2 years later, fish sick near BP oil spill site

This 2011 photo provided by Donald Waters shows a fish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico with unusual lesions and infections. Two years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, touching off the worst offshore spill in U.S. history, the latest research into its effects is starting to back up those early reports from the docks: The ailing fish bear hallmarks of diseases tied to petroleum and other pollutants. (AP Photo/Courtesy Donald Waters)

This 2011 photo provided by Donald Waters shows a fish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico with unusual lesions and infections. Two years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, touching off the worst offshore spill in U.S. history, the latest research into its effects is starting to back up those early reports from the docks: The ailing fish bear hallmarks of diseases tied to petroleum and other pollutants. (AP Photo/Courtesy Donald Waters)

In this April 21, 2010, photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning. A BP scientist identified a previously unreported deposit of flammable gas that could have played a role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but the oil giant failed to divulge the finding to government investigators for as long as a year, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

In this April 21, 2010, photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning. A BP scientist identified a previously unreported deposit of flammable gas that could have played a role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but the oil giant failed to divulge the finding to government investigators for as long as a year, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

BARATARIA BAY, La. — Open sores. Parasitic infections. Chewed-up-looking fins. Gashes. Mysterious black streaks. Two years after the drilling-rig explosion that touched off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, scientists are beginning to suspect that fish in the Gulf of Mexico are suffering the effects of the petroleum.

The evidence is nowhere near conclusive. But if those suspicions prove correct, it could mean that the environmental damage to the Gulf from the BP disaster is still unfolding and the picture isn't as rosy as it might have seemed just a year ago.

And the damage may extend well beyond fish. In the past year, research has emerged showing deep-water coral, seaweed beds, dolphins, mangroves and other species of plants and animals are suffering.

"There is lots of circumstantial evidence that something is still awry," said Christopher D'Elia, dean of Louisiana State University's School of the Coast and Environment. "On the whole, it is not as much environmental damage as originally projected. Doesn't mean there is none."

Reports of strange things with fish began emerging when fishermen returned to the Gulf weeks after BP's gushing oil well was capped during the summer of 2010. They started catching grouper and red snapper with large open sores and strange black streaks, lesions they said they had never seen. They promptly blamed the spill.

The illnesses are not believed to pose any health threat to humans. But the problems could be devastating to some prized types of fish and to the people who make their living catching them.

There's no saying for sure what's causing the diseases in what is still a relatively small percentage of the fish. The Gulf is assaulted with all kinds of contaminants every day. Moreover, scientists have no baseline data on sick fish in the Gulf from before the spill. The first comprehensive research may be years from publication.

Still, it's clear to fishermen and researchers alike that something's amiss.

— A recent batch of test results revealed the presence of oil in the bile extracted from fish caught in August 2011, nearly 15 months after the well blew out on April 20, 2010, in a disaster that killed 11 men.

"Bile tells you what a fish's last meal was," said Steve Murawski, a marine biologist with the University of South Florida and former chief science adviser for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "There was as late as August of last year an oil source out there that some of those animals were consuming."

Bile in red snapper, yellow-edge grouper and a few other species contained on average 125 parts per million of naphthalene, a compound in crude oil, Murawski said. Scientists expect to find almost none of the substance in fish captured in the open ocean.

— Last summer, a federally funded team of scientists conducted what experts say is the most extensive study yet of sick fish in shallow and deep Gulf waters. Over seven cruises in July and August, the scientists caught about 4,000 fish, from Florida's Dry Tortugas to Louisiana.

About 3 percent of the fish had gashes, ulcers and parasites symptomatic of environmental contamination, according to Murawski, the lead researcher. The number of sick fish rose as scientists moved west away from the relatively clean waters of Florida, and also as they pushed into deeper waters off Alabama, Mississippi and especially Louisiana, near where the Deepwater Horizon rig sank.

About 10 percent of mud-dwelling tile fish caught in the DeSoto Canyon, to the northeast of the well, showed signs of sickness.

"The closer to the oil rig, the higher the frequency was" of sick fish, Murawski said.

Past studies off the Atlantic Seaboard found about 1 percent of fish suffering from diseases, Murawski said. But he said that figure cannot really be used for comparisons with the Gulf, whose warmer waters serve as an incubator for bacteria and parasites that can cause lesions and other illnesses.

