Is the Gulf Getting Better? A Marine Toxicologist Weighs In

Marine Environmental Research Institute

Is the Gulf Getting Better? A Marine Toxicologist Weighs In

The disastrous Gulf oil spill should have taught a broader lesson about the fragility of our oceans. How well have we learned it?

By Julie Leibach
Published: 04/20/2012

Two years ago marine toxicologist Susan Shaw dove into the Gulf of Mexico and discovered a nightmare. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill had unleashed torrents of toxic oil, made worse with chemical dispersants, causing a reign of death and illness. Armed with this experience, she collaborated with 13 other scientists as part of the Strategic Sciences Working Group, convened by the Department of the Interior, to assess the consequences of the oil spill and make policy recommendations to the federal government. As founder and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine, she is now launching a new campaign to promote ocean health.

Last year, Audubon's Women in Conservation committee honored Shaw, among other women, for her dedication to mitigating the Gulf spill's impacts. A Woodrow Wilson visiting fellow and recipient of numerous other awards, in March Shaw received the Explorers Club Citation of Merit Award for "extraordinary feats of exploration and research." Here, she reflects on that fateful dive and how the Gulf, and our oceans in general, are faring.


You were the first toxicologist to dive into the Gulf of Mexico about a month after the spill, on May 24th 2010. What was that like? 

There were thick blankets of oil on the surface that were being sprayed heavily, day and night, with Corexit dispersant. I was on a boat with a colleague, and we got about 40 miles out where there was deep, thick oil on the surface. Right at the edge I got into the water and dove down, covered from head to toe in pretty heavy scuba gear. As I went down into the water column, I noticed that the oil was getting broken up into smaller and smaller pieces by the dispersant--it penetrates the lipid membrane in the oil, breaking the oil up into tiny pieces, and as it does that, it releases hydrocarbons--solvents--which are overpowering when they come up on the surface. It's an unbelievable experience to breathe that--it gives you a terrible, blinding headache. A few feet down I started to see around me dead fish, and the further I went, the more there were--dead jellies, dead shrimp, little tiny organisms floating around in this dispersed oil mix. I surfaced after that--it really scared me. It was clear that this was a very dangerous mixture, and I had a fiery sore throat afterward.

Why is the dispersed oil so toxic?

The Corexit dispersant itself is not more toxic than oil--oil is far more toxic once it gets into the body--but the dispersant helps oil get into the body more readily. Fishermen who were in contact with this dispersant-oil mixture had ulcerated skin--the dispersant eats through the skin, and it causes big lesions and boils and ulcers. Once oil gets into the organs, it's like a ticking time bomb because the oil has hundreds of compounds, including what are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are carcinogenic and toxic to every organ systems in the body. Notably, these chemicals are highly toxic to the brain, so oil exposure can cause severe nervous system effects.

Has the spill taught us anything about how to approach offshore drilling?

I would like to say that, two years later, we've learned from this spill and that measures are in place, but they're not. The President's Commission on the Gulf Oil Spill delivered many recommendations for equipment that we must have on site if we're doing deep-water drilling like this, and none of those recommendations were actually followed. Congress has not passed one piece of legislation to ensure the safety of deep water drilling. In a report card released this week on industry and government response to the spill, Congress earned a "D" for its lack of action, whereas the report also indicated that the Obama administration and the oil industry made more progress with important safety advances. But now we're giving leases to Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Arctic with a very shabby plan for response should there be a spill in the ice.

Fast-forward two years: How is the Gulf faring?

We have a real mess down there. The BP ad campaign, with the testimonials about how great everything is, is surreal. We've lost thousands of marine species, we have a graveyard of deep-water corals, oil is on the sea floor and in the food web, and there are patches of oil across the Gulf that will be recycling for decades. At last count, more than 600 dolphins have died, though in reality, it's probably in the thousands. Of those, half were stillborn or newborn. Hundreds of endangered sea turtles are dead. We've lost thousands of seabirds.The recent reports of deformed fish and shrimp with no eyes are alarming scientists and show that oil-related generational effects are happening for many marine species.

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Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is managing editor of and a former Audubon senior editor. Follow her on Twitter: @JulieLeibach

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine




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