The Blog Aquatic » Rachel Guillory News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Wed, 13 Aug 2014 13:00:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 BP Oil Marring Deep-Water Corals 13 Miles Out Thu, 31 Jul 2014 19:09:33 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Photo: Fisher lab, Penn State University

Deep-water corals keep good records, which come in handy in the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Researchers from Penn State University discovered this week that the impact of the BP oil disaster on corals living in the cold waters at the Gulf of Mexico seafloor is bigger than predicted.

This study joins dozens of others on fish, dolphins and birds as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a legal process that’s critical for tracking the damage that started four years ago at the bottom of the Gulf. Scientists first discovered corals coated in a brown substance only 7 miles from the now-defunct BP well in late 2010. The oil left over from the disaster is more difficult to find in the deep sea (in contrast to the coastline, where the occasional 1,000-pound tar mat washes up on shore), so scientists must look to corals for clues on how the marine environment was impacted. “One of the keys to coral’s usefulness as an indicator species is that the coral skeleton retains evidence of the damage long after the oil that caused the damage is gone,” said lead researcher Charles Fisher.

As you can see in the photo above, the normally gold-colored coral has a number of patchy brown growths, which is not found on healthy coral colonies. This coral has been damaged by BP oil.

So how did the oil get so far away from the source? Since these corals are deeper and further away than those previously discovered, Fisher said it could mean that the oil plume could have been bigger than we thought. Potentially, more oil sank to the seafloor than scientists originally predicted.

Not surprising, BP is already trying to refute the scientists’ work, claiming that the corals could have been oiled by the oil and gas that naturally seep up through the Gulf seafloor. However, natural seeps release only 40,000 gallons a day through small cracks in the seafloor across the entire Gulf of Mexico, from Cuba to Mexico to Mississippi. BP released seven times that—2.5 million gallons a day—in one part of the vast Gulf. It seemed obvious that so much oil over a concentrated area of the seafloor would have serious impacts on our deep-sea corals, and after years of careful study, researchers are now providing the scientific links to document those injuries.

Photo: Ocean Conservancy

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Galveston Oil Spill Threatens Multibillion-dollar Investment in Gulf Wildlife Thu, 27 Mar 2014 20:00:01 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Photo: Laronna Doggett

This week, as we recall the moment that the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef just off the coast of a sleepy Alaska fishing town 25 years ago, a similar scene unfolds on the other side of the country. Under heavy fog, a barge traveling through Galveston Bay, Texas, collided with another ship and leaked an alarming amount of oil into the bay from its 168,000-gallon fuel tank. Due to bad weather, the oil is spreading quickly and has been spotted as far as 12 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Response teams are busy trying to contain the oil on the water’s surface with boom and skimmers, but the damage has already been done. Spring is a crucial time for bird migrations in Texas, with an estimated 50,000 shorebirds and seabirds roosting at the Bolivar Flats Refuge only two miles from where the spill occurred. Our partners at Audubon and Galveston Bay Foundation are on the ground reporting a number of birds that have been found oiled. The surface oil also poses a threat to dolphins and turtles, which frequently surface in the bay. The endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles living in the Gulf nest almost exclusively on the coasts of Texas and Mexico.

This time of year is also critical for spawning fish, including red drum, mullet and menhaden, which use the estuaries near the coast to spawn before returning to the ocean. Also, the fishing season is about to get underway off the Texas coast, and this latest spill is terrible timing for Texas’ nearly $2 billion-dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry. It is well established that crude oil is toxic to pink salmon and zebrafish eggs and larvae, and a recent study has established that the same types of abnormalities occur in Gulf species, such as tuna and amberjack, when exposed to crude oil. Researchers studying the impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster determined that fish eggs exposed to relatively low levels of crude oil suffer from deformed or abnormal hearts. Therefore, it is highly possible that fish eggs and larvae exposed to oil in Galveston Bay will be similarly impacted. It is crucial that we monitor and track spawning fish and other animals and any lost fishing opportunity as we begin to pick up the pieces from the recent oil spill in Texas. This information will help ensure that we fully account for injury to natural resources or lost services like fishing or beach use and hold the responsible parties accountable.

This barge spill is unfortunately not the first in the Gulf, and if history is any guide, it likely won’t be the last. While not nearly as large a spill as the BP oil disaster, the Galveston Bay spill is another in a series of historical spills around the Gulf among decades of degradation. These stressors add to the challenge of restoring the Gulf to a healthy, productive ecosystem. However, as a result of the BP oil disaster, we now have the opportunity to restore the Gulf by addressing once and for all the underlying problems. Comprehensive and integrated restoration can help improve the Gulf’s productivity and strengthen its resiliency to future events such as oil spills, harmful algal blooms and hurricanes.

The RESTORE Act, along with monies from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, could give us an unprecedented amount of resources to invest billions of dollars in penalties from BP into projects that restore the Gulf ecosystem, as well as the communities that depend on it. Some of these restoration projects benefitting key species like shorebirds, fish and oysters are already underway, and exposure to the Galveston oil spill could hinder their recovery. With this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the Gulf whole again, we simply can’t afford to have accidents like this that threaten this multibillion-dollar investment in our ecosystem.


