Over 600 scientists met last week at the 2015 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference in Houston, Texas. Presented studies examine the effects of the BP drilling disaster, several showing a vast area on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico where marine life is sparser than it was before toxic “oil snow” settled there almost five years ago. Two specific studies supporting this conclusion are Hatfield Marine Science Center at Oregon State University's research of sperm whales in the Gulf from 2010-2013, and the U.S. Geological Survey's look at fish on oil-stained reefs in 2010 and 2011. In a 1,500 square-mile-area around the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig, researchers found sperm whales that once routinely gathered to feed on squid and other organisms are now avoiding the area, indicating that there are no longer any viable food options. Fish populations on the Alabama Alps and the Roughtounged reefs, both of which were oiled, declined significantly in 2010 and continued to do so in 2011.
These newly emerging studies corroborate other research that has recently been released to the public. This peer-reviewed study found a link between the BP disaster and an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) of bottle-nosed dolphins in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Scientists compared the status and number of dolphin deaths in January 2010-June 2013 with baseline data from 1990-2009 and found that in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, dolphin strandings in 2010 and 2011 were the highest ever recorded in the state. Another study published by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Southeast Fisheries Science Center in December 2014 found that the high levels of deaths in dolphins do not seem to be stabilizing, and this event is in fact lasting longer than any other recorded UME in the Gulf's history.
Florida State University's recent study headed by Professor Jeff Chanton similarly identified an expanse of 3,243 square-miles of Gulf seafloor that remains covered by a “bathtub mat” of BP’s oily residue. Chanton commented in a press release on his fears for marine life in the area's future: “This is going to affect the Gulf for years to come...Fish will likely ingest contaminants because worms ingest the sediment, and fish eat the worms. It’s a conduit for contamination into the food web.” As time passes the full effects of the BP drilling disaster will come to light, but these early indicators suggest that Chanton's fears are well-founded.
Check back for updates on more impacts that were discussed at the Conference in Houston.
Lily Elkins is a Media and Communications Intern with GRN.