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.
(05/23/2010) To the degree that Americans are paying attention to the environmental plight of marine wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, they may focus most upon dolphins and whales. However, the U.S. public is much less familiar with another marine mammal, the manatee, which could also be placed in jeopardy as a result of the BP oil spill. One of the most outlandish creatures on the planet, the shy and retiring manatee, which gets its name from an American Indian word meaning “Lady of the Water”, is one of my favorite animals.
(05/19/2010) A new NASA image of the Gulf oil spill shows a trail of oil extending hundreds of kilometers south and then southeast from the spill. At points this new oil trail is at least twenty kilometers wide. Media groups are saying the new arm may be additional proof that oil has been caught up in the Loop Current, which would carry the pollution to Florida coastlines and possibly even the East coast.
(05/18/2010) Florida had an unwelcome visitor today as tar balls washed on shore at Fort Zachary State Park in Key West, reports Reuters. Local officials fear the tar balls—small blobs of oil—originated from the Gulf oil spill caused after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig run by BP exploded. If tests determine that tar balls originated from the spill it would confirm that leaking oil is being carried by an ocean current, known as the Loop Current, from the spill site to Florida’s coast.
(05/13/2010) The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is taking its toll on the region’s wildlife: brown pelicans, sea turtles, several species of fish, and now dolphins have been found dead. The National Marine Fisheries Service reported today finding six dead dolphins in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama since May 2nd. Officials are saying the deaths could be related to the oil spill or may be due to natural deaths from calving. They are currently testing tissue samples to determine if oil pollution was a cause of death. Dolphins have been observed swimming in oil-stained waters off of Louisiana.
(05/06/2010) Who is responsible for the great environmental disaster arising from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? As the country reels from the sheer magnitude of the accident, the media has rightly pointed the finger at BP. Yet, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the role of Ken Salazar and his derelict Department of Interior, a government entity which, in theory, regulates offshore oil drilling.
(05/04/2010) America, we deserve the oil spill now threatening the beautiful coast of Louisiana. This disaster is not natural, like the earthquake that devastated Haiti or tsunami that swept Southeast Asia in 2006; this disaster is man-made, American-made in fact, pure and simple. So, while in the upcoming weeks and months—if things go poorly—we may decry the oil-drenched wildlife, the economic loss for the region, the spoiled beeches, the wrecked ecosystems, the massive disaster that could take decades if not longer to recover from, we, as Americans, cannot think smugly that we are somehow innocent of what has happened. You play with fire: you will get burned. You drill for oil 1,500 meters below the surface of the ocean, you open up oil holes across the surface of your supposedly-beloved landscape, sooner or later there will be a spill, and sometimes that spill will be catastrophic.
(05/04/2010) Judging from the oily history of the last ten years, reining in BP could prove politically daunting. A company with incredible economic might, BP has enjoyed privileged access to the inner rungs of Washington power. Only by ridding the political system of insider money can we hope to avert future oil disasters like the devastating spill which hit the Gulf of Mexico last week.
(05/03/2010) Even though they don’t stop over in the Gulf of Mexico, many migrating songbirds could be impacted by the catastrophic oil spill, warns the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). The threats to marine and coastal birds have been well-outlined during the past few days, however birds flying high above the spill could also be vulnerable.