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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 16:40 EDT

Oil From BP Spill Became Food For Plankton

November 8, 2010

Scientists have tracked how certain nontoxic elements of oil from the BP spill quickly entered the food web in the Gulf of Mexico.

The new study suggests the 172 million-gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf in April have become food for plankton.

“Everybody is making a huge deal of where did the oil go,” chief study author William “Monty” Graham, a plankton expert at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, told the Associated Press (AP). “It just became food.”

The study didn’t specifically track the toxic components of the BP oil spill, but it focused on how carbon moved through the beginnings of the all-important food web.  Graham said the “eye-opening” speed of how the oil components moved through the ecosystem may affect the overall health of the Gulf.

Michael Crosby of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida told AP that the carbon zipped through the food web faster than scientists expected.  He said that if the nontoxic part of the oil is moving so fast through the food web, “What has happened to the toxic compounds of the released oil?”

Graham said it was difficult to study the toxins in the plankton, which are microscopic plant and animal life.  He used the ratio of different types of carbon in microbes and plankton found around and under the BP oil spill.  That ratio jumped 20 percent, showing oil in the food web.

Graham said that by late September the carbon ratios in microscopic life had returned to normal.

He emphasized that the results of his research do not mean that the people who eat the fish that feed on plankton are at any risk.  He said that what he found is merely a biomarker that shows the movement of spill-related carbon through the food chain.  Garaham studied much of the plankton “swimming around and doing great” and in equal or higher numbers than before the spill.

The study was published in Environmental Research Letters.  The National Science Foundation helped fund the study, with additional money from the state of Alabama and BP’s Gulf Research Initiative. 

Larry McKinney, director of a Gulf research institute at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, told AP that the study confirms what scientists expected.  McKinney said the big question is will it affect eggs and larvae and next year’s production of shrimp, crabs and fish.

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