For the first time, federal scientists have found damage to deep sea coral and other marine life on the ocean floor several miles from the blown-out BP well — a strong indication that damage from the spill could be significantly greater than officials had previously acknowledged.
Tests are needed to verify that the coral died from oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, but the chief scientist who led the government-funded expedition said Friday he was convinced it was related.
“What we have at this point is the smoking gun,” said Charles Fisher, a biologist with Penn State University who led the expedition aboard the Ronald Brown, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel. “There is an abundance of circumstantial data that suggests that what happened is related to the recent oil spill,” Fisher said.
For the government, the findings were a departure from earlier statements. Until now, federal teams have painted relatively rosy pictures about the spill’s effect on the sea and its ecosystem, saying they had not found any damage on the ocean floor.
In early August, a federal report said that nearly 70 percent of the 170 million gallons of oil that gushed from the well into the sea had dissolved naturally, or was burned, skimmed, dispersed or captured, with almost nothing left to see — at least on top of the water. The report was blasted by scientists.
Most of the Gulf’s bottom is muddy, but coral colonies that pop up every once in a while are vital oases for marine life in the chilly ocean depths. Coral is essential to the Gulf because it provides a habitat for fish and other organisms such as snails and crabs, making any large-scale death of coral a problem for many species. It might need years, or even decades, to grow back.
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