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Environment: Study finds lingering impacts from Gulf oi spill

 UC Davis scientist Andrew Whitehead collects fish at a field site in May 2010, weeks after the April Deepwater Horizon oil spill. A 2013 study he co-authored shows killifish at oil-impacted sites continue to develop health defects, three years after the spill. Credit: Pat Sullivan


UC Davis scientist Andrew Whitehead collects fish at a field site in May 2010, weeks after the April Deepwater Horizon oil spill. A 2013 study he co-authored shows killifish at oil-impacted sites continue to develop health defects, three years after the spill. Photo courtesy Pat Sullivan.

Fish embryos exposed to oil show developmental abnormalities

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO —Small fish living in coastal Louisiana waters were sickened by crude oil toxicity for more than a year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to researchers from Lousiana, California and South Carolina.

Oil collected from the spill in 2011 continues to show toxic effects in the lab, suggesting there’s a risk of multi-generational exposure, according to Andrew Whitehead, a University of California, Davis, scientist who co-authored the study of killifish, considered an indicator species for coastal ecosystems.

Killifish embryos exposed to sediments from oiled locations in 2010 and 2011 show developmental abnormalities, including heart defects, delayed hatching and reduced hatching success.

When you look at our fish, these are pretty messed-up gills” Whitehead said, explaining that the physiological damage from the oil could compound damage from other impacts like hyper-salinity, hypoxia, or even an influx of land-based nutrient pollution.

The researchers examined some fish from their natural habitat, and brought others back to the lab, where eggs were placed in mesh bags, suspended above the sediments.

Coastal sediments act as reservoir, where it can be re-suspended in the water, resulting in continued, multi-generational exposure exposure, Whitehead said. Additional research will help determine whether there is a potential for more widespread impacts to killifish populations, and whether the impacts are trans-generational, Whitehead said.

Other species that share similar habitats with the Gulf killifish, such as redfish, speckled trout, flounder, blue crabs, shrimp and oysters — may be at risk of similar effects

“These effects are characteristic of crude oil toxicity. “It’s important that we observe it in the context of the Deepwater Horizon spill because it tells us it is far too early to say the effects of the oil spill are known and inconsequential. By definition, effects on reproduction and development — effects that could impact populations — can take time to emerge.”

Killifish are abundant in the coastal marsh habitats along the Gulf Coast. Though not fished commercially, they are an important forage fish and a key member of the ecological community. Because they are nonmigratory, measurements of their health are indicative of their local environment, making them an ideal subject for study.

The researchers collected Gulf killifish from an oiled site at Isle Grande Terre, La., and monitored them for measures of exposure to crude oil. They also exposed killifish embryos in the lab to sediment collected from oiled sites at Isle Grande Terre within Barataria Bay in Louisiana.

In a different study around Barataria Bay, biologists  found dolphins underweight and anemic, with low blood sugar and suffering symptoms of liver and lung disease,. Nearly half of the 32 dolphins studied also have abnormally low levels of hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.

“Our findings indicate that the developmental success of these fish in the field may be compromised,” said lead author Benjamin Dubansky, who recently earned his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University.

Whitehead said the report’s findings may predict longer-term impacts to killifish populations. However, oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill showed up in patches, rather than coating the coastline. That means some killifish could have been hit hard by the spill while others were less impacted.

Whitehead said it is possible that some of the healthier, less impacted killifish could buffer the effects of the spill for the population as a whole.

The findings have been posted online in advance of publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The study was part of an ongoing collaborative effort to track the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Gulf killifish populations in areas of Louisiana that received heavy amounts of oil.

The research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and the National Institutes of Health.

The other researchers in the study are Fernando Galvez, associate professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University; and Charles D. Rice, professor of biological sciences at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. The researchers have tracked the impact of the oil on killifish since the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred in April 2010.

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2 Responses

  1. […] Environment: Study finds lingering impacts from Gulf oi spill (summitcountyvoice.com) […]

  2. […] County Voice article – Environment: Study finds lingering impacts from Gulf oil spill by Bob […]

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