Is the BP Oil Spill Killing Coral in the Gulf of Mexico?

Dead and dying coral has been found in the Gulf of Mexico just 7 miles from the site of the BP oil spill. The discovery is the first evidence that the sea life in the vicinity of the ruptured well may be dying because of the disaster.

The BP oil spill began with an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 men on April 20. All attempts to staunch the gusher failed, until a cap was successfully deployed over the well on July 15. By that time roughly 4.4 million barrels of oil had leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the largest offshore oil disaster in US history.

The discovery of the dead and dying coral was made by scientist aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) ship Ronald H. Brown, which according to Nola.com, returned Thursday from a three-week cruise studying coral reef in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The ship stopped at several locations in a triangular area along the deep slope of the Gulf about 200 miles off the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and westernmost Florida before returning to port in Pensacola. While their mission was not designed to be focused on oil spill research, the scientists noted that its timing and location provided an opportunity to observe any spill impacts on coral.

They reported that soft coral in a 15-meter to 40-meter area was covered by what appeared to be a brown substance. Ninety percent of 40 large corals were heavily affected and showed dead and dying parts and discoloration, according to the scientists. Another site 400 meters away had a colony of stony coral similarly affected and partially covered with a similar brown substance. According to a press release issued by the team, they “observed dead and dying corals with sloughing tissue and discoloration.” The team observed no changes at most other coral locations this year.

The scientist did not reach any conclusions about what may be causing the problems with coral at the two sites where they were observed. They may know more when sediment and coral samples collected by a remote operating vehicle are tested. The brown substance seen on coral will be tested to see if it is oil, and if it is, whether it came from BP’s ruptured well.

“These observations capture our concern for impacts to marine life in places in the Gulf that are not easily seen,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. “Continued, ongoing research and monitoring involving academic and government scientists are essential for comprehensive understanding of impacts to the Gulf.”

In addition to the NOAA, the cruise was co-sponsored by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Scientists from Penn State University, Louisiana State University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Temple University, Florida State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, PAST Foundation, T.D.I Brooks International and C&C Technologies participated in the cruise.

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