BP Oil Spill

The corals and other invertebrates on offshore platforms can be examined to determine if the site has been exposed to Macondo MC 252 crude oil. As the subsurface plume and contaminated materials pass an offshore platform, the millions of invertebrates living on the platform are exposed to the oil and dispersed oil droplets along with other organic materials in the water. The organics and metals are retained in the tissue of these invertebrates.

The crude oil assimilated by these marine organisms can be used to determine the source of the fugitive oil. Collecting specimens vertically on a platform and sourcing and determining the concentration oil that has assimilated into their tissues can establish the vertical depth of the crude-oil plume. Approximately 3,500 major structures are scattered across the northern Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, monitoring platform invertebrates in other areas of the Gulf of Mexico could be used to determine the geographic range of the plume. The combination of these datum points could provide a three-dimensional picture of the BP MC 252 spill and determine recent and historical exposure.

Effect of Oil on Corals

Aerial photos provided courtesy of "On Wings of Care"

EcoRigs Report April 2nd, 2013

BP/Deepwater Horizon Mississippi Canyon (MC-252) crude oil was found in predatory corals that inhabit offshore oil and gas in May, June and August 2011. The well blowout occurred on 20 April 2010 and was reported to have been capped on 15 July 2010. The GI 90 block platforms are located 168 km west of BP's MC-252 spill site, and 60 km south of Port Fourchon, LA, and were routinely surveyed before and during the BP blowout period beginning June 2005. On 8 May 2011, we noted sporadic mortality of colonies of orange-cup corals Tubastrea coccinea, and green sun corals, Tubastrea micranthus, that were among colonies of coral that appeared to be in good health. These heterotrophic corals continue to be exposed to BP MC 252 subsurface crude oil up to 385 days after capping. About 3,500 major structures are scattered across the northern GOM and we suggest that analysis of these coral and filter feeding organisms, i.e., sponges, barnacles, bryozoans, etc., on the pilings of offshore platforms can be used to determine the source oil, the recent and historical exposure, and the horizontal and vertical distributions of subsurface oil from the BP Macondo field.

The publication is available here with the companion video on YouTube

Kolian, S. R.; Porter, S.; Sammarco, P. W.; Cake, E. (2013) Depuration of Macondo (MC-252) oil found in heterotrophic scleractinian corals (Tubastrea coccinea and Tubastrea micranthus) on offshore oil/gas platforms in the Gulf. Gulf and Caribbean Research, Vol. 25, 99-103 Published by: University of Southern Mississippi (Gulf Coast Research Laboratory)

EcoRigs Report September 2nd, 2012

On September 2, 2012 members of EcoRigs traveled south to collect water and sediment samples on Port Fourchon Beach, Louisiana. We arrived 5 days after Hurricane Isaac made landfall and two days before the beach closure and fishing bans offshore of Port Fourchon. Large covered approximately 30% of of the beach, they were found and found tarmats, tar-balls, and what appeared to be fresh crude oil in the tidal pools on the beach.

EcoRigs Report August 22nd, 2011

The BP DWH Mississippi Canyon (MC) 252 field has not stopped leaking. EcoRigs went offshore of Long Beach Mississippi on August 18, 2011 to collect surface water samples and found several large slicks. (See video of event) We have been collecting offshore surface water samples from 12 September 2010 through 18 August 2011 originating from the DWH MC 252 well. We have observed surface oil many times in the last year since DWH MC 252 was reported to be capped on 15 July 2010.

EcoRigs Report November 5th, 2010

On September 12th 2010 we headed out of the southeast Mississippi Pass to dive on offshore platform Main Pass 311 again. The objective was to collect invertebrate and water samples. The seas were calm and we observed intermittent patches of oily scum and sheen on the surface for the 2.5 hours while we were tied up to the platform. A subsurface oil induced plume was present while we were below the surface although it was not as persistent as on previous visits. We observed occasional patches of brown cloud-like formations that occupied the upper 20 feet of the water column which was an improvement to previous visits.

