Scientists find dead and dying coral covered with a brown substance 7 miles from BP oil spill site


A brown substance is killing coral organisms in colonies located 4,600 feet deep about seven miles southwest of the failed BP Macondo oil well, according to scientists who returned Thursday from a three-week cruise studying coral reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The finding is the first case in which researchers have found evidence that living organisms in the deepwater area near the well site might have been killed by oil from the spill.

Penn State University biology professor Charles Fisher, chief scientist aboard the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown said soft coral in a 15-meter to 40-meter area was covered by what appeared to be a brown substance.

“Ninety percent of 40 large corals were heavily affected and showed dead and dying parts and discoloration,” according to a news release reporting the findings by Fisher and other scientists issued jointly by NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Managment, Regulation and Enforcement, which co-sponsored the research. “Another site 400 meters away had a colony of stony coral similarly affected and partially covered with a similar brown substance.”

“While this mission was not designed to be focused on oil spill research, the timing and location provided an opportunity to observe any impacts to our research areas,” Fisher said in the news release. Fisher was unavailable for further comment on Thursday night.

The release said the scientists “observed dead and dying corals with sloughing tissue and discoloration.”

The research cruise was the fourth annual trip to a number of coral reef sites in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The ship stoped at several locations in a triangular area along the deep slope of the Gulf about 200 miles off the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and westernmost Florida before returning to port in Pensacola.

The scientists reported that they observed no changes at most other coral locations this year, and warned that they can’t be certain what was affecting the corals at the two problem sites until sediment and coral samples collected by a remote operating vehicle are tested.

The substance also will be tested to determine if it is oil, and if so, whether it is consistent with the oil released from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said the release.

The Lophelia II research program, named for a species of deepwater coral found in the Gulf, was originally aimed at gathering information from known reefs that could be used to predict where other coral communities could be found. Scientists also were studying whether shipwrecks and oil rigs acted as artificial reefs, attracting various coral species.

Because of the oil spill, however, the information gathered during the cruise also will be used as part of the federal government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment research program aimed at determining the spill’s effects on public resources.

“These observations capture our concern for impacts to marine life in places in the Gulf that are not easily seen,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. “Continued, ongoing research and monitoring involving academic and government scientists are essential for comprehensive understanding of impacts to the Gulf.”

“Today’s preliminary observations highlight the need for continued scientific research in the Gulf of Mexico,” said BOEMRE director Michael Bromwich.

In addition to NOAA, BOEMRE and Penn State, participants in the cruise included scientists from Louisiana State University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Temple University, Florida State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, PAST Foundation, T.D.I Brooks International and C&C Technologies.

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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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