Photograph via BOEMRE and NOAA OER Lophelia II expedition
While the news coverage has died down, the lingering impacts on wildlife of the Deep Horizon oil spill are still being uncovered. That includes what's going on far under the surface of the water to deep sea corals. Researchers from Penn State have discovered that seven miles southwest of the disastrous wellhead is a huge bed of dead and damaged corals, and it is suspected that the damage is thanks to the spill.
Using an remote controlled underwater vehicle, the team found the beds of corals about 1,400 meters deep.
Charles Fisher, chief scientist on the cruise and professor of biology at Penn State, Penn State">states, "Although some branches of the coral colony appeared normal, other branches clearly were covered in a brown material, apparently sloughing tissue, and were producing abundant mucous.
"Within minutes of our arrival at this site, it was evident to the biologists on board that this site was unlike any others that we have seen over the course of hundreds of hours of studying the deep corals in the Gulf of Mexico over the last decade with remotely-operated-vehicles (ROVs) and submersibles," Fisher said. "We found that extensive portions of most of the coral colonies were either recently dead or were dying. Most of the soft coral sea fans had extensive areas that were bare of tissue, covered with brown material, and/or had tissue falling off the skeleton. Many of the colonies appeared recently dead, with no living coral tissue, still covered with decaying material, and also with a notable lack of colonization by other marine life, as would be expected on coral skeletons that had been dead for long periods of time."
It's devastating news, in no small part because coral beds are a home to many other sea animals dependent on the corals for survival. The researchers also found that many starfish that live among the corals were in seriously poor health. While analysis is still being conducted to see if oil or the dispersants used for the spill are to blame, the researchers feel it is highly likely, calling the state of the beds and evidence collected so far a "smoking gun."
"The proximity of the site to the disaster, the depth of the site, the clear evidence of recent impact, and the uniqueness of the observations all suggest that the impact we have found is linked to the exposure of this community to either oil, dispersant, extremely depleted oxygen, or some combination of these or other water-borne effects resulting from the spill," Fisher said.
Here is a video from the research done by the team on the corals:
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