On Valentine’s Day, the Gulf’s tuna have broken hearts


It’s not much of a Valentine’s Day for much of America, snowed in by yet another massive winter storm. But here in the Gulf, one of the few parts of the nation that’s snow-free, we’re dealing with a different kind of heartache these days: A flurry of scientific reports documenting the very real, and very traumatic, impacts from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and spill that took place in our waters some 46 months ago. It takes the wheels of academia some time to get rolling, but in recent months a flurry of reports have documented the extreme stress on the marine life, one of the things that people love about our region.

The latest research into the Gulf spill impacts is heartbreaking….literally:

Crude oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill contains a chemical that interferes with fish heart cells, slowing heart rates, reducing the ability of the heart to contract and causing irregular heartbeats that can lead to heart attacks or death, according to new research released Thursday by researchers at Stanford University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The scientific paper, which will be published in the Feb. 14 edition of the journal Science, was discussed by several of the researchers at a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

The research grew out of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, one of the few good things that was required by federal legislation after BP unleashed 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. It looked at bluefin and yellow fin tuna, and the results were predictably disturbing:

The tests revealed that very low concentrations disrupted potassium ion channels in heart membranes that control the flow of molecules into and out of the heart cells that in turn regulate the electrical impulses that cause the heart to contract and relax.

The studies found that certain three-ring versions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found in the oil – which are also found in coal tar, creosote, air pollution and stormwater runoff from land – were what blocked the potassium ion channels, which increased the time it took for the heart to restart on every beat.

Tuna were chosen for the study in part because the BP spill occurred in an area of the Gulf of Mexico where Atlantic Bluefin tuna were spawning at the time of the accident.

The effects are believed to be more of a problem for fish embryos and early developing fish, because the heartbeat changes could also affect the development of other organs, including the lungs and liver, said Nathaniel Scholz, head of the Ecotoxicology Program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

The research is a valuable contribution to our understanding of oil spills and their effect on marine biology, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of frustration at the results, and here’s why. The same government that is financing these academic studies — proving what we already assumed, that oil spills are highly hazardous to the health and well-being of fish and other sea creatures — has done little if anything to mandate the kind of safety measures on offshore rigs that would help ensure that another Deepwater Horizon doesn’t take place. Meanwhike, this Valentine’s Day 2014, offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico — by BP and its competitors — is at a record high.

The government needs to push for the same intensity in oilfield safety and regulation as with this research of what’s happened after it’s already too late. Because another heartbreak like Deepwater Horizon would be too much to bear.

Read more about the research into the oil spill’s impact on tuna at: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2014/02/bp_deepwater_horizon_spill_oil.html#incart_river_default

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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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