Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Oil Spills Even Worse for Ecosystems Than Previously Thought

In terrible news for the Nigerian delta and the Gulf of Mexico, new research from the University of California Davis suggests that oil is even more toxic than previously thought. Researchers at the university's Bodega Marine Laboratory studied the aftermath of an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 2007, when the tanker Cusco Busan hit the Bay Bridge and leaked 54,000 gallons of oil into the bay. When the team examined the spill's effect on the embryos of Pacific herring, they found that they disintegrated when hit by UV rays, like the ones emitted by the sun. Why is that? Well, the phenomenon is due to phototoxicity, a condition similar to sunburns that often arises when humans on certain kinds of medicine are exposed to sunlight. When oil enters the food chain, fish such as herring absorb it and pass the chemical on to their spawn. If those embryos have high levels oil in them, the chemical reaction that occurs after being expose to sunlight causes them to die. Circle of life = broken.

Until now, environmental assessments of oil spills didn't include phototoxicity in their analyses of how toxic each spill was. If the phenomenon holds true across different species of fish and different locations, than efforts to rebuild fish populations after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 could prove to be even more difficult than they already are. Lord knows what this means for fish stocks in Nigeria.

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