Gulf Researcher Says BP Spill Likely Cause of “Sick Fish” Epidemic: “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This…Ever”


The fear is palpable on the docks from Galveston to Panama City. Commercial fishermen working the waters hardest hit by the BP oil spill are worried sick about their future. It keeps them up at night. Many are convinced the 200 million gallons of crude that spewed into the Gulf last year have done irreparable damage to the fragile fisheries that provide their livelihood. According to a new CBS News segment, Gulf fishermen “have started catching fish with sores, fin rot, and infections at a greater frequency than ever before.”

It would seem BP’s oil is coming home to roost in an epidemic of sick fish and devastated lives. An Aug. 15 CBS News video – that’s going viral as we speak – captures the uncertainty of tens of thousands of commercial Gulf fishermen: “I don’t think we’ll be fishing in five years,” says Lucky Russell. “My opinion. …Everybody is worried.”

Everybody includes LSU oceanography Professor Jim Cowan, who has been studying the Gulf ecosystem for years:

“When one of these things comes on deck, it’s sort of horrifying,” Cowan said. “I mean, there these large dark lesions and eroded fins and areas on the body where scales have been removed. I’d imagine I’ve seen 30 or 40,000 red snapper in my career, and I’ve never seen anything like this. At all. Ever.”

Despite the government’s repeated assurances that our seafood is safe, concern has been building for months over the growing number of visibly sick fish (and other marine life) coming out of the Gulf. From an April 17 report from the St. Petersburg Times:

Over the winter, anglers who had been working the Gulf for decades began hauling in red snapper that didn’t look like anything they had seen before. The fish had dark lesions on their skin, some the size of a 50-cent piece. On some of them, the lesions had eaten a hole straight through to the muscle tissue. Many had fins that were rotting away and discolored or even striped skin. Inside, they had enlarged livers, gallbladders, and bile ducts.

More from the St. Pete report:

The liver, gallbladder, and bile system filter out hydrocarbons – oil components – that the fish might consume while eating their prey. If those systems are enlarged, that means they have become stressed out. That, (Ernst) Peebles (of the University of South Florida) said, “is very consistent with the impacts of oil.”

In speaking to CBS News, Professor Cowan takes it one step further in regard to the cause: “We think from chronic exposure to some environmental stressor, and I think the likely assumption that it has something to do with the (BP) spill is there.”

According to the CBS report, the evidence pointing to the BP spill is becoming overwhelming:

But the 200 million gallons of crude spilled from the Deepwater Horizon last year is at the top of the list because the highest rate of sick fish are being found in the areas of the Gulf that were the most affected by the oil.

“This whole issue seems to be centered between Galveston and Panama City…” Cowan said. “In fact, almost 50 percent of the red snapper that we caught on some of these reefs had had these secondary infections.”

Back in mid-December 2010, I posted lab-certified test results from an 11-pound red snapper caught off the coast of Pensacola. The high levels of petroleum hydrocarbons detected in the fish are in line with the epidemic we’re witnessing today. From my Dec. 16 post (see link and lab results below):

As the “seafood safety” debate intensifies, my research team continues to find dangerous levels of petroleum hydrocarbons in a variety of seafood samples – from jellyfish to royal red shrimp to oysters. The latest example is a highly contaminated 11-pound red snapper caught off the coast of Pensacola in September. The certified lab results show the viscera (i.e., internal organs) to be contaminated with nearly 3,000 PPM of total petroleum hydrocarbons – a dangerous level by any standard. Such high levels of toxicity in the internal organs indicate the snapper may have eaten contaminated food, like zoaplankton, which represents another troubling entry point into the food chain. These results clearly call into question the safety of the seafood coming out of the Gulf.

And it’s not just the fish that are sick. As I’ve reported here before, crabs are coming up from the seafloor with lesions, oil stains and burns (see link to my previous post and photos below). Local crabbers are claiming that catches are down more than 70 percent. From a WWL-TV report, out of St. Bernard, Louisiana:

Bruce Guerra has been a crab fisherman in Yscloskey for 25 years. And since the BP oil spill, he began seeing alarming differences in his catch.

“I guess where he was, he probably was in oil,” said Guerra, as he showed Eyewitness News a crab he’d recently caught. “See how this is all black?”

Guerra said crabs have been coming up dead, discolored, or riddled with holes since last year’s spill.

Now Guerra, and many of the crabbers that work for him, said they’re trapping 75 percent fewer crabs than they were pre-oil spill.

I believe it’s a question of when not if the research will ultimately point to the spill as the cause of this epidemic of sick marine life. There’s no doubt that things are going to get worse before they get better. In the meantime, fishermen will continue their daily struggle to make ends meet in the face of depleted catches and an increasing number of sick fish that cannot go to market.

“If our fish are polluted, nobody’s going to get to go out there and catch fish it,” Lucky Russell told CBS. Tragically, he’s right and only time will tell how devastating the damage will be.

Read the “sick fish” report from the St. Petersburg Times here:

Read my previous post on sick crabs:

Read my previous post (and lab results) on contaminated red snapper here:

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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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