Researchers begin studying long-term effects of oil spill on marine life

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
May 25, 2010



As a White House official today announced that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the worst in US history—surpassing even the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 (which is still affecting the area today)—marine biologist are beginning to prepare studies to monitor how the spill will impact the gulf in the long-term.

Scientists have begun collecting and analyzing three different mollusk species from the Gulf coast—oysters, clams, and periwinkles—to determine if contaminants from the spill have already invaded these species' shells. Mollusks continuously build their shells, and if pollution is present in the environment they may incorporate the contaminants into their shells.

"We know that mollusks can capture this kind of information in their shells because of our ongoing work in San Francisco Bay," explains one of the researchers, Peter Roopnarine, curator of Geology at the California Academy of Sciences. "We have been analyzing shellfish from across the Bay over the past three years, and we have documented that the animals from the more polluted areas, like the waters around Candlestick Park, have incorporated vanadium and nickel into their shells—two metals that are common in crude oil. It appears that the metals can be substituted for calcium as the animals build their calcium-carbonate shells."

Over time the researchers will measure growth rate and survival of the species to determine how the spill is impacting the mollusks, which, as primary consumers, will be among the first animals to begin showing contamination. In addition since oyster fisheries are important to the region economically, the research will help establish the amount of pollution present in oysters.

Scientists say that the hydrocarbons and heavy metals from the oil will move from the mollusks throughout the food chain. Hydrocarbons, which can be carcinogenic, will eventually break down, but no one knows how long the heavy metals will remain in the marine food-chain.

To establish a baseline for their research the scientists began collecting samples not long after the oil spill from two sites: Grand Isle, Louisiana and Dauphin, Alabama. They will continue taking samples throughout the summer.

Recent research on the long-term affects of the Exxon Mobil spill found that Harlequin ducks, which are particularly susceptible to oil pollution, were still exposed to residual oil twenty years after the spill occurred. Harlequin ducks feed on invertebrates like insects, crustaceans, and mollusks. If they are still impacted, it is likely other vulnerable species are as well.







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CITATION:
Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (May 25, 2010).

Researchers begin studying long-term effects of oil spill on marine life .

http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0525-hance_longterm_oil.html