The BP Oil Spill's Long-Term Threat to Bluefin Tuna

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Bluefin tunaWhen BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most pressing questions was how the environmental disaster would affect the area's other major industry: fishing, and in particular, the highly prized bluefin tuna.

In the short term, Gulf fishing was crippled, as thousands of square miles were immediately closed. But even after some of these areas reopened, scientists and fishermen alike worried about the long-term effect of contamination on the area's bountiful aquatic life. Recently, evidence has emerged to suggest that the oil spill may have an impact far beyond the Gulf, threatening one of the world's most lucrative fishing species.

The controversy surrounds dispersants, the chemical compounds that BP (BP) used to break up the spilled oil. Basically a form of detergent, dispersants make it possible for oil to interact with water, transforming huge oil slicks into microscopic droplets that could seemingly disappear into the Gulf. In theory, at least, this would make it easier for bacteria and weather to further break down the oil, allowing it to dissolve into the environment.

Ignoring a Key Issue?

When BP began using dispersants, many environmentalists fretted that the compounds might harm the area's fragile ecosystem. In response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a two-pronged study to measure the toxicity of various dispersants. Their ultimate conclusion was that the eight dispersants tested -- including Corexit 9500A, the main compound used in the Gulf -- were generally less toxic than crude oil. What's more, the EPA detected little or no increase in toxicity when dispersants were combined with oil. That is, the action of breaking down an oil slick generally did not add more toxins to the Gulf.

According to Peter Hodson, an aquatic toxicologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, the EPA study ignored a key issue. While dispersants don't increase the toxicity of petroleum, they can vastly increase the chances that a fish will interact with oil, and that the oil's toxicity will affect sea life.

"After all," Hodson points out, "Oil toxicity isn't an issue until fish are exposed to it. Unfortunately, as minuscule dispersed oil droplets combine with water, the volume of the oil spill vastly expands. This can increase the risk to fish by 100- to 1,000-fold."

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

One of the big problems, Hodson notes, is a matter of perspective. While oil dispersants make a spill disappear from the water's surface, they don't actually make it go away. For people, who naturally view a spill from above the surface of the water, it's easy to see the effect of oil on birds, people and beaches, but harder to see the effect on fishes and other underwater organisms. That effect that may be increased as dispersants cause oil to combine with the water instead of float on the surface.

Hodson emphasizes that "This can lead to a blind approach when assessing risk, a process that is already difficult in an oil spill. If you are convinced that dispersants are not an issue because they aren't more toxic than oil, then a lot less attention will be paid to what's under the water, and we're a lot more likely to endanger aquatic resources."

This is particularly problematic for the Gulf's sea life, especially eggs and embryos, which, Hodson says, "can't move out of the way of oil." Consequently, they're likely to absorb dispersed oil and the chemicals that it releases. To make things worse, Hodson continues, "embryos and baby fish have thin skins, which makes them more susceptible to chemical contamination. This can lead to 'teratogenic effects,' or deformities."

Bluefin Tuna in the Crosshairs

For the most part, attention has focused on the oysters and shrimp for which the Gulf is known. However, its waters are also home to a wide variety of sea life, including northern bluefin tuna, one of the most expensive fish species in the world. The tuna, which conservationists claim is on track to become an endangered species, spawns in only two areas: the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

While many fish may die because of the contamination, an even bigger problem may be the long-term impact on bluefin breeding. Hodson notes that "petroleum contamination could cause embryos to develop deformities, which can make it impossible for the young fish to grow old enough to reproduce." This, in turn, could leave a major hole in breeding populations over the next few years.

To make things worse, bluefin tuna is already experiencing major problems. Exceedingly popular for sushi, the price of bluefin has skyrocketed over the past few years: In January 2010, a 510-pound bluefin tuna sold in Tokyo's fish market for $175,000. With prices like that, fishermen are eager to reel in the fish.

Hammered at Both Ends

Fearing the bluefin's extinction, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna set a 2010 quota of 13,500 tons, a 38% drop from 2009. In some regard, however, the ICCAT's quota is largely irrelevant: Because of poaching and overfishing, the actual annual tuna yield is likely closer to 60,000 tons.

With so much money on the line, the pressure is tremendous to keep the bluefin tuna industry chugging along. Last month, fishing advocates successfully tabled a European Union plan to radically cut quotas aimed at allowing bluefin stocks to recover. Meanwhile, U.N. attempts to scale back or limit the industry have been blocked by several countries, notably Japan, which has lobbied aggressively to keep fishing quotas high.

Unfortunately, it will likely be years before scientists can fully measure the impact of the BP spill on the fish. During the initial cleanup efforts, it was impossible to directly observe the effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil on bluefin tuna embryos, though Hodson emphasizes that the long-term effect will be a decline in breeding stocks.

