Coral Dying Near BP Oil Spill Site

Scientists have discovered dying communities of coral near the site of the BP oil spill. The scientists say they've never seen coral death of this sort in the Gulf of Mexico before, and they believe the oil spill is the cause.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Scientists exploring the Gulf of Mexico have discovered a patch of dead and dying coral. It is seven miles from the site of the blown-out BP oil well, and the scientists suspect the coral was harmed by the spill. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS: Researchers set out on a government research vessel in October to continue a four-year-long study of corals in the Gulf of Mexico. Chuck Fischer from Penn State University was on the trip.

Mr. CHUCK FISCHER (Researcher, Penn State University): For most of this cruise, what we saw were healthy coral communities at depths from 500 to 2,500 meters, all over the Gulf of Mexico.

HARRIS: Or all under the Gulf of Mexico because at these great depths, we're not talking about reefs teeming with colorful fish but corals that live in the dark, on the sea floor.

Fischer says the scientists were feeling pretty good about what they saw up until they made their last dive, using a robotic minisub just seven miles from the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Mr. FISCHER: From the moment the community came into sight, it was pretty clear that this didn't look like the other corals we'd been looking at for the past three weeks.

HARRIS: The sea-fan corals, normally bright gold or orange, were clearly in bad shape. Fischer says it was evident that many were dead or dying.

Mr. FISCHER: Corals that were in the process of losing tissue, that were covered with a scummy, brown, flocculent material, areas of recently dead skeleton.

HARRIS: Fischer says he and his colleagues took samples of the coral they will now analyze in order to see what caused the damage. But he strongly suspects that it has to do with the oil or maybe the chemical dispersants from the disaster.

Mr. FISCHER: We've never come across a community of dying corals, and to find them at that place and at this time is very strong circumstantial evidence, I think, that it's related to the spill.

HARRIS: The good news here is that so far, at least, it seems to be an isolated case and not a sign of trouble throughout the Gulf.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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