Native Village
Youth and Education news

May 1, 2012

Gulf seafood deformities alarm scientists

Condensed by Native Village

New Orleans, LA:  The Gulf of Mexico provides over 40% of the seafood caught in the continental US. But today's fishermen, scientists and seafood processors are finding disturbing numbers of mutated shrimp, crab and fish. 

"I've never seen this," is what every scientist, fisherman, and seafood processor said when talking with this article's reporters about seafood deformities. 

All point their fingers towards' BP's oil pollution disaster as being the cause.

"The fishermen have never seen anything like this," Dr Jim Cowan. "And in my 20 years working on red snapper, looking at somewhere between 20 and 30,000 fish, I've never seen anything like this either."

Dr Cowan is with Louisiana State University's Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences. His findings replicate those of others living along vast areas of the Gulf Coast that have been impacted by BP's oil and dispersants.

On April 20, 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded
, and began the release of at least 4,900,000 barrels of oil.  BP then used at least 1,900,000 gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants to sink the oil.


racy Kuhns and Mike Roberts are commercial fishers from Barataria, LA.

"At the height of the last white shrimp season, in September, one of our friends caught [400 pounds of [eyeless shrimp]," Kuhns said.  She added at at least 50% of the shrimp caught in Barataria not only lacked eyes, they even lacked eye sockets. 

"Some shrimpers are catching these out in the open Gulf [of Mexico]," she added, "They are also catching them in Alabama and Mississippi. We are also finding eyeless crabs, crabs with their shells soft instead of hard, full grown crabs that are one-fifth their normal size, clawless crabs, and crabs with shells that don't have their usual spikes they look like they've been burned off by chemicals."


Sidney Schwartz, the fourth-generation fisherman saw shrimp with defects on their gills, and "their shells missing around their gills and head".

"We've fished here all our lives and have never seen anything like this," he added.


Darla Rooks, a lifelong fisherperson from Port Sulfur, LA,  is finding crabs "with holes in their shells, shells with all the points burned off so all the spikes on their shells and claws are gone, misshapen shells, and crabs that are dying from within they are still alive, but you open them up and they smell like they've been dead for a week".

Rooks is also finding eyeless shrimp, shrimp with abnormal growths, female shrimp with their babies still attached to them, and shrimp with oiled gills.

"We also seeing eyeless fish, and fish lacking even eye-sockets, and fish with lesions, fish without covers over their gills, and others with large pink masses hanging off their eyes and gills."

Rooks, who grew up fishing with her parents, said she had never seen such things in these waters, and her seafood catch last year was "ten per cent what it normally is".



Keath Ladner is a third generation seafood processor in Hancock County, MS.

"I've seen the
brown shrimp catch drop by two-thirds, and so far the white shrimp have been wiped out," Ladner said. "The shrimp are immune compromised. We are finding shrimp with tumors on their heads, and are seeing this everyday."

Ladner has also seen crates of blue crabs, all of which were lacking at least one of their claws.

Ladner asked the US Food and Drug Administration officials if the government would protect him from litigation if someone got sick from eating his seafood.

"They wouldn't do it," he said.

"I'm worried about the entire seafood industry of the Gulf being on the way out.

BP's chemicals?

Eyeless shrimp, from a catch of 400 pounds of eyeless shrimp, said to be caught September 22, 2011, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana

"The dispersants used in BP's draconian experiment contain solvents, such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol. Solvents dissolve oil, grease, and rubber," said Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist and Exxon Valdez survivor. "It should be no surprise that solvents are also notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long known".

The dispersants also mutate, a disturbing fact that could be evidenced in the seafood deformities. Shrimp, for example, have a life-cycle short enough that two to three generations have existed since BP's disaster began, giving the chemicals time to enter the genome.

Cowan believes chemicals named
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) released from BP's submerged oil to blame.

PAHs are
"A group of semi-volatile organic compounds that are present in crude oil that has spent time in the ocean and eventually reaches shore, and can be formed when oil is burned".
US Environmental Protection Agency

The Pathways of PAH Exposure:
 Inhalation, ingestion, skin, and eye contact.
Health impacts of PAHs include:
 Headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chest pains, respiratory system damage, skin sensitisation, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiovascular damage.
PAHs are Teratogenic
They can disturb the growth and development of an embryo or fetus
PAHs are Carcinogenic.

Dr Wilma Subra, a chemist and Macarthur Fellow, has conducted tests on seafood and sediment samples along the Gulf for chemicals present in BP's crude oil and toxic dispersants.

"Tests have shown
significant levels of oil pollution in oysters and crabs along the Louisiana coastline," Subra said. "We have also found high levels of hydrocarbons in the soil and vegetation."

