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How Will the BP Oil Spill Affect the Gulf Food Chain?

President Obama has been shown walking in Gulf waters and having Gulf seafood with his family to prove the safety of gulf seafood. Perhaps a little more research on the long term effects of the BP oil spill might change his mind.

The BO oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon well is by far the largest incident of oil contamination in recorded history. More than nine times the amount of crude oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 was spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to crude oil, almost a million pounds of chemical "dispersants" were pumped into Gulf waters to break up the oil. The effect of these chemicals on the environment and the food chain are unknown, as the chemical makeup of the dispersants is proprietary, so few people actually know what is in it, and the use of dispersants in deep waters has never been done before.

The crude oil contaminating the Gulf is full of toxic materials. The chemicals that evaporate off the oil include cancer-causing chemicals like benzine, and chemicals that are linked to neurological effects, such as toluene. Independent researchers are discovering significant amounts of crude below the sea's surface, including on the ocean floor. They fear the oil that remains could harm species lower down the food chain and affect reproduction rates of fish such as bluefin tuna, which were spawning in the area at the time of the spill.

Researchers at Oregon State University are finding elevated concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico as they investigate the lasting impacts of the BP oil spill. This is a concern for anyone who eats Gulf seafood. As published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, these chemicals accumulate for years in invertebrates. This raises concerns about the long-term safety of seafood-specifically, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and other invertebrates. Other chemicals entering the food chain - eaten by fish and seafood harvested for human consumption -are also consumed by smaller sea creatures that are more distant links in the human food chain.

The purpose of the dispersants was to break up the oil on the surface so it would not wash up onto land. The bottom of the Gulf has layers of oil. This is harmful for several reasons. Hurricanes come into the Gulf and bring up some of the sediment from the bottom of the Gulf and bring more of that crude onto the shoreline into the Louisiana marshes. In addition, plants and animals at the bottom of the gulf are eaten by creatures and absorbed into the food supply.

The government has reopened about 90 percent of Gulf federal waters to fishing claiming all seafood caught in the newly opened areas is safe to eat. In reality, however, oyster beds are all reported to be dead or dying. On October 20, 2010 Pamela Andrews told WCTC News that she bought oysters in Tallahassee on October 18. Ms. Andrews says as she ate them she noticed crude oil all over them. The Huffington Post reports that there are Louisiana shrimp that are toxic. Shrimpers are reporting that shrimp they are catching have a "black substance" in their gills. Scientists at Tulane University have found signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix inside the shells of blue crab larvae, creatures that are part the base of the Gulf's food chain.

Even if and when the shrimp, crab, oysters and fish are visibly oil free, the food they have been consuming is still contaminated. Fungi, algae and microscopic animals forming the base of the food chain are also contaminated by crude oil and dispersant chemicals. Some species of plankton which is food for many sea creatures have been damaged by the oil spill. Any major impact on the bottom of the food chain impacts larger creatures. As the fish and seafood eat this contaminated food supply they become contaminated also.

The real level of impact is not known. Even though there have been more than 35 major oil spills that have occurred in recent decades, there have been virtually no studies done on the long term impact. The effects of an oil spill of this magnitude are not over in a few months. The effects will last for decades, if not longer. It was four years after the Valdez disaster began that local herring stocks collapsed. Even though it has been over twenty years since that disaster, the food chain, the environment, and the local economy have not fully recovered.


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