NOTE: If you see an oiled animal, do not handle it. Call the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management at 888-384-2000 to report oiled wildlife. For more information and opportunities to volunteer, visit the Houston Audubon Society’s website

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Tropical Storm Karen Leaves Tar Balls on the Beach Wed, 09 Oct 2013 16:00:42 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Residents across the Gulf Coast breathed a sigh of relief last weekend as Tropical Storm Karen dissipated (and as an added bonus, the humidity dropped). But as many of us feared, the storm kicked up more oil in the Gulf as it passed, and a fresh batch of tar balls have washed ashore on Grand Isle, La.

This is an ugly reminder that oil still lurks offshore, and we have not yet seen the end of the oil’s impacts on the Gulf.

Studies are still underway to confirm that the oil in the tar balls matches the oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. In the meantime, the U.S. Coast Guard has ordered BP to clean up the area. Last year, Hurricane Isaac brought tar mats to the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama, one of which stretched 165 feet across the beach.

Tropical storms and hurricanes are a part of life in the Gulf region, and since the BP disaster, we must be prepared for tar balls and tar mats to continue to wash up. Long-term monitoring of the marine environment is crucial to keep our finger on the pulse of the Gulf.

Science is one of the best tools we have to predict if, how and where we can expect to see continued impacts of oil in our marine and coastal environments. To find out more about how the Gulf works as well as the habitats and wildlife the Gulf supports, check out our new atlas.

BP is on trial again this month to determine how much oil was released in the 87 days it took BP to cap the Macondo well. As the debates continue, it’s important to remember that even though the well was capped on July 15, 2010, the repercussions of this disaster will be felt for years to come.

Have you spotted tar balls on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Tropical Storm Karen? Call 800-424-8802 or visit to report it.

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New Photos Serve as Graphic Reminder that Gulf Wildlife Needs Help Mon, 29 Oct 2012 20:27:13 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Credit: NOAA

NOAA recently released several photos of a dead sperm whale found in the Gulf of Mexico just a few months after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began. While NOAA’s scientists were unable to determine the cause of death, this story does serve as a very graphic reminder that more must be done to protect the marine life in the Gulf.

This whale is one of two dead sperm whales that have been reported in the oil spill area of the Gulf. Two whales may not seem like much, but sperm whales are a federally listed endangered species in the United States, and even a small number of deaths could seriously impact their population.

Sperm whales, which can live up to 70 years, can be found year-round in the northern Gulf, and they are especially common near the Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was located. Sperm whales spend most of their time in deep water, diving to the ocean bottom to snack on giant squids and other ocean creatures. With all that diving throughout the water column, it’s possible the whales were exposed to oil or dispersants. The hustle and bustle of oil spill response activities can be equally harmful.

Should we be worried? Researchers across the country are monitoring the effects of BP’s oil on a variety of important species in the Gulf of Mexico, from seabirds and vital fish populations to blue crabs scuttling along the seafloor. These impacts tell us a lot about the Gulf’s health following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Using this information, Ocean Conservancy can ensure the restoration of this national treasure and protect marine life for the future of the Gulf and the communities who depend on it.

Luckily, solutions exist. There are great marine restoration projects that are necessary for the recovery of sperm whales and other key species, such as a large-scale tagging program for marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds. A project like this can help to improve estimations of population size, identify movement patterns, determine mortality and reproductive rates, and to take the pulse of the Gulf to see if we are really recovering from the BP oil disaster.

This is just one of the few projects Ocean Conservancy and other marine experts across the Gulf Coast have identified that can help to turn the tide on the long-term degradation of the Gulf and set us on the right course to a full recovery. If you’d like to learn more about how we can restore the marine environment in the Gulf of Mexico, check out our “menu” of marine restoration options.

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How the ocean helps keep carbon out of the atmosphere Thu, 14 Jun 2012 18:23:06 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Credit: National Marine Sanctuaries

As George Leonard wrote recently, planning for a stormier, warmer ocean is a daunting but important task. That’s already a reality for those of us living on the Gulf Coast, where sea level rise (compounded by coastal erosion) can almost wash away an entire community.

With near-perfect timing, another new study has just revealed that sea grasses can trap 2 to 3 times more carbon than a typical forest. The ocean, not just forests, can play a larger role than scientists previously believed keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. A global team of scientists found that sea grasses can trap 183 million pounds of carbon per square kilometer. These grasses take up less than 0.2 percent of the world’s ocean but account for more than 10 percent of all the carbon absorbed by sea life.

Sea grasses can form vast underwater meadows when they are healthy and where the water is clear and clean enough for these flowering plants to grow from the sandy bottom. Here in the Gulf of Mexico, sea grass beds can be found along all 5 states but form the largest meadows  on the coasts of Texas and Florida, and they provide habitat to a number of important marine life, including dolphins, manatees, shrimp, sea turtles, and—my personal favorite—red drum.

Given the significant loss of this important habitat, including losses form the BP oil disaster, NOAA has identified sea grass beds as a priority for restoration in the Gulf. Ocean Conservancy fully supports sea grass restoration as a priority, given their role as nurseries and spawning grounds for marine life, including many of the fish we like to eat. We also depend on sea grass beds as a buffer against storm surge for our coastal communities, as well as to sustain our vibrant fishing communities.

Now we know that sea grasses can contribute to reducing the warming of the ocean. What other superpowers do you think the oceans are capable of?

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