Preliminary results from experiments done by University of South Florida scientists on the toxicity of microscopic drops of oil in the undersea plumes from the BP spill show that they may be more toxic than previously believed. The researchers say the dispersed oil appears to be having a toxic effect on bacteria and phytoplankton.
In preliminary results, the scientists aboard the R/V Weatherbird II discovered that oil-droplets are distributed on the Gulf's marine sediments in the DeSoto Canyon. The canyon is a critical area that provides nutrient-rich waters that support the spawning grounds of commercially important fish species on the West Florida Shelf.
Meanwhile, laboratory tests conducted aboard the Weatherbird II on the effects of oil have found that phytoplankton - the microscopic plants which make up the basis of the Gulf's food web - and bacteria have been negatively impacted by surface and subsurface oil. These field-based results are consistent with shore-based laboratory studies that showed phytoplankton are more sensitive to chemical dispersants than the bacteria, which are more sensitive to oil. (USF)
Though more testing is needed to confirm the findings, as well as confirming that the oil originated from the BP spill, if these results hold true it would "confirm our worst fears, that the oil is dispersed by still harming the food web," according to Jeffery Short from Oceana. (New York Times)
That said, the scientists themselves are urging caution, saying it's too early to firmly conclude that these plumes are causing widespread damage. Furthermore, in an immediate practical sense, Dr Short notes pointedly, "As far as the safety of seafood [from areas reopened to fishing], I'd say we have nothing to worry about."
More on the Gulf Oil Spill:
Scientists Hope BP Oil Spill Offers Clues About Global Warming
Nearly 80% of Oil From Gulf Spill Remains in Water, Threatens Ecosystems: Independent Analysis How Much Oil is in the Water at Gulf Coast Beaches (Video)