Massive Coral Die-Off Found Just 7 Miles from BP Oil Spill Site

By Andrew Moseman | November 8, 2010 9:44 am

DeadCoralThe Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought us those gut-wrenching pictures of pelicans covered in oil, but up to now there have been mercifully few reports of the disaster causing specific large-scale damage to the Gulf environment. That may be beginning to change: This week oceanographers report a vast swath of coral about seven miles southwest of the Deepwater Horizon site that are coated in brownish-black gunk and dying off. The team says the evidence points to the oil spill as the culprit.

The scientists sailed aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research boat Ronald H. Brown, and used remotely operated submersibles to survey the seafloor and find this devastation.

“The coral were either dead or dying, and in some cases they were simply exposed skeletons,” said team member Timothy Shank of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “I’ve never seen that before. And when we tried to take samples of the coral, this black—I don’t know how to describe it—black, fluffylike substance fell off of them.” [National Geographic]

Charles Fisher of Penn State, the project’s head scientist, said that the goo coating these corals 4,500 feet below the sea surface is most likely not the actual oil from the BP spill.

Instead, he suggests that it is detritus from the water that simply accumulated on the corals as they died. The researchers will be analysing samples of the brown material, as well as sediment samples and tissues from the coral and other animals, to look for significant levels of oil or dispersant. [Nature]

At the moment, Fisher’s team can’t be absolutely sure that Deepwater Horizon was the culprit in this coral die-off; those further tests may prove the case for sure. But the corals dying off all together—and so close to the oil spill—makes the BP oil spill the obvious main suspect. Says NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco:

“Given the toxic nature of oil and the unprecedented amount of oil spilled, it would be surprising if we did not find damage,” she said in a statement. “This is precisely why we continue to actively monitor and evaluate the impact of the spill in the gulf. We are determined to hold the responsible parties accountable for the damage done to the environment,” she added. [The New York Times]

Related Content:
80beats: BP’s Oil Well of Doom Is Declared Officially, Permanently Dead
80beats: BP Update: “Bottom Kill” Nearly Complete, But Oil Found on Seafloor
80beats: BP Report on Gulf Disaster Spreads the Blame Around
80beats: Scientists Find 22-Mile-Long Oily Plume Drifting in the Gulf of Mexico
80beats: Gulf Coast Turtle News: No More Fiery Death; Relocating 70,000 Eggs

Image: NOAA OER Lophelia II expedition

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Duane


  • Catherine Critz

    We need to fine British Petroleum.

  • kevin crossley

    there are really no words that describe this…at least if it was on land their wouldn’t be such a tragedy…animals rely on certain coral to live.domino affect.oil companies wont be happy until our oceans are so polluted ….then they will say ‘this is awful” when i fact they only care about money in there pocket.what i don”t understand is ,all the money they have there”s nothing spent on preventing something like this from keep it up oil companies…destroy our oceans,and leave nothing for future generations to see…at least you’ll be rich…

  • Delta

    There are no amount of fines that will bring this back

  • Mike

    Thank you, Dick Cheney.

  • Ramet in Dallas

    First off, define ‘massive’. Your headline makes theory sound like proven fact when in the body of the story it says, “Fisher’s team can’t be absolutely sure that Deepwater Horizon was the culprit in this coral die-off; those further tests may prove the case for sure”. You should wait for the FACTS to come out before you suggest somthing you cannot prove. Look at the idiots’ postings who have already taken your headline as established fact and have already convicted BP. Coral if fragile and can die from too many reasons. You shouldn’t try this case in a ‘kangaroo court’ of public opinion on purely circumstantial evidence. When you have some FACTS, write you story. Right now you are guilty of libel. For the record, I have no love for any corporation, I just hate to see fear-mongering and scapegoating. Be fair. BTW if you were ‘gut wrenched’ at the sight of a few oily pellicans you would have died to see what happened at Prince William sound after the Exxon Valdez spilled its load. Tone down your adjectives as you leave non for worse horrors.

  • dan

    if you drive a car or take airplane flights or use plastic containers(or any other petroleum product) it is your fault.
    if you stop buying they will stop drilling. real change is from the bottom not the top.

  • John

    You said it Dan.

  • Brian Too

    It’s way down deep, BP will claim there’s no proof, and plenty of people like Ramet in Dallas will rush to defend the space between “suspicious as he77” and “certain to a criminal court standard of proof”.

    How much do you want to bet that while BP will pay a large fine, they will make no admission of guilt or fault. Vague statements will be issued that “mistakes were made”. People were severely spoken to, policies were rewritten, and all parties were not made aware of the situation at the time. Or so they will claim.

    In short there will be no satisfactory resolution for anyone. Every involved party will be pointing the finger at everyone else. No one will stand up and say “I turned Up when I should have turned Down. That was my responsibility.”

    In the end the average citizen will simply stop hearing about the story, and will wonder ‘I hope the oil companies learned their lesson in the Gulf. Whatever happened there?’

  • Incredulous

    I’m sure the coral was dying anyway. In fact, concern for the fragile coral was likely to have distracted BP’s dedicated technicians while they were doing their jobs, and caused the brief little incident of oil seepage we saw earlier this year.

    Perhaps the dying coral itself weakened the wellhead and *directly* caused the leak. It can’t be proven not to have contributed.

