GULF SHORES, Ala. — Dolphins and sharks are showing up in surprisingly shallow water just off the Florida coast. Mullet, crabs, rays and small fish congregate by the thousands off an Alabama pier. Birds covered in oil are crawling deep into marshes, never to be seen again.
Marine scientists studying the effects of the BP disaster are seeing some strange phenomena.
Fish and other wildlife seem to be fleeing the oil out in the gulf and clustering in cleaner waters along the coast in a trend that some researchers see as a troubling sign.
The animals' presence close to shore means their usual habitat is badly polluted, and the crowding could result in mass die offs as fish run out of oxygen. Also, the animals could easily get devoured by predators. Already there have been increased shark sightings in shallow waters along the coast.
"A parallel would be: Why are the wildlife running to the edge of a forest on fire? There will be a lot of fish, sharks, turtles trying to get out of this water they detect is not suitable," said Larry Crowder, a Duke University marine biologist.
In some areas along the coast, researchers believe fish are swimming closer to shore because the water is cleaner and more oxygenated. Farther out in the gulf, researchers say, the spill is not only tainting the water with oil but also depleting oxygen levels.
But more oil could eventually wash ashore and overwhelm the fish. They could also become trapped between the slick and the beach, leading to increased competition for oxygen and causing them to die as they run out of air.
The migration of fish away from the oil spill can be good news for some coastal residents.
Tom Sabo has been fishing off Panama City for years, and he has never seen the fishing better than last weekend 16 to 20 miles out. His fishing spot was far enough east that it wasn't affected by the pollution or restrictions, and it's possible that his huge catch of red snapper, grouper, king mackerel and amberjack was a result of fish fleeing the spill.