BP Oil Spill Could Have Long-Term Impacts on Wildlife, Scientists Say

A group of scientists says the long-term affects of the BP oil spill on Gulf of Mexico wildlife are not yet apparent, and that the federal government needs remain on guard for signs of collapse of species in the future. The scientists, a total of 40 from academia, government agencies and nonprofit groups, were attendees at a symposium at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida to discuss long-term responses to the disaster. The symposium was co-sponsored by Mote, the National Wildlife Federation and the University of South Florida.

At the symposium, it was pointed out that five years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the region’s herring fishery collapsed, at least in part because of the oil spill. The scientists hope that by planning now, similar collapses can be avoided in the Gulf of Mexico.

To that end, the group is recommending the creation of a unified research and monitoring effort to detect the first signs of trouble with Gulf species and provide that information to management agencies in an effort head off disastrous effects.

“Right now there is no agency that pulls together and coordinates all the information we need about the Gulf,” marine biologist Michael Crosby, senior vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory, said at the end of the two-day gathering. “Scientists at different institutions might be collecting different pieces of data — but if we don’t put those together, we could miss the big picture until populations crash.”

The scientists expressed concerns about some changes already being observed in the Gulf. That includes dead and dying coral discovered near the site of BP’s ruptured well that we reported last week. The scientists who made that discovery noted that the coral was covered with a brown substance thought to be rotting tissue. Tests are needed to determine if the coral is being killed off because of the spill.

Some of the scientists expressed concerns that predatory species already endangered, including sharks or blue fin tuna, could be pushed closer to extinction because of the spill. Other wildlife that could face long-term impacts include shrimp, menhaden, blue crabs, various types of plankton, coral reefs, sargassum algae, seabirds, tuna, dolphins, sea turtles, and mackerel, tarpon and other sport fish. On Monday, researchers reported that non-toxic components of oil already have made it up the food chain from oil-eating microbes to plankton that are an important food source for fish.

The symposium plans to release a final report in January. In addition to recommending a unified research and monitoring effort, it will recommend the creation of science-based models of how oil could affect the Gulf, creation of long-term research sites to monitor for future oil spill effects and other environmental problems, and money to pay for the new research programs.

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