grams of salt per liter. However, in some places, super-salty brine fluids occur. Brines are defined as fluids containing more than 50 grams of salt per liter but some deep sea brines contain almost 10 times the amount of salt as seawater. Our saltiest site contained about 340 grams of salt per liter. We are studying two types of brines: those derived from ancient salt dissolution (which contain mainly sodium and chlorine and are sulfate-free) and those derived from gas hydrate formation (which are basically concentrated seawater and thus contain sulfate)

Our research cruises are intense; we conduct operations around the clock. Alvin operations occur between 8a.m. and 5p.m., and starting around 6p.m., we collect water and deeper sediment samples through the night. We also do geophysical surveys at night and during transits between sites to search for interesting seafloor geological features and gas and oil plumes. Being an oceanographer requires that you are able to thrive in this intense environment, where sleep is a luxury and where focused, hard work is required around the clock. It’s worth it because each dive presents an opportunity for discovery, and discovery is what it’s all about!

On our April cruise, we discovered some amazing things that we will be reporting in our science blog and in publications during the coming months. But first, a lot more hard work is required in the lab to process all of the sediment, water and brine fluid samples we collected on the ship. Cruises are intense, but it does not stop there. Post-cruise analyses and experiments keep us busy for often six to eight months. Then the phase of manuscript preparation and publication begins.

OC: Some people may not realize that as much as 16 million gallons of oil naturally seeps from the Gulf seafloor each year. How does that compare to the oil and gas that was released by the BP oil disaster?

Dr. Joye: Natural seeps are in no way similar to the Deepwater Horizon discharge, which released almost 210 million gallons of oil from a focused source (the wellhead) over the course of 84 days. Natural seepage releases about 0.04 million gallons a day over the entire Gulf of Mexico, while the Deepwater Horizon discharge released 2.5 million gallons a day in a localized area. If you compare the discharge per area released during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the blown out well discharged orders of magnitude more oil than natural seepage. This was an unprecedented perturbation that led to a large number of unanticipated phenomena and impacts to the Gulf ecosystem even hundreds of kilometers from the discharging wellhead. The chronic impacts of this perturbation are only now coming to light.

OC: Considering that there are natural petroleum seeps in the Gulf, does this lessen the impacts of the BP oil disaster?

Dr. Joye: Absolutely not. Many people argue that since the Gulf is a site of extensive natural hydrocarbon seepage, a large discharge such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster would have little effect on the system. The implicit assumption here is that the system was primed and poised to respond to hydrocarbon inputs because the waters are exposed routinely to hydrocarbons. But this argument has several shortcomings. First, what this assumption neglects to consider is that the offshore Gulf is a blue water system, where the nutrients that fuel microbial growth are sparse and fiercely competed for. Oil and gas oxidizing bacteria require nutrients to build biomass and increase metabolic rates. Nutrient availability may well have limited the degradation of Deepwater Horizon oil and gas significantly. Second, natural seepage inputs are sparse and diffuse so the populations of microbes that eat oil and gas during normal conditions are, in fact, rare. They can respond rapidly, but as has recently been shown, they are often not able to sustain high rates of hydrocarbon consumption. So, how much of the Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbons were consumed by bacteria? I don’t think we know for sure, but I have done some simple back of the envelope calculations of nutrient demands by hydrocarbon degraders, and the results suggest it would be difficult to consume all of the discharged hydrocarbons given the nutrient pool available.

OC: Can you describe what a cold-seep community is and how the BP oil disaster might have affected those in the Gulf?

Dr. Joye: Natural hydrocarbon seeps are magical systems that evolve and change over time. The biological diversity of these environments – which is fueled by oil and gas degradation, driven by the activity of indigenous hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria – is astonishing. I remember vividly my first dive to the Gulf seafloor in a submersible in 1994. When the lights came on and I saw all the odd and amazing organisms living on oil and gas, I was simply shocked. My jaw was on the floor and I knew I wanted to study these incredible systems for the rest of my career, because they are fascinating and because we know so little about what makes them tick.

