2 Years After BP Spill, Sick Fish Turning Up

Two years after the drilling-rig explosion that led to the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, scientists are seeing signs such as open sores, parasitic infections, and mysterious black streaks on fish in the Gulf of Mexico that may be due to the petroleum.

In the past year, research has shown that deep-water coral, seaweed beds, dolphins, mangroves and other species of plants and animals are also suffering.

“There is lots of circumstantial evidence that something is still awry,” said Christopher D’Elia, dean of Louisiana State University’s School of the Coast and Environment. “On the whole, it is not as much environmental damage as originally projected. Doesn’t mean there is none.”

Fishermen that returned to the Gulf weeks after BP’s gushing oil well was capped started catching grouper and red snapper with large open sores, black streaks and lesions they said they had never seen before.

There’s no clear cut evidence pointing to what’s causing the diseases in what is a small percentage of fish. The Gulf is assaulted with all kinds of contaminants every day and scientists have no baseline data on sick fish in the Gulf from before the spill.

A recent batch of test results revealed oil in the bile extracted from fish caught in August 2011, nearly 15 months after the well blew out on April 20, 2010.

“Bile tells you what a fish’s last meal was,” said Steve Murawski, a marine biologist with the University of South Florida and former chief science adviser for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “There was as late as August of last year an oil source out there that some of those animals were consuming.”

There was 125 parts per million of naphthalene, a compound in crude oil, in the bile of red snapper, yellow-edge grouper and a few other species. Scientists expect to find almost none of the substance in fish captured in the open ocean.

Last summer, a federally funded team of scientists caught about 4,000 fish, from Florida’s Dry Tortugas to Louisiana.

About 3 percent of the fish had gashes, ulcers and parasites symptomatic of environmental contamination, according to Murawski, the lead researcher. The number of sick fish rose as scientists moved west away from the relatively clean waters of Florida, to the deeper waters off Alabama, Mississippi and especially Louisiana, near where the Deepwater Horizon rig sank.

About 10 percent of mud-dwelling tile fish caught in the DeSoto Canyon, to the northeast of the well, showed signs of sickness.

“The closer to the oil rig, the higher the frequency was” of sick fish, Murawski said.

“Some of the things I’ve seen over the past year or so I’ve never seen before,” said Will Patterson, a marine biologist at the University of South Alabama and at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “Things like fin rot, large open sores on fish, those were some of the more disturbing types of things we saw. Different changes in pigment, red snapper with large black streaks on them.”

Teasing out what might have been caused by the spill and what is normal will be tricky, and that’s the challenge scientists now face. Deformities, diseases and sudden shifts in fish numbers are regular occurrences in nature. For example, scientists are not sure what to make of reports from fishermen of eyeless or otherwise deformed shrimp and crabs.

“I’ve heard everything but shrimp with two heads,” said Jerald Horst, a marine biologist retired from LSU AgCenter who writes books about the Gulf. “I listen respectfully. Reports can be useful but are not proof in themselves of cause and effect.”

Even if oil were pinpointed as the cause, it could be difficult to tie the problem to the BP spill. The Gulf is strewn with wells, pipelines, natural oil leaks from the seafloor, and pollution from passing ships. And muddy, contaminant-laden water flows constantly into the Gulf from the Mississippi River.

That’s little consolation for fishermen like Wayne Werner, who catches red snapper commercially, who are calling in with reports of lesions for the second year. He and others want to get to the bottom of the problem, which is forcing them to travel to further fishing spots outside the spill zone possibly jeopardizing their livelihoods.

“Every time we talked about bad fish, everybody kind of went nuts on us. Just like, `You’re hearsaying,’ you know? And we’re saying, `Well, they’re there,'” the Louisiana boat captain said. “They’re still there. Now that the water is getting warm again, we’re starting to see more and more again.”


Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s