— Laboratory work over the past winter on the USF samples indicates the immune systems of the fish were impaired by an unknown environmental stress or contamination. Other researchers say they have come to similar conclusions.

"Some of the things I've seen over the past year or so I've never seen before," said Will Patterson, a marine biologist at the University of South Alabama and at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. "Things like fin rot, large open sores on fish, those were some of the more disturbing types of things we saw. Different changes in pigment, red snapper with large black streaks on them."

Teasing out what might have been caused by the spill and what is normal will be tricky, and that's the challenge scientists now face. Deformities, diseases and sudden shifts in fish numbers are regular occurrences in nature. For example, scientists are not sure what to make of reports from fishermen of eyeless or otherwise deformed shrimp and crabs.

"I've heard everything but shrimp with two heads," said Jerald Horst, a marine biologist retired from LSU AgCenter who writes books about the Gulf. "I listen respectfully. Reports can be useful but are not proof in themselves of cause and effect."

Even if oil were pinpointed as the cause, it could be difficult to definitively tie the problem to the BP spill. The Gulf is strewn with wells, pipelines, natural oil leaks from the seafloor, and pollution from passing ships. And muddy, contaminant-laden water flows constantly into the Gulf from the Mississippi River.

Still, the more scientists look — thanks to millions of dollars in research money, much of it coming from a fund set up by BP for independent research — the more they're finding that may be off-kilter.

For example, last year scientists with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette took cruises in search of crabs, lobsters and seaweed they had been studying in the waters not far from the BP well. They found a surprising lack of diversity.

There saw less seaweed and fewer crabs, lobsters and other forms of life. Also, crustaceans they pulled up had lesions, lost appendages and black gunk on their gills, said Darryl Felder, a biologist at ULL. He said the black coating may be associated with the large amounts of drilling mud used to try to plug the leaking well.

In Barataria Bay, which was hit hard by the spill, scientists say they found dolphins that were anemic and showing signs of liver and lung disease. Those problems have not been linked to the spill. But in the same bay, scientists say they have linked oil contamination to genetic changes in bait fish known as killifish.

Near the BP well, scientists have found a dying community of deep-sea coral. The scientists recently published findings linking its demise to oil that was chemically fingerprinted as having come from the BP well.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advised fishermen to throw suspicious-looking fish back, and fishermen say they have been doing that. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration and state agencies say they have tested Gulf seafood extensively and found no problems, and researchers agree there is little cause for concern.

"It's not a people issue, and people should not be concerned about fish entering the market," Murawski said.

For the second year, fishermen like Wayne Werner, who catches red snapper commercially, are calling in with reports of lesions. He and others said they want to get to the bottom of the problem, which is forcing them to take longer trips to fishing spots outside the spill zone and making them fear for their livelihoods.

"Every time we talked about bad fish, everybody kind of went nuts on us. Just like, 'You're hearsaying,' you know? And we're saying, 'Well, they're there,'" the Louisiana boat captain said this week. "They're still there. Now that the water is getting warm again, we're starting to see more and more again."

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Comments » 28

greathornedlizard writes:

Drill here! Drill now! Pay less!
Frack you!

theabyss writes:

Naw it can't be... The Government told us everything is alright....

volochine writes:

The oil companies told you everything was alright. State governments told you everything was alright. Just do the math. Gallons of oil spilled plus gallons of cancerous disperant released. These toxic chemicals went someplace.

The 3 headed Simpson's fish will soon be found. Mr. Burns might have to take a bite. We now know he hates 7-11 cookies.

ocelot_snake writes:

Drill baby, drill right?

mr_1_term_proposition writes:

The obamaspill continues! I can't wait for president algae, president "one term proposition", president "I'll have more flexibility" Mr 9.00 a gallon gas to actually become a true "one term proposition".

h8snow writes:

What you can see is terrible. What you can't see will kill you. Where did the dispersants go? Out of sight, out of mind was BP's and the Feds mindset at the time. Environmental criminals all and they should be tried for introducing millions of gallons of carcinogenic pollutants into our waters. How can we as a nation dictate to others around the world how to treat their environment when we have destroyd so much of our pristine country (and waters).

joeblow writes:

Da oil was a spillin while da Obama was a chillin!

sunburnt writes:

in response to joeblow:

Da oil was a spillin while da Obama was a chillin!