However, he warns, with overfishing threatening older bluefin tuna and oil contamination threatening embryos, humans are "hammering the bluefin population at both ends," a process that is likely to lead to a devastating conclusion.

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14 Comments

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shepton

Overfishing by greedy fishermen is a far bigger threat to the tuna than this spill

December 27 2010 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
srailbilputuhs

lacitsileinad
3:10 PM Dec 26, 2010
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WRONG AS USUAL,,,, THE REPUBLICANS GAVE THE RICH TAX BREAKS, AND IN RETURN THE DEMOCRATS GAVE THE UNEMPLOYED SUFFERING THROUGHT THE BUSH RESSECION EXTENDED UNEMPLOYMENT BENIFITTS,, OBAMA HAD NOT VOTE IN IT AND REFUSED TO VETO THE JOINT BILL"""""""""""" Danny Obama signed the bill all had to do is veto it. Must be a lib thing. Lair and chief!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

December 27 2010 at 8:35 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to srailbilputuhs's comment
srailbilputuhs

Danny what is had not vote?

December 27 2010 at 8:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
libluvcheeselogs

lacitsileinad
3:19 PM Dec 26, 2010
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HE DID NOT EXTEND THEM THE REPUBLICANS DID.......YOU ARE THE LIAR+++++++++++ lac you sound upset again.

December 26 2010 at 6:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Tspoon

Six months ago BP was everyone's enemy. Our society united against the crime against humanity. Now BP is back giving me bent over pleasure at the gas pumps, making up for lost time, showing us what you get when you go against the system They will make a profit off of this oil spill, and get away with doing what is right for the victims, and for the world. While we moved on to don't ask and don't tell, BP has moved on to kiss my --- and go to h--l. Why? Because we do not stick together. We are getting reamed at the gas pumps...again. BP should be groveling at the feet of mankind for the atrocities they have committed But because we as a people are so short focused and are lead like sheep, the powers that be stick it to us.. for eternity. They get a tax break for destroying the gulf, we get to dig deeper into our empty pockets to sponsor BP and entities like them in their never ending pursuit of power, wealth and control. They know what they have done to the gulf. We knew too...six months ago. Now we as a people do not think about that anymore. We have moved on to DADT... and so has BP.

December 26 2010 at 5:39 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
srailbilputuhs

Day 48 of BP oil spill. Obama goes to the Ford theatre for another party, doesn’t even acknowledge D-Day 66th Anniversary

December 26 2010 at 8:07 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
srailbilputuhs

Dan have you had any sleep? I have read a few of the articals this week. You need to get some rest before you have a break down. You been on here for hours at a time day in day out. It is ok to be on the net do not get me wrong Dan. But out side of Aol do you have a life? The reason I ask is because for most of the last two years this is what you have done. Cut and paste on Aol.

December 26 2010 at 7:51 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
granaryst

Obama said he was going to do all of these great things. Keep the environment clean. Redistribute the wealth. He's a big ugly, evil, lying, braggart. Vote him and his evil, corrupt Demoncrat cohorts out in 2012.

December 26 2010 at 6:57 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
smithpet8

I can still rermember BPsy Sweet, Public Relationship Campaign about "We'll Be here till B.P. Makes this Right". But will they do WHATEVER IT TAKE?S to Move, or whatever else it takes to restore the Blue Fin Tuna, which could havwe a very real impact on the worlds , possibly , most tasty, fish?? Or will they give a couple of million dollars, to another P.R. firm, who'll say, "we need studies" before we can compenstate the American Public, and the fisherpersons of the world?? I smell a new public advertising blitz. Or will they prove me wrong, and do more than just another P.R. blitz????? We're all watching B.P. Not just words, But action, NOW Please. That's My P?E?R?SONAL OPINION. SPEAKING FOR MYSELF.

December 25 2010 at 10:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
z4rock

THE REAL ECONOMIC DAMAGE IS TO US, CAUSE OIL DRILLING HAS BEEN RESTRICTED. WATCH THE PRICE OF GAS GO UP AND UP AND UP.

December 25 2010 at 6:44 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
z4rock

LAC, YOU LAC THE KNOWLEDGE TO KNOW HOW MUCH OIL SEEPS INTO THE OCEAN EVERYDAY NATURALLY.

WHAT HAPPENS TO ALL THAT OIL? YOU ARE A USEFULL IDIOT TO THE LEFT.

December 25 2010 at 6:42 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to z4rock's comment
srailbilputuhs

Dan are you saying all the fish are dying? lol

December 26 2010 at 8:19 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply