Marine Life Suffers Near BP's Deepwater Horizon Site

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the May 7, 2012 edition.

Dolphins are washing up dead while fish disappear as oil and dispersants from BP's 2010 spill lurk in Gulf waters and marshes. Last month, Riki Ott, marine toxicologist and former Alaska fisherwoman, said "the Gulf looks a lot like Prince William Sound," the site of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. "Our collapse came four years in. I don't like what I'm seeing with Gulf shrimp, crabs and dolphins." She spoke at an April 20, town hall meeting on the spill at First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans.

Captain Lori DeAngelis, owner of Dolphin Queen Cruises in Orange Beach, Ala., spoke too, and said "the government's got hundreds of dead dolphins in freezers since the spill, and for every one collected another 50 to 250 died in the Gulf and weren't found." She gives wild dolphin tours. "These marine mammals are similar to us in many ways," DeAngelis said. "If humans lived in the water 24 hours a day, we'd be exposed to what's hurting the dolphins."

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said a much larger-than-usual 614 cetaceans, or dolphins and whales, were found stranded and mostly dead along the Gulf Coast in the two years from April 30, 2010--ten days after the BP spill began--to April 29 of this year. They were mainly dolphins. But NOAA also noted that strandings--which are beached animals or those in need of medical attention while swimming--started to increase three months before the spill.

Fionna Matheson, NOAA spokeswoman, said the current Unusual Mortality Event for dolphins began in Feb. 2010 and is part of NOAA's 30 years of monitoring strandings. A UME is a significant die-off of any, marine-mammal population. NOAA is investigating the BP spill as a factor in the current event but "no definitive cause has yet been identified for the increase in stranding in the northern Gulf in 2010 and 2011," Matheson said last week. Eleven stranded Gulf dolphins have tested positive for brucella, a bacteria that causes the infectious disease brucellosis.

In Louisiana,159 dolphins were found stranded dead and alive in 2011, versus 138 in Feb.-Dec. 2010 and an average 20 a year from 2002 to 2009. In the first four months of this year to April 22, 49 strandings were reported in Louisiana. NOAA says strandings probably represent only a fraction of those that died.

In years prior to the spill, NOAA attributed UMEs among Gulf dolphins and whales to biotoxins, infectious diseases and unknown causes.

Noise from seismic equipment used in oil-and-gas exploration has been bothering dolphins too. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management told Texas-based Global Geophysical Services Inc. not to conduct deep, seismic surveys in the Northern Gulf during this year's bottlenose-dolphin calving season from March 1 to April 30. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity want more restraints placed on seismic surveying so as not to disrupt the acoustic cues of dolphins.

Meanwhile, NOAA has also documented hundreds of stranded dead sea turtles along the Gulf Coast since the BP spill. Four of the five species of Gulf sea turtles are endangered and one, the loggerhead, is threatened.

What are fishermen seeing? Charter boat Captain Gregg Arnold, a twenty-year veteran of Gulf waters and owner of Fish In The Land Of Giants, said in New Orleans last week "dolphins tend to stay behind my boat and I haven't noticed anything unusual about them recently. They're smart and know how to crowd fish into a corner." However, what he's observed among fish alarms him. In the water on the east side of Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, Arnold estimated the trout population is down by as much as 98 percent since the spill while redfish numbers are off by 50 percent.

"We've seen redfish and trout with lesions since the spill, and we didn't see that before," Arnold said. "We've noticed a decline in the amount of bait--pilchards, mullet, shrimp and crabs. And sharks are moving closer to shore, probably because they can't find food."

Arnold said "the oil and dispersants were bad, and I can't believe they're all gone. They may not be visible from a boat or by satellite but they're in the water column, and currents are pushing them this way and that. Bait fish are being murdered by the unseen."

Fish numbers to the east of Plaquemines were waning before the spill but have been in rapid decline since, Arnold said. "We've still got the best redfishing in the world but I'm worried this fall-off in numbers will continue. Herring still haven't come back in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill more than 20 years ago."

Arnold and his clients, who come from across the country and other nations, release most of the fish they catch. "The redfish you see in restaurants in New Orleans is mostly farm-raised in Texas," he said.

At the April town hall meeting at First Unitarian, speakers discussed oil and dispersants. Riki Ott said that Corexit used in the Exxon Valdez spill affected wildlife and humans. "The ones who worked with dispersants were the sickest," she said. According to the group Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Corexit used to disperse oil from the Exxon Valdez spill caused human respiratory, nervous system, kidney, liver and blood disorders. Those are the same symptoms suffered by many cleanup workers and some Gulf Coast residents since the BP spill. Corexit is made by Nalco in Naperville, Illinois.

At the April forum, Buras, La. resident Kindra Arnesen, who has young children with BP spill-related ailments, said "we are constantly re-exposed to oil and dispersants where we live." And Dean Blanchard of Dean Blanchard Seafood, Inc. in Grand Isle, said nighttime spraying of Corexit has continued in his area since the spill.

Last month, three U.S. West Coast nonprofits--Center for Biological Diversity, Surfrider Foundation and Pacific Environment--sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for authorizing the use of dispersants without ensuring that they wouldn't harm endangered species or their habitats. The EPA must approve the use of chemical dispersants in an oil spill. The Center for Biological Diversity said dispersed oil is toxic to all stages of fish life and dispersants are dangerous to human health. Dispersants used by BP--Corexit 9500 and 9527--have been banned in the United Kingdom, where BP is headquartered.

Meanwhile, in Barataria Bay in Southeast Louisiana, BP is funding an assessment of the dolphin population as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process since the spill. NOAA, the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, other federal and state agencies and the Chicago Zoological Society are conducting that study. end