The chemical, physical and biological reactions of the oil and dispersants in the subsurface plume are poorly understood environmental mechanisms. We suspect that much of the brown subsurface plume at this time and in the past are bacteria and or plankton that have metabolized the oil and dispersants. Corexit has caused surface oil to disperse into fine and ultrafine droplets which are being metabolized by naturally occurring organisms. (this is incorrect) The Corexit effectively masked the oil by transforming it into toxic metabolites (unknown). Obviously some bacteria and plankton are successful in this toxic environment and the others that should be present have been displaced (unknown).

The sessile organisms on the platform consume the tainted organic materials and are experiencing mortality. The millions of invertebrates living on the platform consume the oil and dispersants particles and plankton along with other organic material in the water. The organics and metals are retained in the tissue of these invertebrates. The invertebrate tissue can provide evidence as to whether the area has been exposed to oil and dispersants and determine if it is adversely affecting the coral reef communities inhabiting oil and gas platforms.

EcoRigs Report August 25, 2010

On Tuesday August 21th, 2010 oily surface scummy foam and dissolved subsurface oil and dispersant were observed just below the water surface over a 30 square mile area offshore of southwest and south pass Louisiana all day. The oil and dispersants were noticeable due to its white color and stringy mucus appearance. The strings below dissolved and dissipated when agitated. The white signatures appeared to rising from below. Over the last four months we have observed the subsurface plume in a several forms ranging from dissolved, particulate, mucus, noodles and globs. The plume has been persistent and wide spread. The plume could be adversely affecting fertilization and survival of dispersed fish and invertebrate larvae. Broadcast spawning fish discharge their reproductive materials in the current where they mix and fertilize and larvae float in the water column for weeks sometimes months. My impression is that the plume has already impacted the larvae of broadcast spawning fish that reproduce in May, June, July, and August and will continue to through September, October and maybe longer. Secondly, the broadcast spawning fish mate by swimming around each other in tight circles, in pairs or larges schools. The plume may stress the fish and prevent them from mating and spawning in the first place. The list of broadcast spawning fish reproducing in the late spring through early fall in the north central Gulf of Mexico is extensive.

EcoRigs Report August 11, 2010

This report includes observations from an EcoRigs scuba sampling trip, on the east side of the Mississippi, to Main Pass (MP) 311 on August 8th 2010. We were surprised by what we found, the subsurface plume layer was larger, the water more turbid and currents were swifter than we normally encounter. We periodically saw scummy foam and oil sheen on the surface and oil on the pilings and the heavy murky plume for the upper 40 to 45 feet. The water cleared up at about 45 feet and we saw white noodles at 45 to 60 feet. Noodles are stringy white materials that fall out of subsurface plumes that are located in the upper water column. We caught a few on tape, but we missed catching a flurry of them on film when the noodles were coming down like snow.

The currents were extraordinarily swift, 5 mph down to 60 feet (the extent of our dive). I was holding on to a pipe and the current forced me horizontal like a flag in a strong wind. The plume was much more turbid than any other time in the past, with the exception of a dive on Mississippi Canyon (MC) 194 on June 24. Video

On a previous visit to MP 311 on June 6th, we observed a similar phenomenon and was described on the scene as big balls of brown “snot” and can be seen on video at: Video

We also have a video of MP 311 on May 19th and you can see materials from globules, flakes and small particulates to fine materials and dissolved oil and dispersants. The May 19th video at MP 311 shows particulate oil and dispersants moving down the water column. The oil has not broken down to fine materials yet, as seen in the June 6th and August 8th video. The oil appears to be in transition to finer materials which may be caused by agitation from the wave action and currents. The water is relatively clear and fish do not appear to avoid the areas.

