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Joye said before the oil spill she would have given the sea floor an “A” grade of 90. Now she gives it a 30. Overall, Joye, who has been one of the more hands-on researchers exploring Gulf damage, said its health has plunged from an 80 before the spill to a 50 now, but she was the most pessimistic of the researchers.

In five different expeditions, the last one in December, she and her colleagues took 250 cores of the sea floor and travelled 2,600 square miles. She says much of the invisible oil in the water and on the sea bottom has been chemically fingerprinted and traced to the BP spill. She also has pictures of oil-choked bottom-dwelling creatures like crabs and brittle stars _ starfish-like critters that are normally bright orange but now are pale and dead.

This is hidden from view. Eugene Turner, an LSU wetlands scientist, has looked at marshes in Louisiana’s Barataria basin, and found oil buried in the mud and sand.

“You can’t smell it. You can’t see it. It’s not this big black scum out there, but it’s there,” Turner said.

At this point, the oil is only obvious in a couple of places _ with Bay Jimmy the worst-hit. Today, a crust of oil still lines miles of the outer fringe of marsh in the bay, a remote spot deep visited by the occasional fisherman and oil worker.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the black gunk stuck on beaches and marshes last summer or the multi-colored slicks so massive they could be tracked by satellite. Those images, along with the pictures of pelicans and seagulls with gobs of oil oozing down their beaks, are now history.

“Even though some coastal areas were hit hard,” says NOAA’s Lubchenco, “the oil did not penetrate as far into the marshes as people feared.”

Despite the picture on the surface, Dana Wetzel at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, adds: “Anyone who says the Gulf is fine is being precipitous…. It’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind, but in my humble opinion this is not over.”

While BP money has flowed for immediate cleanup and compensation, the bigger bill for environmental damage and federal penalties is still being calculated. The federal government is collecting data on that, but much is kept from outside scientists. So some of the most important details are being held closely like cards in a high-stakes poker game, outside researchers say.

Trying to quantify the scale of the injury to the Gulf ecosystem “is absolutely the right question,” said Robert Haddad, who heads the scientific process for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “One of the outcomes from the Exxon Valdez was that they tried to estimate the damage too quickly.”

The spill itself lasted nearly three months. Then there was the clean-up. Then federal officials pronounced the oil mostly _ but not completely _ gone, eaten by microbes, dispersed by chemicals or diluted. Lubchenco told reporters in February that “it’s not a contradiction to say that although most of the oil is gone, there still remains oil out there.”

Now, only a year later scientists are starting to see signs _ and they are far from conclusive _ of possible long-term problems.

Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald warned his fellow scientists to be on the watch for deaths of big marine mammals. That was in October. Since January, 155 young or fetal dolphins and small whales have washed up on Gulf beaches _ more than four times the typical number _ according to NOAA.

A new study estimates that for every dead dolphin that washes ashore there are 50 dolphins that are never found. That suggests more than 7,500 dolphin deaths the first three months of this year alone.

Blair Mase, NOAA’s marine mammal stranding coordinator, says dolphin deaths began to rise in February 2010 _ before the BP spill. That slowed in November, but in January dolphins began dying at a much faster rate, higher than before the spill.

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