BP oil spill's effects need watching

Published Feb. 19, 2012

The BP oil spill may have faded from the front pages, but its impact should be monitored for years. That's the lesson from a recent government-funded survey of the Gulf of Mexico that found more sick fish in the area of the 2010 spill than anywhere else. Marine scientists with the University of South Florida and other institutions need to continue their essential research. A minority partner in the BP well agreed Friday to pay a $90 million settlement, but the federal government and the gulf states need to keep holding BP accountable.

In late 2010 and early 2011, longtime commercial fishermen working the area the spill had covered reported seeing lesions and other problems with fish they had never noticed before. Some brought their catches to scientists, who opened the fish and found parasitic infections. They also found the fish had enlarged livers, gallbladders and bile ducts — indications that oil had compromised their immune systems.

Last summer, with funding from the federal government and cooperation from the state's marine science laboratory in St. Petersburg, the USF scientists chartered fishing boats and set out to examine the entire gulf. The group caught about 4,000 fish and reported that the oil spill area had the highest level of diseased fish.

The USF scientist in charge of the project, Steve Murawski, an oceanographer who previously served as a top federal fisheries expert, said the findings do not necessarily link the diseased fish to the Deepwater Horizon spill. That same area, he said, has lots of oil rigs and even natural oil vents on the seabed that could be the source of the contamination. More studies are needed to show whether oil production was the cause and whether the oil came from BP's stricken rig.

But the findings, released last month, have been hailed as a big step by other researchers. An oceanographer at Louisiana State University said the USF survey comports with the impact he has seen on red snapper. And there are signs the lesions may have spread to fish in other areas. More surveying is being done, and the goal is to present a fuller picture of the damage from the spill by April 20, the second anniversary of the Deepwater explosion.

USF and other educational institutions are performing a vital public service by examining the spill's effects over the long term. The surveys will contribute to understanding how millions of barrels of oil and millions more gallons of chemical dispersant impacted the gulf. That will be important in assessing fines against BP and its business partners and managing the gulf's rehabilitation. Many of these impacts will not be clear for years, and Washington and the gulf states need to hold BP accountable for as long as the restoration takes. Protecting the multibillion-dollar public resource that is the gulf must remain a priority for the nation even as the shock of the disaster fades.