The most familiar victims of the oil spill are the ones with faces: birds, sea turtles, dolphins, whales.
But as the New York Times reports today, there are at least three extensive deep-sea coral reefs lying directly beneath the oil slick in the gulf. And coral reefs can’t swim or fly away from the plumes of partly dispersed oil spreading in the deep sea.
Both oil and dispersants are toxic to corals and have been found to impede the ability of corals to grow and reproduce, and the effects are amplified when they are mixed, which may be the case with these plumes.
It’s unknown exactly how sensitive deep-sea corals are to oil and dispersants, though as Oceana’s Pacific science director Jeffrey Short told the Times, “It might be locally catastrophic, particularly if there’s an oxygen-depleted mass that develops.”
Oxygen is important because it keeps alive the microscopic algae and organisms corals feed on, which could be killed if the plume causes a large area to lose oxygen, known as a “dead zone”.
Two thirds of all coral species are deep-sea corals, and they are some of the oldest animals on Earth, growing only millimeters or centimeters each year and surviving up to thousands of years. Deep-sea coral reefs and gardens provide shelter from strong currents and predators, nurseries for young fish, and areas for adults to feed, spawn and rest.
In the Gulf of Mexico, deep-sea corals such as the pinnacles are areas of high biodiversity that provide important habitat and spawning sites for commercially fished species such as grouper and snapper.
To give you a better idea of the beauty of deep-sea corals, here’s a video of the Pinnacles. Help us reach 500,000 strong against offshore drilling by signing our petition today.