Natural seep habitats, especially deep-water coral communities which are the “old growth forest” analog of the seep evolution sequence, were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil plume and by weathered oil-containing marine snow, or tiny bits of organic matter that sink down from the surface to the seabed. Dispersants may well have also impacted the organisms at natural seeps, but many more experiments are needed to verify this hypothesis.

OC: A few of your recently published papers have focused on the fate of dispersants in the Gulf, and the impacts of the BP oil disaster on open-ocean ecosystems in the Gulf. Can you tell us more about your research on these topics?

Dr. Joye: Dispersants are complex chemical mixtures that act to break up oil and presumably make it small enough for microorganisms to eat. However, the literature on this is split: few studies show increased hydrocarbon biodegradation after dispersant application, and many show no effect or a negative effect on biodegradation. The Deepwater Horizon dispersant application was made after much scientific discussion and debate. The dispersants were applied to keep oil from reaching the coastline, and the potential impacts on open-water organisms, from microorganisms to fish to sharks, were not known. We still do not know conclusively how dispersants impact microorganisms, but what we do know is that it affects different microorganisms in substantially distinct ways. We need to know a lot more, and we are working diligently to obtain this information by doing detailed experiments in the laboratory. So the jury is out on whether dispersants increase hydrocarbon degradation and on how they impact the structure and function of the hydrocarbon-degrading bacterial communities that they are supposed to stimulate.

OC: During your deep-sea expeditions in the Gulf, have you found significant differences between oiled sites and non-oiled sites, or differences at the same site before and after oil exposure?

Dr. Joye: Both. We had been studying one site, Mississippi Canyon 118, for about five years prior to the oil spill, so we had a very good baseline there. The microbiology and geochemistry of the water column and sediments changed after the discharge. If you compare an oiled site to a non-oiled site, you also see striking differences, irrespective if you are at a ‘control site’ or a natural seep. The oiled sites are distinct in terms of microbiology and geochemistry. The differences are significant and prominent.

OC: How might these impacts affect the larger Gulf ecosystem and food web?

Dr. Joye: The Gulf’s food web starts at the top, and the key there is nutrients. A key question is how much of the nutrient inventory was taken up by oil-degrading bacteria and how much of that sunk to the bottom. It will take a very, very long time to return those nutrients from the seafloor up to the surface where phytoplankton can again incorporate them into the food web from zooplankton to small fish and ultimately big game fish and whales. Food web impacts often take 5-10 years to materialize (i.e., to be quantifiable) because it takes a while to start catching the fish from the 2010 year-class. Other considerations include the impact of oil and dispersant exposure on larval fish; that will also take a long time (5-10 years) to become quantifiable. Finally, there is the consideration of oil and dispersant exposure on adult fish and their health. A recent study by Dr. Steve Murawski at the University of South Florida showed that fish caught recently contained Deepwater Horizon polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in their livers. So the food web impacts from the Deepwater Horizon incident are poorly understood and will take years more of research to fully unravel and understand.

OC: Looking forward to the restoration process, it is clear we didn’t have a good baseline understanding of some of the habitats in the Gulf before the BP oil disaster. How will we know when they are recovered? What are realistic goals for restoration of some of these areas, such as deep-sea and open-ocean ecosystems?

Dr. Joye: Baselines are essential when it comes to evaluating environmental impacts. It is clear that not enough funds have been invested in developing baselines for microbial communities in the open water and seafloor of the Gulf. This is both surprising and disappointing, given the industrial presence in the Gulf. I believe it is in the best interest of the oil and gas industry to devote substantial resources into developing collaborations between industry and academic scientists to obtain such baseline data. What would this require: instrumentation, monitoring platforms, access to research vessels and interested scientists on both sides. I believe all of the required parts are there; the missing piece of the puzzle is funding. Given the amount of money generated by the oil and gas industry in the Gulf, the funding required to generate environmental baselines for the system would be small potatoes (relative to oil company profits), but the value of these baseline data would be immense.

