Sick Fish Suggest Lingering Impact of BP Spill

Apr 27, 2012

A lesion on a red snapper found in the area of the BP spill (Courtesy of James Cowan.)

In November 2011, roughly a year and a half after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, commercial fisherman began catching red snapper with dark sores and lesions in the Gulf.

A group of LSU scientists studying the impact of the disaster is still finding large numbers of sick fish -- snapper in particular -- throughout the area of the oil spill.

WRKF'S Tegan Wendland had a conversation with Dr. James Cowan. He says, though the research has not yet uncovered a direct link between the spill and all the sick fish, it could indicate a much bigger problem for the Gulf.

WENDLAND: Can you tell me in layman's terms what you and your team have really discovered?

Dr. James Cowan of LSU is finding red snapper with lesions and sores in the Gulf, and says the BP oil spill is to blame. (Tegan Wendland/WRKF)

COWAN: Our focus has primarily been on the offshore reefs and the reefs that are closest to the site of the spill appear to be the ones in that we can see the most effects. We continue to see this sort of chronic problem of a certain small percentage of the reef fishes which have sores and lesions which we think are probably associated with chronic exposure to an environmental toxin that has compromised their immune system and that is something that we're still working through.

WENDLAND: Are you specifically thinking it could have been the dispersant, Corexit, or the combination of that and the actual oil? What part of the BP oil spill do you think is actually responsible for these lesions, or do you have any idea?

COWAN: Well, the lesions themselves are pretty straightforward; we know the pathology associated with them. The LSU Vet School helped us determine that. The issue is the cause. We've sort of, by process of elimination, eliminated everything but the spill, there's really no other possible cause. I think that the culprit is probably that oil that has remained sort of unaccounted for that sank in response to the dispersant and is still stored on the sea floor.

WENDLAND: So what are the greater implications of findings? Do you think that Louisiana seafood is still safe to eat?

COWAN: Yeah, I don't think that that's ever been an issue. I think that the real paradox in this is that we're starting to see more and more evidence of chronic effects post-spill that are just now starting to play out, more and more things come out every day that indicate that there are, potentially, chronic impacts that we may be dealing with for years. But it really doesn't have anything to do with seafood safety because none of this stuff would ever make it to the market. Plus the seafood is still being rigorously tested.

WENDLAND: Okay, lastly is there anything that we can do now, or do you have an opinion on what actions might be taken in order to mitigate some of these effects?

COWAN: Mitigation is going to be very, very difficult. And it will largely depend on how much oil is actually stored on the sea floor. The things in the future that may occur that may re-mobilize that oil into the water column like a tropical storm. I mean, it's been remarkable that since the two years since the spill we've not had a significant tropical storm pass over the area and it will, eventually, at some point. And that has the potential to uncover a lot of the stored oil on the sea floor, and that to me is something that I think will be quite illuminating when it occurs.