Deep, cool water coral reefs were discovered not too long ago in the Gulf of Mexico. While coral reefs are generally known to be in warm water locations, like off the coast of Australia, cool water reefs thrive in near freezing temperatures! They are every bit as precious as their more famous colorful cousins. When the Gulf of Mexico coral reef was discovered last September, scientists and researchers were elated. Erik Cordes, a marine biologist at Temple University recalled:
“We flipped on the lights and there was one of the largest coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico sitting right in front of us.”
Sadly, the thrill of the coral reef discovery has turned to dread following the disastrous BP oil spill.
The Gulf of Mexico cool water coral reef hosts a virtual underwater world of corals, fish, crustaceans and anemones – all of which call the fragile reef home. It lies only 20 miles northeast of the Deepwater Horizon, blown-out BP oil rig.
Some that have visited the Gulf since the disaster struck have commented that it doesn’t look too terrible yet…. from the surface. Still undetermined volumes of oil (12,000-19,000 gallons per day on the low end) are spewing out underwater. A continuous toxic stream since the day 6 weeks ago when the explosion occurred.
Deepwater reefs will be affected by the oil spill, but the impacts not as visible as those of the struggling sea birds. Unfortunately, we’ll be witness to the oil-coated feathers and dead birds. But we may not as easily notice the corals that are literally suffocated by the oil coating that experts predict will occur as a result of oil plumes extending underwater in the gulf.
According to Coral Reef Info:
“Coral reefs are the most biodiverse of all known marine ecosystems, and maintain much higher genetic diversity than tropical rainforests. They therefore represent the world’s most significant storehouse of potential future products.” (John McManus, The International Coral Reef Initiative: Partnership Building and Framework Development, report of the ICRI Workshop, Dumaguete City, The Philippines, 29 May-2 June 1995.)
What is threatening the coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico is not pure oil. Scientists calculate that oil droplets are mixing with water, natural gas and the dispersant chemical used by BP, Corexit. The oil and disperasants have an effect similar to dishwashing detergent on the corals, negatively impacting their ability to colonize and reproduce.
Sadly, we are in a reactionary mode now. Scientists do not know the true impact of oil and dispersant on cool water coral reefs, even though oil rigs have been approved for years in the Gulf of Mexico. With respect to the use of dispersant, Lisa P. Jackson, the EPA Administrator observed last week:
“The long-term effects on aquatic life are still unknown.”
Ironically, the environmental studies funded by oil drilling applicants are the very means by which we have been discovering and mapping deep ocean life. Oil companies have literally helped us discover new species in the frigid depths of the ocean.
Discovery is one thing. Protection is quite another. Let us not forget that the oil company applicants have sought permission to drill for oil and gas in the depths of oceans that are teeming with life. Other than ensuring that the drills did not directly damage coral reefs, little additional protections have been required.
Over 100 deep water coral reef sites have been charted between Texas and Florida. Experts agree that there are many more as of yet undiscovered (only about 1% of the cool water coral sites have been located currently).
So what is the good news here? Two things of note. First, deep sea currents are slow moving, which should help minimize the flow of oil which is more greatly dispersed at surface level. Second, scientists believe that sea life in the Gulf may have adapted to low-level concentrations of oil, due to the fact of natural oil seeps from the sea floor.
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