    Without BP, we might never have known about this dangerous subsurface hazard! All hail BP, saviour of the seven seas, for clearing the oceans of this scourge!

  • Bruno

    Well, considering all recorded history of human-caused desasters, the propaganda machine gets pumped and things will be covered up, scientists and the police (in this case the coast guard) will be bought, public will be misinformed and reports will get suppressed and publicly ridiculed by astroturfers.

    So… yeah. Just because nothing gets reported doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use common sense to estimate the catastrophy.

    One drop of oil poisons (read: makes health damaging to all living things) ONE THOUSAND LITRES of water. Many drops of oil poison many thousand litres of water. Gallons a second over the course of nearly half a year… will poison… many many litres of water.

    Suggesting that there can be doubt about the spill being absolutely horrible and killing millions of plants and animals (and in the future humans, namely ALL clean-up workers… yes, without a lot of medical attention they will all die from the long-term damages of the same chemicals ALL helpers of the Exxon Valdez died from after a few years without compensation for their families).

    tl;dr: If anything dies anywhere in the Gulf… or a few thousand mile radius around the borehole… then BP will be the most obvious culprit.

  • Mark

    This simply cannot be. BP paid scientists and politicians world wide a lot of money to make the oil just disappear. This type of evidence must simply be minimized, buried or ignored all together. I don’t know what these NOAA people think they are doing! Doesn’t their funding come from the government? They need to get on the the same page as our leaders and stop this silly “digging around” for non existent evidence of a massive spill never before seen in the history of mankind….jerks!

  • tracy

    “thank you Dick Cheney” ….ahhhhh very clever. do YOU drive a car????

    we MUST switch to electric. period.

  • erik

    What did we expect…of course there would be massive coral die off duhhh
    They need to be sued and take that money pay university or non profit to go in there to set up a artificial reef and plant new corals

  • mattie

    Coral growing 4500 feet deep? There is no light, there are no corals. Something is not quite right about this article. Perhaps it is not coral, but something else dying. I don’t doubt that all the oil and dispersant will/have make a mess but again, coral is not able to grow/live that deep.

  • Bahn

    you… are aware there are non-photosynthetic corals right?

  • jcook

    Deep water corals can grow as deep as 6000 feet.

  • scott

    This article proves one thing…there are a lot of idiots, easily fooled by what they say on FOX NEWS who will defend any big corporation and know very little about science and biology and seem to be on here to do just that…defend poor BP and large polluting companies, jumping to their defense. Put a plate of gulf oysters in front of him and offer him a vacation in an affected area and I bet he would think twice about if the oil is really gone and everything is just fine.

  • YouRang

    Amen Mattie. I came to look at this article because I had never heard of coral that wasn’t living in a symbiotic relationship with algae. Jcook claims there are other corals.

  • jcook
  • Eliza Strickland

    @ Mattie, YouRang:

    Here’s some info about deep water corals. They grow more slowly than tropical corals because they don’t have zooxanthellae that live on them and feed them.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Luke Thomas

    COOL! Let’s hope all the wildlife dies in the Gulf. That way you don’t have to worry about it anymore and DRILL BABY DRILL to your heart’s content!!

  • mattie

    Hey – learned something new – admittedly I should have looked up deep water coral before posting. To the highly learned posters/editors – please accept my apology! Good to live and learn… I hope my post was clear in regards to my belief that this oil spill and the dispersant used is already causing damage and will no doubt cause more. Not sure if ‘scott’s’ comment was aimed at me, but I certainly did not defend BP or even watch fox news…
    Never mind, and thanks again to the editor and others for providing links on deep water coral

  • John Routledge

    I’m still confused as to why people are so quick to blaim BP for the majority of the spill. The platform accident was almost certainly their fault, and not closing the valve on the way out may have been their fault, but then robots pressed the manual close button on the sea bed and nothing happened. That’s when the acident ended and the disaster began.

    Why do you continue to blaim the driver when it has been repeatedly proven beyond all possible and reasonable doubt that the breaks simply didn’t work? Unless anyone wants to claim here that all the other oil multinationals were testing their BOPs 100 times more often than BP?

  • Eliza Strickland

    @ John Routledge: The government panel that investigated the spill faulted BP for “a culture of complacency” rather than a “culture of safety.” From the LA Times coverage: “The panel’s investigators uncovered “a suite of bad decisions,” many still inexplicable, involving tests that were poorly run, alarming results that were ignored, proper equipment that was sidelined and safety barriers that were removed prematurely at the high-pressure well.”

  • Brian Too

    @25. John Routledge,

    Your error is the same error that the oil companies made, which is an over-reliance upon fallible Blow-Out Preventers. The BOP’s were repeatedly advertised to the decision-makers and the public as “infallible”. That’s a crock and any engineer worth their salt knows it. All human technology is fallible and the BOP’s are more fallible than many ‘last line of defence’ systems.

    By analogy. Suppose you carelessly drive straight for a wall, hit it, and your air bag fails to deploy. Your face gets messed up due to hitting the dashboard, worse than had the air bags deployed.

    Who is responsible? The air bag manufacturer or automobile manufacturer for making (presumably) faulty equipment? Or you for carelessly driving towards the wall?

    BP carelessly drove towards the wall and put all their proverbial eggs in the BOP basket. That’s a mistake they should pay for.


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