Because we do not know the baseline, it is extremely difficult to judge when the system is recovered. We don’t even know if it will recover to the “baseline”. It could end up at a new steady state.

But there is satellite data that can be use that to evaluate how chlorophyll has changed since the oil disaster and those data can be used to describe pre- and post-spill carbon fixation scenarios. So, it is easier to evaluate the status of the open-ocean system compared to the seafloor system because deep-water corals, for example, grow very slowly. When a 500-year-old coral is damaged or killed by oiling, it will require a very long follow up study to evaluate recovery of that system.

Restoration of these systems is essentially impossible; what we can do is monitor recovery and attempt to understand what regulates its efficacy. That is the goal that many of us are working towards.

OC: It has been over four years since the BP oil disaster – what is the status of the ongoing research in your area of expertise? Are you as far along as you and your fellow researchers hoped to be by this point?

Dr. Joye: I am a microbial geochemist. Basically, that means I study the effects of microbial processes on elemental cycles. The Deepwater Horizon discharge served, in essence, as a tragic experiment. Tragic because eleven people lost their lives, and thousands more lost their livelihoods and an experiment because we have never had a marine oil disaster of this scale in U.S. waters. As far as microbial research goes, we have learned a great deal from it and we’ve had quite a few surprises and some interesting debates along the way. We’ve also realized how much we do not know.

Every research cruise we go on, every experiment we do, every time I simply sit in my office and ponder what I’ve seen and what my group and our collaborators have done, these things lead to additional questions that require further observation and experimentation. That’s how science works. Science is not static, and there is no end to it. There is always more work to do, more things to learn, more discovery and more excitement. I feel like we have made a tremendous amount of progress, but we have so much more to do and so much more to learn. In my opinion, we have only now begun to scratch the surface and dig into the details that drive many of the patterns observed during the discharge.

Honestly, I had no idea where we would be four years out because I did not know where the initial studies would lead us, but they have led us to very fruitful ground that will keep us busy for decades, funding permitting.

OC: What research remains to be done in the Gulf? What are the most important gaps we need to fill for research in the deep-sea, open-ocean or other ecosystems you study in the Gulf of Mexico? How can we fill those gaps?

Dr. Joye: The microorganisms that call the ocean home have enormous metabolic potential and, when exposed to perturbations, it is almost certain that some microorganisms are sentinels that could alert us to changes that are occurring in their environment. There are numerous data gaps – we know so little about the physiology of the billions of microorganisms that are present in a few drops of seawater. What are the dominant organisms and how do they respond to perturbation? What about the rare organisms? Who are they and how do they respond to perturbation? We have to understand the language of microorganisms – their language is spoken in terms of their diversity, physiological capacity and ability to tolerate or adapt to perturbation. We have to understand these three things to know what they are telling us when a perturbation occurs, whether that perturbation is a hurricane, ocean acidification or an oil discharge.

But this is my dream – to develop long-term microbial observatories in the Gulf and elsewhere. When I look at what one long-term ocean observatory site has taught us, Station ALOHA off of the island of Oahu in Hawaii, I know that this is a dream that I simply must make come true.

OC: Thanks for your time Dr. Joye! It has been a pleasure chatting with you and we look forward to hearing more about your future research.

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Fishermen and Scientists Work Together to Track Sick Fish http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/21/fishermen-and-scientists-work-together-to-track-sick-fish/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/21/fishermen-and-scientists-work-together-to-track-sick-fish/#comments Mon, 21 Jul 2014 14:22:59 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8776

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.

Through extensive study, the scientists ruled out other potential causes, such as pathogens or oceanographic conditions, and concluded that the BP oil disaster is the likely cause of the fish lesions. Oil has a distinct chemical signature that allows scientists to differentiate between different origins, and contamination in the sick fish was a better match to oil from BP’s Macondo well than any other source.