True dat

MisterK writes:

Non-dispersant flow allows for oil to rise and collect. Dispersant flow is restrained to the seafloor. The same place where these types of fish feed. The cover-up is always worse than the crime. And, it was criminal the way that rig was being run. Drilling in and of itself is not a bad thing. Drilling with investor pressure and mismanagement is a bad thing. The short-term fix on Gulf seafood has come and gone. This news will have intermediate to long-term effects on the image of Gulf seafood. The people have become the fools of nature.

sunburnt writes:

in response to antares9:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Well if you eat that fish first your body would absorb the oil and you would be pissing 93 octane.

Winning!!

cman writes:

Ladies and Gentleman, this is a lesson in free enterprise; that is do not believe all that you are told by them. BP said all the time that environmental effects were minimal.

Regulations that were in place were broken. Efforts to have more regulations on shut off valves stalled in republican committee because they would have cost $100k per well. Remember Health, Safety and Welfare is what the Government does to protect us. Do not believe the rhetoric not all Government is bad.

I pray the Gulf can repair itself in time.

blueblueblue writes:

This entire planet is turning into a sphere of toxins. google "Atlantic Ocean Gyre". It's just getting bigger.
I pity our children, having to grow up on this poor dying planet.

wonderwoman (Inactive) writes:

4.9 million barrels. Where did everyone think it went? What a mess.

SWFLUSMC writes:

One truth is that many of the Northern Gulf's poorest and many small businesses came out of this fiasco GREAT! BP still is spending BILLIONS to "hand out" money, "offset losses" (almost none that can be proven) all out of a interest to do the right thing. The day the earthers stop driving, flying, wearing leather, and cease using any petroleum products; plastics, vinyls, and almost everything, then they can stand on solid ground. Until then, they are all hypocrites without any integrity! We could stop Gulf drilling if Barry and friends would open up federal lands.
It is the same with the liberals and progressives who hate the U.S. but want everything it offers and want anything they deem a "right" handed out for free...
And those who hate the military but wallow in the freedoms and protections it provides all the while they are chanting and protesting.

joeblow writes:

The Gulf was polluted before this spill and now its just a giant cess pool! All the fertilizer run off, freshwater releases, oil spills...what a dump. Just throw your trash in it now. Its to late.

dwyerj1 writes:

It's not just _near_ the deepwater site. Look on Naples' beaches in August when the sand dollars are due. Maybe they'll show up. Most are dead. I've got pics from last year showing oil-soaked beauties.

Here4Now writes:

Don't see much hope for the Gulf, unless drastic changes are made. That'll never happen. Will always be America's toilet bowl/sewer. Very sad.

lionfishhunter writes:

in response to h8snow:

What you can see is terrible. What you can't see will kill you. Where did the dispersants go? Out of sight, out of mind was BP's and the Feds mindset at the time. Environmental criminals all and they should be tried for introducing millions of gallons of carcinogenic pollutants into our waters. How can we as a nation dictate to others around the world how to treat their environment when we have destroyd so much of our pristine country (and waters).

Well stated.

brianorlando writes:

I'm sure all the republicans think this is OK right? Drill some more right? As long as those rich people get their tax cuts.

SNOWBlRD27 (Inactive) writes:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

lionfishhunter writes:

in response to Damyankee:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

The cleanup was performed by private industry.

HAL9000 writes:

This puts a whole new spin on "Fish Oil in one's diet."

privateroad writes:

chinese wells off cuba. this won't be the last spill in the gulf.

wonderful (Inactive) writes:

in response to GOPWhistleblower:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I caught one over the weekend and it begged me not to send it to nkorea or a white house clooney dinner! So through the dogfish back!

So long FiFi!

stopthemadness writes:

the fish are fine....what’s is sick is the how many people lied their way to big payouts from BP, another quasi-governmental- buy your votes kind of program. The real thieves are your neighbors....

joeblow writes:

Ghetto Gulf!

SNOWBlRD27 (Inactive) writes:

Thank you Obama!

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