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'Smoking Gun': Scientists Find Damage to Coral Near BP Well

Cain Burdeau

This undated photo provided by the Lophelia II 2010 research group, shows coral, several miles from the site of the blown-out BP well in the Gulf of Mexico, apparently covered with brown material. For the first time, federal scientists say they have found damage to deep sea coral and other marine life from the the Deepwater Horizon rig, but tests are needed to verify that the coral died from oil from released in the disaster.

NEW ORLEANS -- For the first time, federal scientists have found damage to deep
sea coral and other marine life on the ocean floor several miles from
the blown-out BP well - a strong indication that damage from the spill
could be significantly greater than officials had previously

Tests are needed to verify that
the coral died from oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after the
Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, but the chief scientist who led the
government-funded expedition said Friday he was convinced it was

"What we have at this point is the
smoking gun," said Charles Fisher, a biologist with Penn State
University who led the expedition aboard the Ronald Brown, a National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel.

"There is an abundance of circumstantial data that suggests that what happened is related to the recent oil spill," Fisher said.

the government, the findings were a departure from earlier statements.
Until now, federal teams have painted relatively rosy pictures about the
spill's effect on the sea and its ecosystem, saying they had not found
any damage on the ocean floor.

In early
August, a federal report said that nearly 70 percent of the 170 million
gallons of oil that gushed from the well into the sea had dissolved
naturally, or was burned, skimmed, dispersed or captured, with almost
nothing left to see - at least on top of the water. The report was
blasted by scientists.

Most of the Gulf's
bottom is muddy, but coral colonies that pop up every once in a while
are vital oases for marine life in the chilly ocean depths.

is essential to the Gulf because it provides a habitat for fish and
other organisms such as snails and crabs, making any large-scale death
of coral a problem for many species. It might need years, or even
decades, to grow back.

"It's cold on the
bottom, and things don't grow as quickly," said Paul Montagna, a marine
scientist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at
Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. He was not on the

Montagna said the affected area is
so large, and scientists' ability to explore it with underwater robots
so limited that "we'll never be able to see everything that happened
down there."

Using a robot called Jason II,
researchers found the dead coral in an area measuring up to 130 feet by
50 feet, about 4,600 feet under the surface.

kinds of coral are normally beautiful, brightly colored," Fisher said.
"What you saw was a field of brown corals with exposed skeleton - white,
brittle stars tightly wound around the skeleton, not waving their arms
like they usually do."

Fisher described the
soft and hard coral they found seven miles southwest of the well as an
underwater graveyard. He said oil probably passed over the coral and
killed it.

The coral has "been dying for
months," he said. "What we are looking at is a combination of dead gooey
tissues and sediment. Gunk is a good word for what it is."


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Cordes, a Temple University marine scientist on the expedition, said
his colleagues have identified about 25 other sites in the vicinity of
the well where similar damage may have occurred. An expedition is
planned for next month to explore those sites.

coral is threatened, its first reaction is to release large amounts of
mucus, "and anything drifting by in the water column would get bound up
in this mucus," Cordes said. "And that is what this (brown) substance
would be: A variety of things bound up in the mucus."

About 90 percent of the large coral was damaged, Fisher said.

expedition was funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The mission was part of
a four-year study of the Gulf's depths, but it was expanded this year
to look at oil spill damage.

In a statement
released Thursday night, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said the
expedition underscored that the damage to marine life from the oil spill
is "not easily seen." She added that more research was needed to gain a
"comprehensive understanding of impacts to the Gulf."

the toxic nature of oil, and the unprecedented amount of oil spilled,
it would be surprising if we did not find damage," she said.

did not provide any officials or scientists of its own who went on the
expedition. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said its researcher on
the expedition was unavailable.

Cordes said
that the expedition did not find dramatic visual evidence of coral
damage in other sites north of the well. But he said it was premature to
say coral elsewhere in the Gulf was not damaged.

new findings, though, could mean long-term trouble for the coral
southwest of the well, where computer models and research cruises mapped
much of the deepwater oil.

Referring to one
type of coral known as "gorgonians," Cordes said he had never seen them
"come back from having lost so much tissue. It would have to be
re-colonization from scratch."

On The Web:

Photos of the dead coral:

More about the NOAA expedition:

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