Scientist: Oil Endangers Bluefin Spawning Grounds

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The BP oil spill has already caused the Gulf Coast fishing industry tremendous harm. Now, there are indications that damage to the fishing industry could spread as far north as New England. The bluefin tuna, prized as much for sushi as for sandwiches, spawns in the warm Gulf waters before making the trip up north. Host Guy Raz speaks with Jim Franks of the Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory about the danger to the bluefin larvae stuck in the oil-slicked water.

GUY RAZ, host:

The spill has already disrupted the careers of many fishermen along the Gulf Coast but there's a chance the effects may be felt as far away as New England and even Japan. And that's primarily because of the Atlantic bluefin tuna. It's caught off the coast of New England and it's prized by sushi lovers the world over. But one of its two main spawning grounds is in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jim Franks is a senior scientist with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. He's just back from a trip to the bluefin spawning site, and he's on the line from Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Jim Franks, hello.

Dr. JIM FRANKS (Senior Research Scientist; Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, University of Southern Mississippi): Hello. How are you?

RAZ: Good. Thanks. Tell me, did you see oil near the bluefin spawning site?

Dr. FRANKS: We did find some oil sheens and some globules of oil floating in what I would refer to as sheen fields that extended for miles in that particular area. So, yes, we did encounter some forms of the oil in areas that I believe would be considered bluefin habitat.

RAZ: And the other spawning site for the bluefin is in the Mediterranean, is that right?

Dr. FRANKS: Well, yes. But there are other locations even within the Gulf. Some spawning is believed to occur in the Western part of the Gulf, which those regions as of yet have not been impacted by the oil.

RAZ: You were out there collecting samples of the larva. Describe what they look like at this stage, because they can grow as large as a thousand pounds I understand.

Dr. FRANKS: That's right. We're very interested in the very earliest life stage of these great fish, the larvae, which we have found over the years to be maybe five to 10 millimeters in length. Of course, that's about the size of a pencil lead. They're only a few days old and they're drifting along with the currents.

We focused our efforts primarily on the loop current, which is that vast river of warm Caribbean water that flows into the Gulf, spins around in the northern part of the Gulf, flows southward, goes between Cuba and the tip of south Florida and becomes the Gulf Stream.

RAZ: But if the oil is carried by the Gulf Stream, by those currents - and presumably the bluefin is as well - they will come into contact with that oil.

Dr. FRANKS: Perhaps that the case. I don't really know at this point about the movement of the loop current and its transport of oil. I'm not quite sure exactly how that's going to play out at this point.

RAZ: And we know that the bluefin were already in danger of being overfished. Could they conceivably survive this journey through oil?

Dr. FRANKS: You know, it is such a depressed fishery at this point and we have such great concerns for this great fish in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Gulf. I suspect some of those larvae that would encounter the oil might have a difficult time with that encounter. Now, how that in fact would impact the overall population, we don't know at this point.

RAZ: When might we know? Would it be sort of in the autumn or would it be in a year or two from now?

Dr. FRANKS: Well, it might be some sort of a long term impact. It might not show up for a number of years, because these young fish, you know, they grow rapidly but we know very little about them at the younger sizes. And so it may take some time before those impacts are really fully understood, if we have any severe impacts at all from this.

RAZ: But you sound worried.

Dr. FRANKS: Well, of course. I mean, this is a wonderful fish. It's one of the most remarkable fish in the world; one of the most highly sought economically valuable fisheries in the world. And here in the Gulf of Mexico, of course, not far from our shores where I'm speaking to you right now, is a spawning ground for this great fish.

And so, yes, I think we have some concerns. We're worried about the young fish that might have encounters with spilled oil.

RAZ: That's Jim Franks. He's a senior scientist with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

Jim Franks, thank you.

Dr. FRANKS: Well, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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