A survey by the University of South Florida found the same results as Cowan's:  a
2%-5% infection rate in the same oil impact areas, and not just with red snapper, but with more than 20 species of fish with lesions. In many locations, 20 % of the fish had lesions, and later sampling expeditions found areas where, alarmingly, 50% of the fish had them.

Cowan asked NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] how many fish they found with sores prior to 2010. The answer?
One tenth of one percent.

"What we think is that it's attributable to chronic exposure to
PAHs released in the process of weathering of oil on the seafloor," Cowan said. "There's no other thing we can use to explain this phenomenon. We've never seen anything like this before."

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said in a statement that

"Gulf seafood has consistently tested lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA for the levels of oil and dispersant contamination that would pose a risk to human health.  Louisiana seafood continues to go through extensive testing to ensure that seafood is safe for human consumption. More than 3,000 composite samples of seafood, sediment and water have been tested in Louisiana since the start of the spill." Statement by
Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana
"Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is among the most tested in the world, and, according to the FDA and NOAA, it is as safe now as it was before the accident."  Statement by BP

BP claims that fish lesions are common. They also claim that documented evidence shows that parasites and other agents were causing lesions in the Gulf before the Deep Horizon spill.  But evidence of ongoing contamination continues to mount.

Crustacean biologist Darryl Felder has been monitoring the vicinity of BP's Macondo well both before and after the oil disaster began.

"So we have before and after samples to compare to," he added. "We have found seafood with lesions, missing appendages, and other abnormalities."

Felder also has samples of inshore crabs with lesions. "...We see lesions that are eroding down through their shell. We just got these samples last Thursday and are studying them now, because we have no idea what else to link this to as far as a natural event."

According to Felder, there is an even higher incidence of shell disease with crabs in deeper waters.

Felder and his team are continuing to document the incidents. "From what we can tell, there is a far higher incidence we're finding after the spill.  We are also seeing much lower diversity of crustaceans. We don't have the same number of species as we did before [the spill]."
Dr Andrew Whitehead co-authored Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes.  White's work is critically important  - it shows a direct link between BP's oil and the negative impacts on the Gulf's food web after the oil disaster.

"What we found is a very clear, genome-wide signal, a very clear signal of exposure to the toxic components of oil that coincided with the timing and the locations of the oil," Whitehead said.

Whitehead said the species, killfish, is an indicator species because they are the most abundant marsh fish and most important forage animal in their communities.

"That means that most of the large fish that we like to eat and that these are important fisheries for, actually feed on the killifish," he explained. "So if there were to be a big impact on those animals, then there would probably be a cascading effect throughout the food web. I can't think of a worse animal to knock out of the food chain than the killifish."

Whitehead says we could be seeing just the beginning of a worst-case scenario.

"Impacts on those species are more than likely going to propagate out and effect other species. What this shows is a very direct link from exposure to DWH oil and a clear biological effect. And a clear biological effect that could translate to population level long-term consequences."

Ed Cake is a biological oceanographer and a marine and oyster biologist. He is greatly concerned about the area's  hundreds of dolphin deaths since BP's disaster began. He feels they are directly linked to the BP oil disaster.

"Adult dolphins' systems are picking up whatever is in the system out there, and we know the oil is out there and working its way up the food chain through the food web - and dolphins are at the top of that food chain. The chemicals then move into their lipids, fat, and then when they are pregnant, their young rely on this fat, and so it's no wonder dolphins are having developmental issues and still births."

Cake believes we are still in the short-term impact stage of BP's oil disaster. He points to:

1979's Ixtoc-1 oil disaster in Mexico's Bay of Campeche. The oysters, clams, and mangrove forests have still not recovered in the Yucatan Penisula.

1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster. The herring industry in Alaska was nearly destroyed. It has not returned to normal. 

"I will not be alive to see the Gulf of Mexico recover," said Cake, who is 72 years old. "Without funding and serious commitment, these things will not come back to pre-April 2010 levels for decades."

While the physical signs of the disaster continue, funding to address the problems is running out.

"We're continuing to pull up oil in our nets," Rooks said. "Think about losing everything that makes you happy, because that is exactly what happens when someone spills oil and sprays dispersants on it. People who live here know better than to swim in or eat what comes out of our waters."

Khuns says that every day, hundreds of pounds of tar balls are washing up on beaches across the region. And fishermen are finding tar balls in their crab traps on a regular basis.

Meanwhile Cowan is concerned about what he's finding."We've also seen a decrease in biodiversity in fisheries in certain areas. We believe we are now seeing another outbreak of incidence increasing, and this makes sense, since waters are starting to warm again, so bacterial infections are really starting to take off again. We think this is a problem that will persist for as long as the oil is stored on the seafloor."

Felder wants to continue his studies, but now is up against insufficient funding."We are up against social and economic challenges that hamper our ability to get our information out, so the politics have been as daunting as the problem [we are studying] itself," Felder says. "But my funding is not coming from a source that requires me to be quiet."

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