Finally, a video from October 2008 is presented for reference to view water conditions before the Deepwater Horizon spill. Video

I should note that MP 311 is on the east side of the river in 250 ft (76 m) of water and in a marine transition area, where the water is sometimes green due to freshwater flows on the surface of the ocean (freshwater floats) from the Mississippi. When wind and currents blow from a southerly direction, as it often does during the summer, blue ocean currents prevail and the water conditions around MP 311 are blue and clear. When fresh water prevails, there is greenish layer in the upper 10 -20 feet called murk. The fresh water gets pushed east and west of the Mississippi depending on prevailing wind and currents. When the winds are from the easterly direction, the surface water is blue at MP 311 and the murk is on the west side of the Mississippi.

We are very cognizant of the fact that we may be mistaking the oil and dispersant plume for a freshwater plume. There are characteristics that distinguish the two, first, the presence of the noodles or snot falling down the water column indicates that the plume is not just fresh water. Secondly, plume has a different mixing pattern than a freshwater layer. Looking at the oil and disperant plume from below, the underside of the plume billows and is not as even a layer like fresh water. The fresh water and the oil plume can both be present, however, the combination is much darker than freshwater alone. A freshwater layer was present on August 8th and May 19th but not so prevalent as in October 2008. We are presently collecting water samples and testing for Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) & Trace Metals to verify our observations.

Report August 3rd, 2010: EcoRigs and Arkansas State University (ASU) Ecotoxicology Research Facility

On July 22nd and 23rd 2010, EcoRigs.org and the Arkansas State University (ASU) Ecotoxicology Research Facility team collaborated on a research cruise focusing on several objectives, all pertaining to continuing research on the impacts of the oil and dispersant in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Samples were collected in the immediate offshore of Grand Isle, Louisiana and inshore of the island in an estuary called Barataria Bay.

Analysis Species - Number of Samples Objectives
Organism muscle samples were collected to evaluate the accumulation of heavy metals in edible tissue. Fish, shrimp, crabs, oysters Approx – 75 fish 5 crabs 10 oysters 5 shrimp The levels of metals and organics in the muscle tissue of fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters can tell us when and if it is safe to consume the seafood. Over exposure to organic toxins can be lethal to fish; Data collected from live fish can be compared to results found in scientific literature to determine overall health of fish; The data can also be used to make a comparative analysis of the degree of uptake for different types of fish, i.e. herbivores, omnivores, piscivors and detritavors.
Fish entrails for heavy metals Approx – 75 fish 5 shrimp Immediate exposure to contaminants takes place through the gut tract and will be detectable in these organs
Fish livers for heavy metals: Approx 5 fish Liver tissue was isolated in fish with distinct anatomy and size Metals accumulation occurs in the livers of fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp and can be detrimental the organisms and those that consume the seafood.  The data can also be used to make a comparative analysis of the degree of uptake in herbivores, omnivores, piscivors and detritavors.
Gill tissue 10 oysters An attempt was made to isolate gill from mantle tissue in oyster samples to determine more immediate exposure through gill analyses.
Water Samples: Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) & Trace Metals 11 TPH sent to commercial laboratory Trace Metals will be measured at ASU. Comparison of results will indicate if a metal signature is present in the samples with detectible TPH.
Sediment Samples for TPH and Trace Metals 11 TPH sent to commercial laboratory & Trace Metals will be measured at ASU.  Comparison of results will indicate if a metal signature is present in the samples with detectible TPH.
Fin tissue was collected from fish & shrimp to analyze for DNA strand breakage Crab muscle tissue and oyster mantle tissue was collected for analys Approx – 75 fish 5 crabs 10 oysters 5 shrimp Analyzing for strand breakage in DNA will determine real-time exposure to petroleum products.  Strand breakage repair is rapid thus will determine current exposure.  Metal analyses will be correlated with DNA examinations if possible
20-Liter water sample One sample Sample will be used to explore several types of aquatic toxicology – experimental studies at the Ecotoxicology Research Facility
Vegetation collected for identification Marsh cordgrass (Spartinia alterniflora) Possible phyto-remediation studies by Dr. Argelia Lorence
Air Quality Analysis of Particulate Matter (PM) Three samples Particulate matter is trapped in small gases that are then able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, ultimately reaching the lungs. Some gases are more lethal and or hazardous than others, hazardous air pollutants (HAP) can be carcinogenic. Benzene is an HAP and is found in the oil spill. This data collected can tell us if the air contains dangerous levels of air pollutants.

