Sick fish in Gulf are alarming scientists
Unusual number a 'huge red flag' to scientists, fishermen
Scientists are alarmed by the discovery of unusual numbers of fish in the Gulf of Mexico and inland waterways with skin lesions, fin rot, spots, liver blood clots and other health problems.
"It's a huge red flag," said Richard Snyder, director of the University of West Florida Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation. "It seems abnormal, and anything we see out of the ordinary we'll try to investigate."
Are the illnesses related to the BP oil spill, the cold winter or something else?
That's the big question Snyder's colleague, UWF biologist William Patterson III, and other scientists along the Gulf Coast are trying to answer. If the illnesses are related to the oil spill, it could be a warning sign of worse things to come.
In the years following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the herring fishery collapsed and has not recovered, according to an Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee report. The herring showed similar signs of illness — including skin lesions — that are showing up in Gulf fish.
Worried that same scenario could play out along the Gulf Coast, Patterson is conducting research on the chronic effects of the BP oil spill on Gulf fish. And he sees troubling signs consistent with oil exposure: fish with lesions, external parasites, odd pigmentation patterns, and diseased livers and ovaries. These may be signs of compromised immune systems in fish that are expending their energy dealing with toxins, Patterson said.
"I've had tens of thousands of fish in my hands and not seen these symptoms in so many fish before," said Patterson, who has been studying fish, including red snapper, for 15 years. "All those symptoms have been seen naturally before, but it's a matter of them all coming at once that we're concerned about."
He's conducting the research with some of the $600,000 in BP money distributed to UWF from $10 million the oil company gave to the Florida Institute of Oceanography in Tampa to study the impact of the spill.
Higher scrutinyAs part of his studies, Patterson is collecting samples at targeted sites in the Gulf and from commercial fishermen. Samples from his targeted sites have shown fewer problems than those from fishermen.
While Patterson is alarmed, he's quick to point that the Gulf's ecosystem never before has been scrutinized as closely as it is now, or by so many scientists."Are we looking more closely, or are these unusual?" he said.
Sick fish have been reported from offshore and inshore waters from Northwest Florida to Louisiana, he said. Scientists are trying to figure out how prevalent these abnormalities are and their cause.
In that pursuit:
» Patterson and Florida A&M University scientists are conducting toxicology tests to find out if the fish were exposed to hydrocarbons or oil. Results are not final.
» Scientists at Louisiana State University's veterinarian school are in the Gulf looking into what microbes might be causing the diseases.
» Pensacola marine biologist Heather Reed is studying red snapper for a private client using broader testing methods than mandated by the federal government, which she says are not adequate.
"I've been testing different organs in game fish that have been brought to me, and I'm seeing petroleum hydrocarbons in the organs," said Reed, the environmental adviser for the City of Gulf Breeze. "I was shocked when I saw it."
She is trying to secure grants to continue that research and is talking to federal and state officials about her findings, she said.
All the studies are aimed at one goal: "To find out what is really going on and get things back to normal," Reed said.
Solving the mysteryBut both Reed and Patterson say it's hard to determine just how many fish are being found sick because many commercial fishermen are reluctant to report their findings to state and federal officials out of fear fishing grounds will be closed and their livelihoods will be put at risk.
But at the same time, to protect the future of the Gulf, Patterson said, the fishermen quietly are asking scientists to look into what is happening.
Clay Palmgren, 38, of Gulf Breeze-based Bubble Chaser Dive Services, is an avid spear fisherman who has about 40 pounds of Gulf fish in his freezer. He has not seen sick fish so far, but he said many of his angler friends, both recreational and commercial, are talking about catching fish that appear abnormal.
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