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Environment

The BP Oil Spill Led to the Discovery of 60 New Species in the Gulf of Mexico

From the depths of space, Earth is a hazy blue marble, with oceans covering 71% of its surface. Underneath these expanses, lie the world’s largest mountain range, deepest canyon, and a plethora of unanswered questions. And so it comes as no surprise that with 95% of the ocean not yet explored, independent researchers contracted by BP after its calamitous oil spill have discovered over 60 new species in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Apr. 20, 2010, TV screens across the world were lit with the chaos and consequences that ensued shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by BP, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. A tragic 11 crew members were killed. A toxic 3.19 million barrels of oil were pumped out a mile below the ocean surface for 87 days before the leak was contained.

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The BP oil spill is considered the worst oil spill in US history, even surpassing that of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 when 250,000 barrels of oil took at least two years to clean up.

Years after the 2010 spill, its impacts linger and recovery is slow. The gulf marine and coastline ecosystems were severely disrupted. Estimates suggest that 80,000 birds, 35,000 hatchling sea turtles, and over 500 million pounds of oysters were lost.

In the largest settlement ever for a corporation, BP agreed to pay the US federal government and states of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas a colossal $18.7 billion for damages. Billions more were paid in payouts to private citizens and criminal charge penalties — 12 felonies for negligence and failure to disclose information to Congress.  

But damage control wasn’t enough and BP knew it.

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In 2010, the British multinational oil and gas company voluntarily committed to giving $500 million to a board of 20 independent researchers over the course of ten years in an effort to better understand the ecosystem and assess the extent of the damage inflicted.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), as it is called, has funneled resources into projects including studying the physics of oil droplets spewing out of wells and how chemicals found in oil affect fish sex hormones.

Among those projects is the Deepend Consortium, which has the specific intention of identifying and discovering species that live in the Gulf.

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Scientists working on the project send nets a mile down into the ocean, collecting and studying the animals that get caught in them.

In an email to Quartz, Tracey Sutton, an oceanographer at Nova Southeastern University in Florida working on GoMRI, said that so far over 60 species of fish have been identified that had not been previously known to exist in the Gulf and “of these at least seven are undescribed species.”

One of the new species in question is the Ceratioid anglerfish, found in the northern Gulf of Mexico some 1,000-1,500 meters below the surface where the only light that is generated is from its own body. This bioluminescent creature is a clear indicator that the ocean basin hosts a diverse array of “undescribed species,” ones that have not been seen before, anywhere.

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A biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Heather Judkins, told Quartz that they have also found two entirely new species of squid and a cephalopod previously thought to live in other parts of the Atlantic.

Judkins’ team still needs to compare DNA sequences of the animals to those of existing animal genome databases to ensure they are not in fact the same species with new physical characteristics. But one thing is certain: these new findings are pivotal in understanding the ever-growing damage that has been wrought by the fossil fuel industry.