Coral Killer: Deep-water “Dead Zone” Scientifically Tied to BP Oil Spill


The post-spill recovery of the Gulf of Mexico took a couple of big hits this week – revelations that indicate a full recovery may take years to realize.

NOAA released a “damage assessment” study showing that Gulf bottlenose dolphins – nearly two years on from the worst oil spill in U.S. history – are severely ill, exhibiting signs of anemia as well as lung and liver disease (see link to my previous post at bottom). More bad news came from a group of scientists that has definitively tied the “slow death” of dozens of vibrant deep-water coral colonies directly to the BP spill. The two studies stand as troubling bookends to a badly damaged Gulf habitat and food chain: Dolphins sitting atop the web and corals representing the base building blocks of the “chain of life.” The inference is that everything in between is dangerously out of balance.

The one-two punch strikes squarely on the chin of a Gulf limping toward recovery. Nearly two years into the nightmare the prognosis is grim indeed as the results of long-awaited research and testing emerge from the wreckage. Here’s how the Associated Press broke the troubling coral story in a March 26 report:

After months of laboratory work, scientists say they can definitively finger oil from BP’s blown-out well as the culprit for the slow death of a once brightly colored deep-sea coral community in the Gulf of Mexico that is now brown and dull.

In a study published Monday, scientists say meticulous chemical analysis of samples taken in late 2010 proves that oil from BP PLC’s out-of-control Macondo well devastated corals living about 7 miles southwest of the well. The coral community is located over an area roughly the size of half a football field nearly a mile below the Gulf’s surface.

The damaged corals were discovered in October 2010 by academic and government scientists, but it’s taken until now for them to declare a definite link to the oil spill.

Photo credit to the Associated Press

For those who somehow thought we dodged a bullet – that somehow 200 million gallons of oil and 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant weren’t going to inflict long-term damage on the Gulf of Mexico, think again folks.

The impact of the deep-sea “dead zone,” some 7 miles from the blownout Macondo Well, could be far reaching. Coral is a critical part of the delicate Gulf ecosystem. The destruction of one link of the chain ripples through the entire web. More from the AP report:

Jerald Ault, a fish and coral reef specialist at the University of Miami who was not part of the study, said the findings were cause for concern because deep-sea corals are important habitat. He said there are many links between animals that live at the surface, such as tarpon and menhaden, and life at the bottom of the Gulf. Ecosystem problems can play out over many years, he said.

“It’s kind of a tangled web of impact,” he said.

A tangled web indeed. As more research breaks, we will soon see just how far we have to realize a full recovery.

Read my previous post on sick Gulf bottlenose dolphins:

Read the full AP report on the killing of deep-water coral:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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