Sick dolphins and dying coral are symptoms of a Gulf in crisis after the oil spill.
It's been nearly two years since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-rig blowout that killed 11 people and spilled over 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. But we are only just beginning to realize the full impact of this disaster.
Researchers studying Gulf species that may have been impacted by the oil spill are starting to release their findings – and the results are alarming.
A NOAA-commissioned study of 32 dolphins living in Barataria Bay, an area of the Gulf known to be heavily oiled, found that many of them were underweight, anemic and showing signs of lung and liver disease. Nearly half were also found to have adrenal insufficiency, a condition that interferes with basic life functions such as metabolism and the immune system.
While most of the dolphins were still alive at the end of the study, researchers have indicated that survival prospects for the sick dolphins are grim. Their prognosis is troubling because the Gulf dolphin population has been facing what scientists call an unusual mortality event over the last two years. Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico – compared to the usual average of 74 dolphins per year – and the majority of those stranded have been found dead.
But dolphins aren't the only Gulf animals in trouble. Researchers looking at deep ocean corals seven miles from the spill source found dead and dying corals coated in a brown substance that was later chemically linked to oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.
The deepwater corals are valuable as indicators of ecosystem health because they provide a unique habitat for other species. "Think of them as an oasis in the middle of this cold, deep area of the ocean," says Ocean Conservancy Conservation Biologist Alexis Baldera. "If the damaged corals don't recover quickly, it could have significant impacts on other species that depend on them."
There are hundreds of studies like these taking place in the Gulf right now, Baldera says, so it will take time for us to see results that tell us more about the state of the Gulf's health. What we do know is that the Gulf is suffering an ongoing environmental and economic tragedy caused by coastal erosion, pollution, overfishing and now the impacts of the oil spill.
"We must move forward with long-term monitoring and research to determine the full extent of the impact and the time for recovery," Baldera says. "By using that science to inform restoration efforts, we can help rebuild a healthier ecosystem so that these populations have a better chance of recovery and so that we have a more resilient ecosystem in the future."
In addition to aiding restoration efforts, a thorough damage assessment will ensure that BP is held accountable for all of their impacts to the region.
As we mark the two-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster on April 20, it is important to remember that we will be feeling the effects of this tragedy for many more years to come. The impacts didn't end when the well was capped, and it will take dedicated effort and funding to rebuild a healthy and prosperous Gulf of Mexico.
Learn how you can help us restore the Gulf of Mexico and other special places across our ocean.
Degradation in the Gulf threatens fish, wildlife, the places where they live and the people who depend on a healthy ocean for jobs and business.
Jobs, food, security and a unique way of life – these are among the many gifts the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem bestows on the region and our nation.
Updates on the progress of Gulf restoration three years after the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster.