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

View Issue TOC
Volume 29, No. 3
Pages 150 - 159


Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Coastal Marshes and Associated Organisms

By Nancy N. Rabalais  and R. Eugene Turner 
Jump to
Article Abstract Citation References Copyright & Usage
Article Abstract

Oil gushed from the Macondo Mississippi Canyon 252 well into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank. A concern, after widespread dispersant use offshore on surface waters and at the wellhead, was that the oil/dispersant mixture would reach valuable, and vulnerable, coastal ecosystems. Standardized oil spill response methodology identified 1,773 km of the 7,058 km of surveyed shoreline as oiled, with 1,075 km oiled in Louisiana. This paper synthesizes key results of published research on the oiling effects on coastal habitats and their inhabitants from microbes to vertebrates. There were immediate negative impacts in the moderately to heavily oiled marshes, and on the resident fish and invertebrates. Recovery occurred in many areas within the two years following the oiling and continues, but permanent damage from heavily oiled marshes resulted in eroded shorelines. Organisms, including microbial communities, invertebrates, and vertebrates, were diminished by acute and chronic hydrocarbon exposure. However, the inherent variability in populations and levels of exposure, compounded with multiple stressors, often masked what were expected, predictable impacts. The effects are expected to continue to some degree with legacy hydrocarbons, or the marsh ecosystem will reach a new baseline condition in heavily damaged areas. 


Rabalais, N.N., and R.E. Turner. 2016. Effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on coastal marshes and associated organisms. Oceanography 29(3):150–159, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.79.


Able, K.W., P.C. López-Duarte, F.J. Fodrie, O.P. Jensen, C.W. Martin, B.J. Roberts. J. Valenti, K. O’Connor, and S.C. Halbert. 2015. Fish assemblages in Louisiana salt marshes: Effects of the Macondo oil spill. Estuaries and Coasts 38:1,385–1,398, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-014-9890-6

Atlas, R.M., D.M. Stoeckel, S.A. Faith, and A. Minard-Smith. 2015. Oil biodegradation and oil-degrading microbial populations in marsh sediments impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon well blowout. Environmental Science & Technology 49:8,356–8,366, https://doi.org/​10.1021/acs.est.5b00413.

Bergeon Burns, C.M., J.A. Olin, S. Woltman, P.C. Stouffer, and S.S. Taylor. 2014. Effects of oil on terrestrial vertebrates: Predicting impacts of the Macondo blowout. BioScience 64(9):820–828, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biu124.

Bernhard A., R. Sheffer, A.E. Giblin, J.M. Marton, and B.J. Roberts. 2016. Population dynamics and community composition of ammonia oxidizers in salt marshes after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Frontiers in Microbiology 7:854, https://doi.org/​10.3389/fmicb.2016.00854.

Carmichael, R.H., A.L. Jones, H.K. Patterson, W.C. Walton, A. Pérez-Huerta, E.B. Overton, M. Dailey, and K.L. Willett. 2012. Assimilation of oil-derived elements by oysters due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Science & Technology 46:12,787–12,795, https://doi.org/10.1021/es302369h.

Couvillion, B.R., J.A. Barras, G.D. Steyer, W. Sleavin, M. Fischer, H. Beck, N. Trahan, B. Griffin, and D. Heckman. 2011. Land area change in coastal Louisiana from 1932 to 2010: US Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Map vol 3164, scale 1:265,000, 12 pp.

ERMA (Environmental Response Management Application). 2015. Web Application: Deepwater Gulf Response Environmental Response Management Application. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, http://gomex.erma.noaa.gov.

Fleeger, J.W., K.R. Carman, M.R. Riggio, I.A. Mendelssohn, Q.X. Lin, A. Hou, D.R. Deis, and S. Zengel. 2015. Recovery of salt marsh benthic microalgae and meiofauna following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill linked to recovery of Spartina alterniflora. Marine Ecology Progress Series 536:39–54, https://doi.org/10.3354/meps11451

Fodrie, J.F., K.W. Able, F. Galvez, K.L. Heck Jr., O.P. Jensen, P.C. López-Duarte, C.W. Martin, R.E. Turner, and A. Whitehead. 2014. Integrating organismal and population responses of estuarine fishes in Macondo spill research. BioScience 64(9):778–788, https://doi.org/​10.1093/biosci/biu123.

Fodrie, F.J., and K.L. Heck Jr. 2011. Response of coastal fishes to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. PLoS ONE 6(7):e21609, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021609.

Fry, B., and L.C. Anderson. 2014. Minimal incorporation of Deepwater Horizon oil by estuarine filter feeders. Marine Pollution Bulletin 80:282–287, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2013.10.018

Head, J.A., and S.W. Kennedy. 2007. Same-sample analysis of ethoxyresorufin-O-deethylase activity and cytochrome P4501A mRNA abundance in chicken embryo hepatocytes. Analytical Biochemistry 360:294–302, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ab.2006.10.033.

Hester, M.A., J.M. Willis, S. Rouhani, M.A. Steinhoff, and M.C. Baker. 2016. Impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the salt marsh vegetation of Louisiana. Environmental Pollution 216:361e370, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2016.05.065.

Husseneder, C., J.R. Donaldson, and L.D. Foil. 2016. Impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on population size and genetic structure of horse flies in Louisiana marshes. Nature Scientific Reports 6:1–11, https://doi.org/10.1038/srep18968

La Peyre, J., S. Casas, and S. Miles. 2014. Oyster responses to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill across coastal Louisiana: Examining oyster health and hydrocarbon bioaccumulation. Pp 269–294 in Impacts of Oil Disasters on Marine Habitats and Fisheries in North America. B. Alford, M.S. Peterson, and C. Green, eds, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 

Lin, Q., and I.A. Mendelssohn. 2012. Impacts and recovery of Deepwater Horizon oil spill on vegetation structure and function of coastal salt marshes in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Science & Technology 46:3,737–3,742, https://doi.org/10.1021/es203552p.

Lin, Q., I.A. Mendelssohn, S.A. Graham, A. Hou, J.W. Fleeger, and D.R. Deis. 2016. Response of salt marshes to oiling from the Deepwater Horizon spill: Implications for plant growth, soil surface-erosion, and shoreline stability. Science of the Total Environment 557–558:369–377, https://doi.org/​10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.03.049.

Marton, J.M., and B.J. Roberts. 2014. Spatial variability of phosphorus sorption dynamics in Louisiana salt marshes. Journal of Geophysical Research 119:451–465, https://doi.org/10.1002/​2013JG002486.

Marton, J.M., B.J. Roberts, A.E. Bernhard, and A.E. Giblin. 2015. Spatial and temporal variability of nitrification potential and ammonia-oxidizer abundances in Louisiana salt marshes. Estuaries and Coasts 38(6):1,824–1,837, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-015-9943-5.

McCall, B.D., and S.C. Pennings. 2012. Disturbance and recovery of salt marsh arthropod communities following BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. PLoS ONE 7(3):e32735, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032735.

McClenachan, G., R.E. Turner, and A.W. Tweel. 2013. Effects of oil on the rate and trajectory of Louisiana marsh shoreline erosion. Environmental Research Letters 8:044030, https://doi.org/​10.1088/1748-9326/8/4/044030.

McNutt, M.K., R. Camilli, T.J. Crone, G.D. Guthrie, P.A. Hsieh, T.B. Ryerson, O. Savas, and F. Shaffer. 2011. Review of flow rate estimates of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(5):20,260–20,267, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112139108

Michel, J., E.H. Owens, S. Zengel, A. Graham, Z. Nixon, T. Allard, W. Holton, P.D. Reimer, A. Lamarches, M. White, and others. 2013. Extent and degree of shoreline oiling: Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico, USA. PLoS ONE 8(6):e65087, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065087.

Moody, R.M., J. Cedrian, and K.L. Heck Jr. 2013. Interannual recruitment dynamics for resident and transient marsh species: Evidence for a lack of impact by the Macondo oil spill. PLoS ONE 8(3):e58376, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0058376.

National Research Council. 2002. Oil in the Sea III: Sources, Fates, and Effects. National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

Nixon, A., S. Zengel, M. Baker, M. Steinhoff, G. Fricano, S. Rouhani, and J. Michel. 2016. Shoreline oiling from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Marine Pollution Bulletin 107:170–178, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.04.003.

Overton, E.B., T.L. Wade, J.R. Radović, B.M. Meyer, M.S. Miles, and S.R. Larter. 2016. Chemical composition of Macondo and other crude oils and compositional alterations during oil spills. Oceanography 29(3):50–63, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.62.

Paruk, J.D., E.M. Adams, H. Uher-Koch, K.A. Kovach, D. Long IV, C. Perkins, N. Schoch, and D.C. Evers. 2016. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in blood related to lower body mass in common loons. Science of the Total Environment 565:360–368, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.04.150.

Pilcher, W., S. Miles, S. Tang, G. Mayer, and A. Whitehead. 2014. Genomic and genotoxic responses to controlled weathered-oil exposures confirm and extend field studies on impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on native killifish. PLoS ONE 9(9):e106351, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106351.

Ramsey, E. III, B.M. Meyer, A. Rangoonwala, E. Overton, C.E. Jones, and T. Bannister. 2014. Oil source-fingerprinting in support of polarimetric radar mapping of Macondo-252 oil in Gulf coast marshes. Marine Pollution Bulletin 89:85–95, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.10.032.

Silliman, B.R., J. van de Koppel, M.W. McCoy, J. Diller, G.N Kasozi, K. Earl, P.N. Adams, and A.R. Zimmerman. 2012. Degradation and resilience in Louisiana salt marshes after the BP–Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(20):11,234–11,239, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1204922109.

Soniat, T.M., S.M. King, M.A. Tarr, and M.A. Thorne. 2011. Chemical and physiological measures on oysters (Crassostrea virginica) from oil-exposed sites in Louisiana. Journal of Shellfish Research 30(3):713–717, https://doi.org/10.2983/035.030.0311.

Theriot, J. 2012. Building America’s first offshore oil port: LOOP. The Journal of American History 99(1):187–196, https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jas074.

Turner, R.E., G. McClenachan, and A.W. Tweel. 2016. Islands in the oil: Quantifying salt marsh shoreline erosion after the Deepwater Horizon oiling. Marine Pollution Bulletin 110:316–323, https://doi.org/​10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.06.046.

Turner, R.E., E.B. Overton, B.M. Meyer, M.S. Miles, and L. Hooper-Bui. 2014a. Changes in the concentration and relative abundance of alkanes and PAHs from the Deepwater Horizon oiling of coastal marshes. Marine Pollution Bulletin 86:291–297, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.07.003.

Turner, R.E., E.B. Overton, B.M. Meyer, M.S. Miles, G. McClenachan, L. Hooper-Bui, A.S. Engle, E.M. Swenson, J.M. Lee, C.S. Milan, and others. 2014b. Distribution and recovery trajectory of Macondo (Mississippi Canyon 252) oil in Louisiana coastal wetlands. Marine Pollution Bulletin 87:57–67, https://doi.org/10.1016/​j.marpolbul.2014.08.011.

Veil, J.A., M.G. Puder, D. Elcock, and R.J. Redweik Jr. 2004. A White Paper Describing Produced Water from Production of Crude Oil, Natural Gas, and Coal Bed Methane. Prepared for the US Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, Contract W-31-109-Eng-38, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL, 76 pp.

Whitehead, A., B. Dubansky, C. Bodinier, T.I. Garcia, S. Miles, C. Pilley, V. Raghunathane, J.L. Roach, N. Walker, R.B. Walter, and others. 2012. Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(50):20,298–20,302, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1109545108.

Zengel, S., B.M. Bernik, N. Rutherford, Z. Nixon, and J. Michel. 2015. Heavily oiled salt marsh following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Ecological comparisons of shoreline cleanup treatments and recovery. PLoS ONE 10(7):e0132324, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0132324.

Zengel, S., C.L. Montague, S.C. Pennings, S.P. Powers, M. Steinhoff, G. Fricano, C. Schjlemme, M. Zhang, J. Oehrig, Z. Nixon, and others. 2016a. Impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on salt marsh periwinkles (Littoraria irrorata). Environmental Science & Technology 50:643−652, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.5b04371.

Zengel, S., S.C. Pennings, B. Silliman, C. Montague, J. Weaver, D.R. Deis, M.O. Krasnec, N. Rutherford, and Z. Nixon. 2016b. Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacts on salt marsh fiddler crabs (Uca spp.). Estuaries and Coasts 39:1154, https://doi.org/​10.1007/s12237-016-0072-6.

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.