In the months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota went to the Florida Keys to study how oil and chemical dispersants could affect baby coral.
"It was at a time when we weren't sure what was going to reach the keys..whether weathered oil was going to reach the keys and how this might affect coral larvae," said Dr. Kim Ritchie, Mote Marine Laboratory microbiologist.
With a special permit from the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, Ritchie and her team harvested two types of coral. In the lab, Dr. Ritchie added oil, weathered oil, and the chemical dispersant Corexit 9500 to coral larvae. About 2 million gallons of this dispersant were used during the Gulf oil spill to break-up the oil slick and keep it from reaching the shoreline.
Today researchers released the results of their two-year study. "We found that oil is toxic to coral larvae, but we also found that the oil and dispersant is more toxic... and dispersant alone really causes death and prevents coral from settling," said Dr. Ritchie.
The Florida Keys are home to the world's third largest coral reef. Over the last 35 years, its lost 80 percent of its coral cover. Coral reefs provide structure for protecting coastlines, they provide habitat for commercially important species, and they provide high levels of diversity for the development of potential medicines.
While the spill never reached the Keys, but she says the results of the study could impact future oil drilling, and spill mitigation, especial near Florida's fragile coral reef. "This is very important information for resource managers who are mitigating the effects of oil spills to understand that particular dispersant is very toxic to corals. With this information managers might be able to come up with alternative sources of mitigation,"said Ritchie.
The Mote study was supported by emergency funds from the Protect Our Reefs specialty license plate.
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