As we reflect upon the disastrous Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, the largest spill in US history, scientific studies continue to emerge regarding its many environmental repercussions. And although a full two years since the spill, this is still considered ‘short-term’ in the grand scheme of things.
Currently, knowledge of exactly how the spill will affect long-term habitats is at the tip of the iceberg, but a few compelling studies seek to put together the puzzle pieces of what the future Gulf landscape will entail.
For example, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that bottlenose dolphins in the coast of Louisiana, one of the areas hardest hit, showed significant health problems. These include anemia, low blood sugars and low body weight as compared to control groups both before the spill and outside of the affected area. Presumably, though not conclusively, it is believed that this is linked to the significant increase in dolphins becoming suddenly stranded and dying as a result of the spill.
On a larger scale, the spill disrupted the nutritional hierarchy of the region by interrupting the nitrogen cycle by which important microorganisms determine how much food is able to grow within a certain region. Given the special circumstances in which the spill occurred, spilling 53000 barrels/ day for two months along the ocean floor, a large fraction of the deep sea coral reefs in the region were killed and continue to die, destroying the habitat of countless bottom-feeding and invertebrate species.
Sadly, further studies confirm the presence of harmful chemicals and carcinogens at the bottom of the food chain, chemicals that are likely to be retained and magnified as they move up the trophic levels and potentially encounter human palates.
Currently, restoration efforts are being pursued to re-establish the livelihood of countless individuals associated with the fishing industries in the communities affected, whose mental health has shown a steady decline since the spill. Importantly, it will be interesting to see how this restoration occurs while maintaining sustainability for the species in the Gulf region and respecting the ethical ground of sustainable fishing.