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Scientists: Gulf health nearly at pre-spill level
Lubchenco said oil contamination could be the culprit: “It is logical that maybe their moms were affected by the spill.” Other culprits could be algae blooms, temperature changes or other environmental toxins.
It’s not just dolphins that are dying. NOAA reports in the first few months of this year, 141 endangered sea turtles were stranded _a higher than normal number. On top of that, Monty Graham, a researcher at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, noticed fewer jellyfish last year.
“We are looking at how the food web could have shifted in general,” Graham said. “We think we have growing evidence that the system shifted and became starved for food” for larger sea animals.
At Tulane University, scientist Caroline Taylor is investigating strange orange droplets inside crab larvae. Her team has taken samples from thousands of crabs, but they have not begun to analyze the abnormalities.
Jessica Henkel, a Tulane population ecologist, is spending long days rigging up nets to catch birds for fecal, blood and feather samples, looking for effects that aren’t immediately lethal.
“It’s much easier to see a dead pelican on the beach” than it is to see more chronic population-wide effects, she said.
This sounds all too familiar to Craig Matkin, a marine mammals biologist at the North Gulf Oceanic Society in Alaska. He studied what happened to whales in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Some whales died immediately after being coated with oil, but then a year later scientists noticed lots of whale deaths _ 13 out of 35 of the main whale pod. Matkin said it was likely the whales died from oil ingested over months.
Similarly, the herring fishery in the region crashed, not immediately, but over time.
“There’s a real tendency to do this out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing until someone shows you that it’s not the truth,” Matkin said. “It doesn’t go away. There are going to be effects down the line.”
But John Harding, chief scientist at the Northern Gulf Institute in Mississippi, said, “We’re way better off than the Exxon Valdez. We had the oil-eating microbes.”
Larry McKinney, who heads a Gulf research center at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, has days when he’s confident in the Gulf’s resilience and days when he’s pessimistic. Somehow he can agree with both Overton and Joye, saying the trouble is that there’s not enough information to get a complete picture. He compares it to people in a dark room trying to describe an elephant that they can feel but not see.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein reported from Washington.
By Tom Fitton
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