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Dead dolphins and shrimp with no eyes found after BP clean-up

Chemicals used to disperse Gulf of Mexico spill blamed for marine deaths and human illness

Hundreds of beached dolphin carcasses, shrimp with no eyes, contaminated fish, ancient corals caked in oil and some seriously unwell people are among the legacies that scientists are still uncovering in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill.

This week it will be three years since the first of 4.9 billion barrels of crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, in what is now considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. As the scale of the ecological disaster unfolds, BP is appearing daily in a New Orleans federal court to battle over the extent of compensation it owes to the region.

Infant dolphins were found dead at six times average rates in January and February of 2013. More than 650 dolphins have been found beached in the oil spill area since the disaster began, which is more than four times the historical average. Sea turtles were also affected, with more than 1,700 found stranded between May 2010 and November 2012 – the last date for which information is available. On average, the number stranded annually in the region is 240.

Contact with oil may also have reduced the number of juvenile bluefin tuna produced in 2010 by 20 per cent, with a potential reduction in future populations of about 4 per cent. Contamination of smaller fish also means that toxic chemicals could make their way up the food chain after scientists found the spill had affected the cellular function of killifish, a common bait fish at the base of the food chain.

Deep sea coral, some of which is thousands of years old, has been found coated in oil after the dispersed droplets settled on the sea’s bottom. A recent laboratory study found that the mixture of oil and dispersant affected the ability of some coral species to build new parts of a reef.

Doug Inkley, a senior scientist for the US National Wildlife Federation and author of a report published this week on wildlife affected by the spill, said: “These ongoing deaths – particularly in an apex predator such as the dolphin – are a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem.”

Scientists believe that the 1.8 million gallons of dispersant, sprayed as part of the clean-up, have cemented the disaster’s toxic effect on ocean life and human health. The dispersant, called Corexit, caused what some scientists have described as “a giant black snowstorm” of tiny oil globules, which has been carried around the ocean in plumes and has now settled on the sea floor. A study last November found the dispersant to be 52 times more toxic than the oil itself.

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