The damage the BP oil spill caused to fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico may be even more devastating than previously thought – and the recovery may be much longer and more difficult than expected. New groundbreaking research from the University of California Davis reveals that fish embryos that absorbed oil and were then exposed to sunlight “physically disintegrated” in a phenomenon known as phototoxicity. The alarming study, and its implications, support countless reports from Gulf fishermen that catches have been severely depleted since last year’s massive oil spill.
Here’s how the L.A. Times covered the recent release of the study:
Bad news for the Gulf of Mexico: a study released this week sheds new light on the toxicity of oil in aquatic environments, and shows that environmental impact studies currently in use may be inadequate.
The study, spearheaded by the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory in collaboration with NOAA, looked into the aftermath of the 2007 Cusco Busan spill, when that tanker hit the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled 54,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay.
The key finding involved the embryos of Pacific herring that spawn in the bay. The fish embryos absorbed the oil and then, when exposed to UV rays in sunlight, physically disintegrated. This is called phototoxicity, and has not previously been taken into account when talking about oil spills.
Photo credit to Dr. Carol Vines, UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory
In the photos above, the herring embryos on the left were not exposed to oil. The embryos on the right absorbed oil and were then exposed to sunlight. You can see the cell destruction.
The UC Davis research represents a paradigm shift in assessing oil-spill damage. It is the first time the phototoxicity phenomenon has been observed in the real world, revealing that oil is much more toxic and damaging than experts previously thought.
“This phenomenon had been observed in the laboratory, but had never been observed in the field, and there were even some skeptics out there wondering if this was just a phenomenon that people would see under lab conditions,” said Gary Cherr, director of the Bodega Marine lab. “One of the real take-home messages from our study was: yes, in fact, it definitely happens in the real world.”
The study is sending shock waves through the marine research community down here on the Gulf Coast. My guess is local independent scientists are preparing to conduct additional studies to determine exactly how phototoxicity applies to the BP oil spill and its impact on Gulf marine life.
If the phenomenon applies across different species of fish and different locations, than it will take even longer than expected for our fisheries – and by extension our seafood industry – to rebound.
Stay tuned, this story has legs.
Read the L.A. Times report here: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/environment/la-me-gs-oil-more-toxic-than-previously-thought-20111227,0,3187695.story
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