The Blog Aquatic » gulf http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 19 Sep 2014 14:44:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Judge Finds BP “Grossly Negligent” in Latest Deepwater Horizon Ruling http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/09/05/judge-finds-bp-grossly-negligent-in-latest-deepwater-horizon-ruling/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/09/05/judge-finds-bp-grossly-negligent-in-latest-deepwater-horizon-ruling/#comments Fri, 05 Sep 2014 14:33:19 +0000 Kara Lankford http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9161

Yesterday, Judge Barbier, the judge presiding over a multi-phase trial related to the BP oil disaster, ruled that BP was grossly negligent and demonstrated willful misconduct for its role in  the massive 2010 Gulf oil spill.  Judge Barbier went even further, stating that BP, in fact, acted “recklessly”.  The ruling gave me, and hopefully other citizens of the Gulf, a sense of justice. We’ve known for four years now that BP was responsible for this disaster and quite possibly could have prevented it had they taken into account the risks involved in deep water drilling and planned accordingly. Their reckless behavior caused this spill and the citizens and natural resources of the Gulf will be dealing with the devastating impacts for many years to come.

Speculation about the amount of Clean Water Act (CWA) fines BP may have to pay is once again a hot topic of conversation with this latest announcement. BP’s profits are in the billions of dollars and the fines should be sufficient to make them and other companies vigilant about safety compliance and disaster preparation. Still unsettled is the amount of oil that was spilled during the 87 days before the well was finally capped. Ultimately, most of the CWA fines will be coming back to the Gulf region to restore the environment and economy. In addition to CWA fines, BP must be held accountable for direct environmental damage done by the spill, as required under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). As scientific data on oil spill impacts continues to pour in, it is crucial to hold BP accountable not just for violating the CWA but also for ecological damage through NRDA.

Federal, state and local decision makers are faced with the immensely important task of deciding where and how these monies are ultimately spent. The top priority should be to make sure that those funds are invested in restoration projects that restore the bays, marshes, wetlands, world-class fisheries and ocean habitat that are the backbone of our region’s economy.

This is likely our generation’s only opportunity to restore an ecosystem so vital to our way of life here on the Gulf coast and so economically important to the nation. Unfortunately, funding on this scale often brings many temptations for unwise or inappropriate spending. Rather than random acts of restoration, we need comprehensive, meaningful environmental restoration, and we need to invest in the science that will allow us to take the pulse of the Gulf and better understand its health.

Getting restoration right requires local citizens, decision makers, and community leaders to commit to a comprehensive approach and a reliance on science—not politics—to drive the process.

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Vote for Louisiana Cleanup Volunteer to Win Cox Conserves Heroes Award! http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/09/03/vote-for-louisiana-cleanup-volunteer-to-win-cox-conserves-heroes-award/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/09/03/vote-for-louisiana-cleanup-volunteer-to-win-cox-conserves-heroes-award/#comments Wed, 03 Sep 2014 13:20:24 +0000 Rachel Guillory http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9135

We are so excited that Benjamin Goliwas, a long-time volunteer who helps coordinate the International Coastal Cleanup in Louisiana, has been selected as a finalist for the Louisiana Cox Conserves Heroes Awards. Ben, who goes by “The Admiral,” has organized cleanups around Louisiana for years, and his hard work was crucial in cleaning up the storm debris from Lake Pontchartrain after Hurricane Katrina in 2004.

“After Hurricane Katrina, the things we pulled out of the water and removed from our shores were amazing,” said Ben. “Not just tires, but the whole car; refrigerators still full; dining room tables with the silverware; and just about everything anybody can think of. Every year since, we’ve found something equally unusual, including vessels and pieces of the dock. It’s very dangerous for boaters in the marina.”

In the New Orleans area, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation plays a critical role in mobilizing volunteers, distributing supplies and collecting trash and data cards—not to mention organizing a big party on the lakefront afterward! Thanks to their dedication, thousands of Louisiana residents come together as a community every year to prevent trash from reaching the Gulf, where it poses a threat to marine wildlife and habitats, local economies and even human health.

The 2014 International Coastal Cleanup will be held on Saturday, September 20. Every year, nearly 650,000 volunteers around the world clean trash from beaches, lakes, rivers, streams and other waterways in more than 90 countries. Find a cleanup near you and join us on September 20!

Don’t forget to vote for Ben for the Cox Conserves Heroes Award. The winner receives $10,000 to donate to the nonprofit of their choice!

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Restoration Report Card: Gulf Council Fails at Public Participation http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/21/restoration-report-card-gulf-council-fails-at-public-participation/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/21/restoration-report-card-gulf-council-fails-at-public-participation/#comments Fri, 22 Aug 2014 01:09:56 +0000 Kara Lankford http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9069

Today the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council made some big announcements and provided more information on how they will choose projects to restore the Gulf. We’ve graded the Council’s efforts today, and the results are a mixed bag.

Project selection process: B+

The Council announced that the window for submitting projects to restore the Gulf starts today and will be open until at least November 17. They’ve also provided a detailed strategy on how they will evaluate projects based on science and the goals of the Council. While some questions remain, these details further lay the groundwork for the Council to select projects based on merit, not politics. For example, how will the science reviews be used to further prioritize projects? Will reviewers be permitted to rank projects as high, medium or low priority to guide Council staff recommendations? Will the public have access to summaries of independent reviews to help inform their comments? Answers to these questions are important, but overall, this is great news for the Gulf.

Public participation: F

The Council’s new fact sheet on public participation doesn’t provide details about how they plan to achieve meaningful public engagement across the Gulf Coast. Since the Council was formed with the passage of the RESTORE Act in 2012, they have frequently reiterated the importance of public engagement. In the spring of this year, Council staff made the rounds in each of the five Gulf states to ask conservation nonprofits, community leaders and fishermen for recommendations on how to engage the public in restoring the Gulf. These groups provided input under the impression that a process for participation and involvement was coming. Now, there is no mention of these recommendations in the Council’s fact sheet.

The Council states they “will continue to seek input from the public as it continues its work to plan for and implement large-scale ecosystem restoration projects across the Gulf region.” However, they fail to outline how this will be achieved. There is no website for sending project ideas to the Council and no list of community meetings for Gulf residents to speak out about how Gulf restoration dollars should be spent. The Council should seek public participation as a cohesive body, not as individual agencies or states. This will ensure a coordinated, consistent process across the five Gulf states, and will allow for all council members to hear from the Gulf Coast citizens, from Texas to Florida.

The Council also states “restoration work in the Gulf region will not be successful without genuine and meaningful input from the people in the region.” We couldn’t agree more. With a task so critical and personal to the people of the Gulf Coast, their involvement should be front and center. The Council should stay true to their word and provide a meaningful platform for Gulf Coast residents to be involved in the restoration process.

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How Do We Restore the Gulf Beyond the Shore? http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/18/how-do-we-restore-the-gulf-beyond-the-shore/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/18/how-do-we-restore-the-gulf-beyond-the-shore/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 20:19:54 +0000 Libby Fetherston http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9034

In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, everyone’s talking about how we restore the Gulf Coast. But the Gulf of Mexico is more than what we can see from the shoreline. If we restore the coast without restoring the deep waters, we’re only addressing half the problem.

That’s why Ocean Conservancy has created Restoring the Gulf Beyond the Shore. It’s a short guide to the wildlife that lives in the Gulf’s waters and it explains why it is so important that we ensure the health and safety of our fish, dolphins, seabirds, and whales (yes, whales in the Gulf!).

With over 15,000 species that call these waters home, and dozens of migratory visitors – Atlantic bluefin tuna, sperm whales and northern gannets, to name a few of my favorites – the Gulf plays host to incredible creatures and complex dynamics connecting land and sea. Even before the BP oil disaster, the Gulf was struggling under the weight of dead zones, overfishing, coastal habitat loss and more. With much of this damage underwater and out of sight, restoration becomes even more difficult to define, because we must imagine what we cannot directly see and estimate what we cannot directly count.

Along the coastline, restoration is defined as replacing something that has been damaged. It is a tangible process that creates new oyster beds, marshes and barrier islands. Beyond where the eye can see, however, restoration must take a different shape. Restoring deep-water species and habitats means gathering knowledge through science and technology that we can then use to reduce human impacts and other sources of stress and give marine species the best opportunity to recover on their own. This approach is known as natural recovery and there are few other ways to restore fish, dolphins, turtles or deep-sea corals.

In an era of shrinking budgets, science and knowledge have been something of a luxury in the Gulf. And now restoration funds resulting from this disaster offer an unprecedented opportunity to repair what was damaged, fix chronic problems and enhance what remains. The decisions we make now will impact the region for decades to come, and the only question that remains is: how do we invest in successful and strategic restoration projects and processes that restore the Gulf, on which so much depends?

The long answer? Restoration must be comprehensive: from the rivers that feed the estuaries, to the deepest expanses of the seafloor, where the BP oil disaster began, to the communities that call the Gulf Coast home. We must make smart and immediate investments that address pressing needs in the Gulf, as well as foundational projects that support ongoing and future restoration efforts. If we are going to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect and enhance the Gulf and its unique culture, we must ensure that restoration of the marine environment is an integral part of our approach.

The short answer? Let’s make those decisions count.

Want to make a difference for the Gulf? Tell our Gulf leaders to include marine restoration projects as an essential component of Gulf restoration.

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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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BP Oil Marring Deep-Water Corals 13 Miles Out http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/31/bp-oil-marring-deep-water-corals-13-miles-out/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/31/bp-oil-marring-deep-water-corals-13-miles-out/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 19:09:33 +0000 Rachel Guillory http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8892

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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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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