For the Gulf, studies that help us understand the lingering impacts of the BP oil disaster are critical to achieving recovery. They are also a reminder that we cannot close the door on studying the effects of the disaster or the impact of our restoration efforts until we are certain the job is complete. The results of the USF study are only the beginning of this story about how fish were impacted by the BP oil disaster. In order to achieve complete recovery, we need long-term research on how lesions and other oil impacts affect the survival and reproduction of fish, how their populations are responding to habitat and water quality restoration efforts, and what that means for the fishermen who first identified the problem.

Location of sampling stations and the percent of skin lesions per station for June–August 2011. The percent of skin lesions at a station is indicated as follows: white circles = 0%, red graduated circles = 0.1–2.0%, 2.1–4.0%, 4.1–6.0%, and >6.0% (from smallest to largest). The gray shading is the cumulative distribution of surface oil occurring during the duration of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) event. Map credit: Murawski et al., 2014

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800,000 and Counting: The Soaring Deepwater Horizon Bird Death Count http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/22/800000-and-counting-the-soaring-deepwater-horizon-bird-death-count/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/22/800000-and-counting-the-soaring-deepwater-horizon-bird-death-count/#comments Thu, 22 May 2014 18:21:58 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8379
According to a new study, scientists estimate that between 600,000 and 800,000 coastal seabirds died because of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, a number far greater than any previous estimate. Understanding the ripple effect of 800,000 coastal birds dying in the Gulf of Mexico is critical to the recovery of this special place. These findings come from a study to be released this summer in Marine Ecology Progress Series, which was recently reported in the New York Times.

This new estimate for bird deaths in the Gulf is unprecedented for an oil disaster. For context, the estimate of dead birds following the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was around 300,000.

What are the ecosystem effects of 800,000 birds dying?

In response to the study results, BP has released statements refuting the methodology and objectivity of the authors. Many of the studies that BP cites as counter arguments have not been shared with the public, and as far as we know, have not been peer reviewed. BP’s veil of confidentiality prevents the public from understanding their methodology and results. This is an obvious double standard, and we must ask ourselves:  who has more to gain from discrediting these findings and underestimating bird mortality than BP?

In order to increase transparency and have an accurate discussion about how to best estimate bird mortality or other impacts, it is necessary for all of the data and methods be on the table. This is critical information that managers and scientists need in order to know the full extent of the injury. And BP is blocking this information because they’re in the middle of a legal battle over the oil disaster.

The bird death  study comes at a time when BP is refusing to pay for key science critical to fully understanding the effects of the disaster on natural resources. This science is part of a series of ongoing studies under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) that BP previously funded. The fact that they are refusing to pay for this science at a time when some NRDA studies are underway, is telling. It is imperative that BP fund ongoing and future NRDA studies. These studies, required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, are designed to assess the extent of injury to natural resources and the subsequent restoration needed to compensate for that injury. Trustee agencies carry out NRDA studies, but the responsible party—in this case BP—is required to pay for them.

As the authors of the new study indicate, it is very likely that even this new examination of bird deaths underestimates the true number of birds killed by the disaster. For example, birds living in the coastal marshes or past 40 kilometers from shore (what scientists call offshore pelagic birds) are not included in the total. The range of impacts estimated in this new study contributes to our evolving understanding of what should be done to restore injured bird populations. Ocean Conservancy is focused not only on tracking the best available science to determine the full impact of the BP oil disaster, but also how we can restore the Gulf’s marine and coastal environments. There are opportunities to use innovative technologies to monitor and restore bird populations in the Gulf. We’ll explore these solutions in a future blog.

To view where some of the coastal seabirds make their home in the Gulf, our Marine and Coastal Atlas has maps of the northern gannet, brown pelican and royal tern.

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