A new study that went viral this week is sending shudders through coastal communities on the Gulf of Mexico – the heart and soul of the region’s legendary seafood industry.
The research, funded by the National Science Foundation and the BP-backed Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, reveals that fish living in the hard-hit coastal marshes are exhibiting the same toxicity symptoms that appeared in Pacific herring in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill off the Alaskan coast. As you may recall, the herring population in Prince William Sound, once one of Alaska’s most profitable fisheries, crashed suddenly and completely three years after the spill – and it has yet to recover 20 years later.
The take-away from the study is that the Gulf’s minnow-like “killifish” are showing cellular damage from last year’s massive oil spill – damage that is diminishing the fish’s ability to reproduce and survive. From a Sept. 26 Washington Post report by Juliet Eilperin:
Fish living in Gulf of Mexico marshes exposed to last year’s oil spill have undergone cellular changes that could lead to developmental and reproductive problems…
… The team of researchers from Louisiana State, Texas State and Clemson universities focused on the killifish, a minnowlike fish that is abundant and a good indicator of the health of wetlands.
Killifish residing in areas affected by the spill showed cell abnormalities, including impaired gills, two months after the oil had disappeared, researchers found. Killifish embryos exposed in the lab to water from the same site, which had only trace amounts of chemicals in it, developed cellular abnormalities as well.
The researchers sampled killifish at six different sites along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana’s Barataria Bay to Alabama’s Mobile Bay. According to the Washington Post:
Researchers started sampling before oil made landfall in May 2010 and continued sampling as late as September 2010. They used satellite imagery as well as photographs to pinpoint where oil had hit marshes.
The researchers also conducted tests in the lab, where the killifish exhibited the same cellular problems they experienced in the marshes. A Sept. 29 editorial in the Daily Comet out of Lafourche Parish describes the lab work this way:
When the researchers exposed the fish to water and sand collected in Louisiana’s marsh, they showed ill effects. Some died. Fewer hatched. Others hatched slowly or had mutations.
It’s the three-pronged thinning of the killifish population – deaths, fewer births, developmental problems – that has experts so concerned. More from the Washington Post report:
“Their biology is telling us that they’ve been a), exposed to these chemicals and b), affected by them in negative ways,” said Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of biology at LSU and the paper’s lead author. “Very low-level exposures can cause these toxic effects.”
…Whitehead said the findings were cause for concern because the fish, also known as bull minnow or cacahoe, were showing the same initial signs of toxicity that appeared in herring and harlequin ducks after Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. These populations crashed, and some have yet to recover.
The bottom fell out of the herring fishery. One day it was flourishing, the next it was gone. Consider this from a July 18, 2010, Houston Chronicle report:
The silvery-blue fish once ran so thick in some places, it was said, you could push them aside with oars when rowing…
After the spill, fishermen enjoyed three years of herring harvests, totaling more than $20 million. Then the little fish vanished.
Since the early days of the BP spill, experts have warned that the toxicity-related issues that killed off the Pacific herring in the ’90s could surface in the Gulf. With the release of this new study, our worst fears are appearing in the distance. More from the Houston Chronicle:
While there is great alarm for bluefin, red snapper and other commercially valuable species, menhaden is the Gulf fish that occupies a niche similar to herring.
The small, oily fish, primarily harvested as bait, is a food source for red drum, sharks, dolphins and pelicans, among others.
Fishery managers had stopped monitoring herring a year after the Exxon Valdez spill because the population appeared healthy, adding to the mystery of its demise. This time, there are plans to watch menhaden closely over several years.
You can bet studies on the Gulf’s menhaden fishery are ramping up as we speak, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on all of them.
Read the troubling Washington Post article here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/gulf-oil-spill-could-cause-lasting-damage-to-fish-populations-study-finds/2011/09/26/gIQAfHKD0K_story.html
Here’s the Daily Comet editorial: http://www.dailycomet.com/article/20110929/OPINION/110929480?p=all&tc=pgall
Read the full Houston Chronicle report here: http://www.chron.com/business/energy/article/Demise-of-herring-after-Valdez-spill-raises-1704999.php
© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved