The catastrophists were wrong (again) about the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. There have been no major fish die-offs. On the contrary, a comprehensive new study says that in some of the most heavily fished areas of the Gulf of Mexico, various forms of sea life, from shrimp to sharks, have seen their populations triple since before the spill. Some species, including shrimp and croaker, did even better.
And meanwhile, the media has greatly exaggerated damage found in studies about coral, which is in some ways more vulnerable to oil and dispersant. Most of it is doing fine.
The growth of the fish population is not occurring because oil is good for fish. Rather, it is occurring because fishing is bad for fish. When fishing was banned for months during the spill, the Gulf of Mexico experienced an unprecedented marine renaissance that overwhelmed any negative environmental consequences the oil may have had, researchers say.
Even the researchers themselves, however, were surprised by the results. “We expected there to be virtually no fish out there based on all the reports we were getting about the toxicity of the dispersant and the toxicity of the hydrocarbons, and reports that hypoxia [low oxygen] had been created as a result of the oil and dispersant,” says John Valentine, who directed the study. “In every way you can imagine, it should have been a hostile environment for fish and crabs; our collection showed that was not the case.”
Also surprising was how quickly the populations grew. “In the cosmic scheme of things, a matter of four or five months led to this huge difference in everything, sharks, fish of all forms, even the juvenile fish found in sea-grass beds. That’s a pretty interesting and unanticipated outcome, I would say,” says Valentine. The surge is so robust, he says, that it may be impossible to determine whether the oil spill has had any effect on sea life at all.
Valentine says the study doesn’t let BP off the hook — Gulf fishermen have suffered real and costly damage from the closure and from what he calls the “sociological phenomenon” that’s scared consumers away from Gulf seafood. But nor does it excuse President Obama’s disastrous panic and overreaction in temporarily banning oil drilling in the Gulf, especially since official reports are now saying that the oil will be disposed of naturally, as experts predicted. Oil is being measured in parts per billion — meaning the water is safe enough to drink — and very little has been found on the ocean bottom. Much of it has been eaten by bacteria native to the Gulf’s oil seeps, and another new study shows that other microscopic creatures including flagellates and ciliates ate the bacteria, and in turn provided food for plankton.
The Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a teaching and research consortium of 22 colleges and universities in Alabama, ran the fish-population study. Asked why the group has been virtually invisible in the national media, Valentine says that, unlike some scientists, they refrained from speculating about the impact of the spill until they had real evidence.
Although the early report has not been peer reviewed, it is credible — this kind of research isn’t anything new for the Sea Lab folks. They’ve been conducting surveys off the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama for years, which gives them a baseline with which to compare the post-spill numbers. Their methodology is powerful because it is simple and straightforward: They drag a net through eleven different survey sites up to 60 miles off the coast, then weigh, classify, and count the critters they snare.
According to Valentine, the last word will come in the spring — before heavy commercial fishing begins again — with a follow-up study. Already, however, anecdotal reports support the finding: Darrell Carpenter, president of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, was recently quoted as saying, “The fish are off the charts. There are no fewer fish. There are more fish, because they’ve been un-harassed all summer. There are more and bigger fish.” NOAA has said there have been no fish kills tied to oil, has certified seafood in the Gulf as safe, and has reopened most of the water there for fishing.
Fish and shrimp aren’t the only creatures that have survived the spill. Two other recent reports have looked at what happened to deep sea-coral formations, which, unlike fish, can’t get out of the way of toxins or water low in oxygen. Media outlets including the New York Times recently ran stories about a dying patch of coral that was found, coated with an unidentified material, seven miles from the Deepwater site.