EcoRigs would like to express its gratitude to Arkansas State University (ASU) Ecotoxicology Research Facility team and mention that they contributed their time and funded the research independently. ASU will be reporting on results in the coming weeks. EcoRigs will post the data as soon as possible.

Report July 19th, 2010: New Type of Subsurface Oil

On July 15th 2010, a new type of subsurface oil and dispersant signature was observed by Paul Sammarco and Scott Porter (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium – LUMCON). It consisted of a large plume of white stringy mucus-like material. It was detected at two locations (Grand Isle (GI) 93C & GI-90A) occurring between 0 ft and 120 ft below the surface and beyond. The substance varied in size from small flakes to long strings that extended up to 6 feet (Sammarco and Porter 2010).

They observed two distinct plumes of oil and dispersants on July 15th at these sites. There was the more common greenish cloudy sub-surface plume consisting of fine particulate matter in the upper 30 ft of the water column. The last time GI 93 was visited, on June 16, 2010, the same type of turbidity was observed, except that it was confined to the upper 20 feet of the water column. White mucus-like flocculent material was not observed during the June 16 dive and the depth of the more common greenishplume did not appear to be as large. There was no surface oil or sheen on either day (EcoRigs 2010a). At this point, it is not known whether the white flocculent material was derived from an oil and dispersant mixture or organic material discharged within the Mississippi River plume, known to often sweep through this sector. A common nepheloid layer was observed near the bottom – a turbid area, probably comprised mostly of suspended sediment and organic material. Because of the limited visibility, it was not possible to tell whether there was accumulated oil covering the bottom, most likely composed of high molecular weight hydrocarbons (e.g., PAHs – Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). This is a highly sedimented area, due to contributions from the Mississippi River and its distributaries, near the Mississippi Canyon area.

Similar flocculent material has been observed before; however, it was brown and not as persistent. At Main Pass (MP) 311, on June 6, 2010, large pieces of semi-translucent mucus-like materials were present below the brown particulate type of plume. On this day, the brown oil and dispersant plume occupied the upper 20 feet of the water column (EcoRigs 2010b).

Finally, some base-line data of water conditions were collected at GI-93. The video captured in July of 2009 at GI-93 by Toby Armstrong (2009) suggests that thespecies composition of fishes observed during pre-spill conditions from the current composition. A large population of fish at GI-93 and -90 still remains, however. Red snapper and amberjack were present on July 15th in greater populations than previously observed, although red snapper are known to be transient. Video and analysis of fish and invertebrate populations are forthcoming.

Report by Paul W. Sammarco, Scott Porter, Toby Armstrong, and Steve Kolian. Armstrong, Toby 2009. Video footage taken by Toby Armstrong July 2009. Project supported by EcoRigs staff, self-funded. EcoRigs 2010a. Video footage taken by Scott Porter, June 16th 2010 at GI 93. Project supported by EcoRigs staff, self-funded. Sammarco, P. and S. Porter, 2010. ROV video, Sammarco LUMCON, Chauvin, LA, (7/15/10); project supported by Louisiana State University Coastal Marine Institute/U.S. Dept. of Interior – Minerals Management Service (MMS).

Report July 10th 2010: West Wind

Scott Porter and Allen Walker went offshore Friday to Cognac (MC 194) and there was blue water, there's a west wind moving the blue water in. Last time we visited Cognac, on June 28th, we encountered turbid waters down to 45 ft (maybe deeper) and visibility was 1.5 to 2.5 feet. The CNN staff wouldn't let them jump in the water to get data. An arrow pierced Scott's heart. Scott, from the surface, saw a new form of oil and dispersant signature in the water that we haven't seen before. A white layer at 15 feet below the surface. Water above was blue. Normally, at Cognac, the water becomes clearer as you go deeper. I am not sure what to make of this. Another surprise.

Scott said the silky sharks, that have been there since our first visit on May 7th, came up to the boat aggressively and circled the boat, they threw biscuits to them and they eagerly ate them. Man I wish we could have gotten a data point there. The west wind is still blowing.

Report June 24th, 2010: Its Getting Dark

Directly south of the Mississippi and inshore of the source, the oil and dispersant plumes are changing offshore from globules, flakes and small particulates to fine materials and dissolved oil and dispersants.

On June 22nd, at the Cognac Platform, water clarity was significantly lower than previous visits in early May when we observed particulate and surface oil and dispersants. On 6/22, visibility was only 1.5 feet all the way down to 45 feet below the surface. We gave up after that so the plume may have gone deeper. We are presently seeing dissolved and particulate signatures at all depths of water column over much of the Louisiana continental shelf and slope and less larger particulates and surface oil.

On our second dive, at platform Lena, we dove below the merc at 30 feet from the surface. The water cleared but was significantly darker than it should be. These plumes are persistent, for example, from May 27th till June 2nd, an oil and dispersant plume, consisting of globs and smaller particulate, was observed 200 miles due west from the source, at 210 ft, stratified in the water column occupying the area between 60 to 120 ft depth. The was no oil at the surface but the subsurface oil was persistent.

It appears that the oil in a dissolve and fine materials state in the water column significantly reduces sunlight penetration into the water column. We still could use help with water quality analysis.

Report June 22nd 2010: Can Anyone Help with Water Samples?

The objective of this email is to see if there are any laboratories that could analyze water samples for oil and dispersants. Secondly, analyze for bacteria and plankton. Our most important need is to determine if the particulate and dissolved materials in samples are oil and dispersants.

We have collected underwater video data of oil and dispersants stratified in the water column up to 200 miles from the source; however, captains have been detecting, what they believe to be subsurface oil plumes, on their hi-tech fish finders and other sonar devices over a much wider range. There is concern that the subsurface plumes may be part of the algae and sediment nephloid layer that appears over much of the continental shelf during the spring and summer months. The captains would like to take water samples to determine if the signatures in the water column that they are detecting are composed of oil and dispersants or the algae and bacteria or all of the above. Can anyone donate some lab time?

Report June 20th 2010: Status of Tubastraea Corals on GOM Rigs?

EcoRigs is conducting research on the impacts of the oil and dispersants on tubastraea and other coral reef organisms. We began on May 7th and will continue for several months. We have been studying the coral reef communities on the structures for over 15 years. We are seeing a decline in bleenies and arrow crabs and other indicator organisms near the surface. We also see subsurface oil and a noticeable decline in sunlight penetration down the water column.

More data is on the way. We are self-funded which means payment for all research comes out of our own pockets; however, our crew is composed of scientist, commercial fishermen and professional divers so we are getting information and data from these latter sectors that is very helpful.

Report June 6th, 2010

For five days, from May 27th till June 2nd , subsurface oil globules the size of quarters and 50 cent pieces were observed consistently throughout the day. They occupied the area between 60 -120 feet below the surface and moved in a horizontal direction with the current. The site was 200 miles due west of the source of the spill in 200 feet of water and over eighty miles south of Vemilion Parish. The balls of oil appeared to be covered with growth (presumably bacteria). When the balls of oil were poked with a finger, they dissipated into small particles that either dissolved or were too small to see. The observers described the event like popping a bubble. The seas were calm and no sign of oil was seen on the surface during the entire five day period. These subsurface oil globules were also observed on May 19th.

On May 19th three platforms were observed 24 miles south east of south pass Louisiana. The platforms are located in 250-270 water depth. It is believed that these platforms have been exposed to the oil soon after the oil spill began (Walker 2010). On May 19th, three different oil stratification signatures were observed on three different platforms. One platform the oil was limited to the upper 6 ft, another the upper 40 ft, and a third, oil was present through the observable water column which was limited to approximately 120 feet during the dive.

On May 7th, oil was limited to the surface and just below (6 ft) the surface, on May 9th flocculated materials, which may or may not have contained oil, appeared in small quantities at 40 ft.

We hope to have video soon of the subsurface oil found 200 miles due west of the source of the oil spill.

Report May 7th and 9th, 2010

On May 7 and 9, 2010, staff from EcoRigs traveled offshore of Venice, Louisiana to see whether the BP oil slick had damaged the coral reef communities inhabiting the offshore platforms in that area. The team headed out of South Pass at the end of the Mississippi and through the ship channel bearing south. Three structures were visited consecutively on both Friday and Sunday. Underwater video data were collected on the platform closest to the source of the slick on both days. The two inshore platforms were observed from the water surface aboard the vessel.

Observations on Voyage through Oil Slick:

Surface oil was significantly more abundant on Friday than on Sunday. The seas were 1 to 3 feet on Friday and 5 to 7 feet on Sunday.

Normally, porpoise and birds are abundant and large schools of fish feeding on the surface are frequently encountered in this area. No birds or fish feeding on the surface water were observed on Friday when the surface oil was more prevalent. The team saw only one small pod (three) of dolphins and a few birds on Sunday. On Sunday, when there was no oil around, a mid-size school of yellow fin tuna were observed breaking the surface in pursuit of baitfish for a brief minute a couple hundred yards from the platform closest to the source of the slick.

Observations of the Platform Coral Reef Ecosystem

The research platform was MC 194 (Cognac). Observers expected to see the splash-zone (top 10 feet of pilings) covered in oil; however, there was no noticeable oil present on the organisms. The upper 10 feet of the platforms are inhabited by barnacles and mollusks which are colonized by feathery algae and hydroids. Below the splash zone, scleractiniian corals, sponge, octocoral, and many other sessile and motile invertebrates were found and appeared to be unaffected by the oil slick. At the very least, observers thought the algae would be fouled with oil but it was not.

On May 7th, oil was limited to the surface and just below (6 ft) the surface, on May 9th flocculated materials, which could have been oil, appeared in small quantities at 40 ft. The platform is 18 miles from the end of the Mississippi and receives high volumes of turbid fresh water. The structure is in 1,000 feet of water and the upper 30 feet of the water column is green and below this point the water is clear blue.

No adverse effects on the resident fish community were noticeable. Obligatory reef fish, jacks, grouper, and demersal fish were abundant at the platforms. The team observed 40 to 50 large silky sharks schooling 40 feet and below on both days. A dozen or so 15-pound red snapper and a couple of large grouper (20 lbs) were observed on Friday.

No hard tails were observed at the platforms or at any other locations on either day. Hard tail populations are normally present in the thousands at these structures. There were no birds, with the exception of stranded land birds. Three small song birds landed on the boat as soon as we were secured to the platform; they appeared tired and lacking the strength to find a perch before possibly drowning. Other than the school of tuna on Sunday, very few fish were breaking the surface on either day. Of all our observations, the absence of pelagic fish interacting with the surface of the water makes sense, this is where there seems to be damage in the trophic system at offshore platforms.

The study team hopes (we are rubbing two nickels together) to be visiting these structures once each week over the next few months to document any change in the fish and invertebrate communities. The structures are ideal research stations for studying the impacts of oil on coral reefs because the structure and coral reef organisms occupy all depths of the water column. They are also located immediately inshore to the source of the spill and will experience the greatest exposure to the oil slick.

You may be interested in the recent EcoRigs Press Coverage

Armstrong, Toby 2009. Video footage taken by Toby Armstrong July 2009. Project supported by EcoRigs staff, self funded.
EcoRigs 2010a. Video footage taken by Scott Porter, June 16th 2010 at GI 93. Project supported by EcoRigs staff, self funded.
Sammarco, P. and S. Porter, 2010. ROV video, Sammarco LUMCON, Chauvin, LA, (7/15/10); project supported by Louisiana State University Coastal Marine Institute/U.S. Dept. of Interior – Minerals Management Service (MMS).