Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 29 Issue 03

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Volume 29, No. 3
Pages 174 - 181

Impact of Oil Spills on Marine Life in the Gulf of Mexico: Effects on Plankton, Nekton, and Deep-Sea Benthos

Edward J. Buskey Helen K. White Andrew J. Esbaugh
Article Abstract

The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill was the largest accidental release of crude oil into the sea in history, and represents the most extensive use of chemical dispersants to treat an oil spill. Following the spill, extensive studies were conducted to determine the potential acute and sublethal toxic effects of crude oil and dispersants on a range of planktonic, nektonic, and benthic marine organisms. Organisms such as phytoplankton, zooplankton, and fish were examined via controlled laboratory studies, while others, such as deep-sea benthic invertebrates, which are difficult to sample, maintain, and study in the laboratory, were assessed through field studies. Laboratory studies with marine fishes focused on the sublethal effects of oil and dispersants, and early life history stages were generally found to be more sensitive to these toxins than adults. Field studies in the vicinity of the DWH spill indicate a significant reduction in abundance and diversity of benthic meiofauna and macrofauna as well as visual damage to deep-sea corals. Overall, studies indicate that while the responses of various marine species to oil and dispersants are quite variable, a general picture is emerging that chemical dispersants may be more toxic to some marine organisms than previously thought, and that small oil droplets created by dispersant use and directly consumed by marine organisms are often more toxic than crude oil alone.


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