Gulf oysters tainted with heavy metals from oil spill

Caption: Oyster shells like this one, collected from the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have been shown to contain higher concentrations of three heavy metals common in crude oil -- vanadium, cobalt, and chromium -- than specimens collected before the spill.
Credit: California Academy of Sciences

Researchers denied access to pure samples of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — BP’s oil continues to have toxic after-effects two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster spewed millions of gallons in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists tracking the long-term impacts have found devastated corals on the sea floor, sick dolphins in coastal areas and most recently, heavy metal contamination in Gulf oysters linked to the oil.

“While there is still much to be done as we work to evaluate the impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the Gulf’s marine food web, our preliminary results suggest that heavy metals from the spill have impacted one of the region’s most iconic primary consumers and may affect the food chain as a whole,” said Dr. Peter Roopnarine, of the California Academy of Sciences.

Roopnarine has detected evidence that pollutants from the oil have entered the ecosystem’s food chain. For the past two years, the team has been studying oysters (Crassostrea virginica) collected both before and after the Deepwater Horizon oil reached the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.

These animals can incorporate heavy metals and other contaminants from crude oil into their shells and tissue, allowing Roopnarine and his colleagues to measure the impact of the spill on an important food source for both humans and a wide variety of marine predators.

The team’s preliminary results demonstrate that oysters collected post-spill contain higher concentrations of heavy metals in their shells, gills, and muscle tissue than those collected before the spill. In much the same way that mercury becomes concentrated in large, predatory fish, these harmful compounds may get passed on to the many organisms that feed on the Gulf’s oysters.

The research team collected oysters from the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida on three separate occasions after the Deepwater Horizon oil had reached land: August 2010, December 2010, and May 2011. For controls, they also examined specimens collected from the same localities in May 2010, prior to the landfall of oil; historic specimens collected from the Gulf in 1947 and 1970; and a geographically distant specimen collected from North Carolina in August 2010.

Oysters continually build their shells, and if contaminants are present in their environment, they can incorporate those compounds into their shells. Roopnarine first discovered that he could study the growth rings in mollusk shells to evaluate the damage caused by oil spills and other pollutants five years ago, when he started surveying the shellfish of San Francisco Bay.

His work in California revealed that mollusks from more polluted areas, like the waters around Candlestick Park, had incorporated several heavy metals that are common in crude oil into their shells.

In one analysis, the team examined oyster gill tissue under the microscope and found evidence of “metaplasia,” or transformation of tissues in response to a disturbance, in 89 percent of the post-spill specimens. Cells that were normally columnar (standing up straight) had become stratified (flattened)—a known sign of physical or chemical stress in oysters.

Stratified cells have much less surface area available for filter feeding and gas exchange, which are the primary functions of oyster gills. Oysters suffering from this type of metaplasia will likely have trouble reproducing, which will lead to lower population sizes and less available food for oyster predators.

The team presented their data at a poster session at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December 2011, and is preparing their preliminary findings for publication. However, their work is just beginning. In addition to increasing the number of pre- and post-spill oyster specimens in their analysis, the team also plans to repeat their analyses using another bivalve species, the marsh mussel (Geukensia demissa).

Roopnarine is also planning to create a mathematical model linking the oyster and mussel to other commercially important species, such as mackerel and crabs, to demonstrate the potential impact of the oil spill on the Gulf food web. Scientists don’t currently know how these types of trace metals move through the food web, how long they persist, or how they impact the health of higher-level consumers, including humans—but the construction of a data-driven computer model will provide the framework for tackling these important questions.

Roopnarine and his colleagues have faced a number of challenges during the course of their study. Unfortunately, pure crude oil samples from Deepwater Horizon have remained inaccessible, making it impossible for the team to compare the heavy metal ratios they have documented in the oysters to the ratios found in the Deepwater Horizon oil. Additionally, the chemical compositions of artificial dispersants and freshwater that were intentionally spread in the Gulf to alleviate the spill are also unknown—additional variables that could affect the team’s research. The team is hopeful that they will eventually be able to analyze these samples, thus shedding more light on their results.


4 thoughts on “Gulf oysters tainted with heavy metals from oil spill

  1. Sounds like a lot more work needs to be done. Apparently the oysters excrete the heavy metals into the formation of shell, which would seem to imply that it is sequestered. They are also quite vague on how much higher the levels of metals are? Trivial amounts or lethal amounts?

    1. Not only that, it’s not 100 percent clear that the metals are linked to the Deepwater Horizon oil, though the circumstantial evidence points in that direction. Apparently, they weren’t able to get pure samples of the oil from the Macondo Well to compare – wonder why … ?

      But if you read on, you’ll see the metals were also found in the soft tissue, not just the shells, leading to “metaplasia,” or “Stratified cells (that) have much less surface area available for filter feeding and gas exchange, which are the primary functions of oyster gills. Oysters suffering from this type of metaplasia will likely have trouble reproducing, which will lead to lower population sizes and less available food for oyster predators.”

  2. I live on Bayou Grande in Pensacola. The oyster set [baby oysters] this year is very low, also I am seeing no baby crabs in a bayou that should be full of them.

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