Toxic Oysters: Heavy Metals Have Entered Gulf Food Chain, Could Inhibit Reproduction


It’s official: The BP oil spill has poisoned the iconic Gulf oyster. And the fallout, according to scientists, could be devastating to the surrounding ecosystem and the people who work the Gulf waters.

A team from the California Academy of Sciences has been studying oysters for two years, both before and after BP’s oil reached the shores of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. The scientists found significantly higher concentrations of chromium, cobalt and vanadium – three heavy metals contained in crude oil – in oysters collected post-spill. That disturbing discovery has scientists concerned about two potential long-term impacts: (1) The toxicity may be passed along to an array of oyster predators such as sea birds, sea anemones, sea stars, crabs, fish and even humans; and (2) The toxicity may inhibit the ability of oysters to reproduce, potentially diminishing their numbers and straining the organisms higher up the food chain that rely on oysters as a food source.

From an April 18 press release from the renowned California Academy of Sciences:

As the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico approaches, a team of scientists led by Dr. Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences has detected evidence that pollutants from the oil have entered the ecosystem’s food chain… These animals can incorporate heavy metals and other contaminants from crude oil into their shells and tissue, allowing Roopnarine and his colleagues to measure the impact of the spill on an important food source for both humans and a wide variety of marine predators. The team’s preliminary results demonstrate that oysters collected post-spill contain higher concentrations of heavy metals in their shells, gills, and muscle tissue than those collected before the spill. In much the same way that mercury becomes concentrated in large, predatory fish, these harmful compounds may get passed on to the many organisms that feed on the Gulf’s oysters.

Dr. Roopnarine added this: “While there is still much to be done as we work to evaluate the impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the Gulf’s marine food web, our preliminary results suggest that heavy metals from the spill have impacted one of the region’s most iconic primary consumers and may affect the food chain as a whole.” The new study is yet another source of deep concern for the Gulf Coast, which is already reeling from a spate of recent reports that indicate we are just now beginning to see the true impact of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Consider this from an April 20 Mother Jones report by Alyssa Battistoni:

As if eyeless shrimp, toxic beaches, and dead dolphins weren’t bad enough, a new study suggests that Gulf oysters are also in trouble.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences says that oysters in the Gulf contain higher concentrations of the heavy metals found in crude oil now than they did before the spill… They measured higher concentrations of vanadium, cobalt, and chromium – three heavy metals present in oil – in the oysters sampled after the spill. Even more worrisome, the team found that 89 percent of post-spill specimens displayed the signs of metaplasia, a condition in which tissues are transformed in response to stress. Oysters suffering from the condition often have trouble reproducing, which could have worrisome implications for oyster populations and the species further up the food chain that depend on them.

Despite the impeccable reputation of both Dr. Roopnarine and the California Academy of Sciences – not to mention an air-tight methodology – the oyster study has been harshly criticized by some who claim it’s damaging to the Gulf Coast in general and oystermen specifically.

Dr. Roopnarine responded to one critic’s comments in this way: “FACT: The metals are there. No amount of ranting, sticking your head in the sand or environmental extremism on the hand, matters. Not in the least.”

The good doctor speaks the truth. Ignoring a troubling reality doesn’t make it go away. If only it were that easy.

Read the California Academy of Sciences press release on the study here:

Read the Mother Jones report by Alyssa Battistoni 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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