Gulf corals in oil spill zone appear healthy

ON THE FLOOR OF THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) - Just 20 miles north of where BP's blown-out well spewed millionsof gallons of oil into the sea, life appears bountiful despiteinitial fears that crude could have wiped out many of thesedelicate deepwater habitats.

Plankton, tiny suspended particles that form the base of theocean's food web, float en masse 1,400 feet beneath the surface ofthe Gulf of Mexico, forming a snowy-like underwater scene as theymove with the currents outside the windows of a two-man subcreeping a few feet off the seafloor.

Crabs, starfish and other deep sea creatures swarm small patchesof corals, and tiny sea anemones sprout from the sand likeminiature forests across a lunar-like landscape illuminated only bythe lights of the sub, otherwise living in a deep, dark environmentfar from the sun's reach.

Scientists are currently in the early stages of studying whateffects, if any, BP PLC's April 20 oil well blowout off Louisianaand the ensuing crude gusher has had on the delicate deep sea coralhabitats of the northern Gulf.

So far, it appears the area dodged a bullet, but more researchis needed. Some of the deep sea corals near the spill site wereonly discovered just last year.

"Originally, when we saw the trajectory for the oil spill andwhere it was going, we were very concerned that these habitatswould be impacted," said researcher Steve Ross of the Center forMarine Science at the University of North Carolina atWilmington.

Ross and others are conducting research from a Greenpeace shipin the Gulf, using a two-man sub as they work to determine if thecorals have suffered damage, or may take a hit from long-termimpacts, such as stunted reproduction rates.

"We thought certainly that ... we would see signs of damage,"Ross said. "And we're very pleased to say so far, that in theselocations, we haven't seen a large scale damage to the coralhabitats. We're still looking, but so far, it's good."

Ross was part of a team of researchers that studied deep seacorals in the Atlantic Ocean between North Carolina and Florida.The research eventually helped lead to added federal protectionsfor a roughly 23,000 square-mile network believed to be among thelargest continuous distribution of deep water corals in theworld.

Ross and others have now turned their attention to the Gulf.

While fishermen have for centuries dragged up corals from thedeep sea, it wasn't until the early 1900s that scientistsdiscovered these extensive cold-water reefs. And it wasn't untilthe 1970s that researchers were able to use subs and cameras toreach the sea floor to document them. It had long been thoughtcoral reefs only formed in shallow, warm waters.

Deepwater reefs and pinnacles are much more slow-growing and cantake several million years to form. Science is only now beginningto understand these underwater "frontier zones." Researchers arelooking to these regions for the development of additionalpharmaceuticals since these cold-water critters have adapted tolive in such unique environments void of sunlight, they possessunusual qualities that federal scientists say could aid in creatingnew drugs for cancer, heart disease and other ailments.

"We are very interested in any potential damage to deep seacorals," said Steve Murawski, chief fisheries scientist for theNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is currentlyconducting research into oil in Gulf sediments, among otherstudies.

The federal government maintains much of the oil is now gonefrom the Gulf, but some studies indicate it remains in significantamounts on the sea floor. Microscopic particles have also beenfound in the water column.

It is now a prime time for coral spawning in the Gulf, when thecorals release tiny larvae that eventually form new corals.

"It could alter the reproduction of these animals," Murawskisaid. "Even though the adults may survive the event, did we losethe opportunity to have more juveniles produced?"

Sandra Brooke, coral conservation director at the MarineConservation Biology Institute, who is also participating in theresearch, agreed. The corals' reproduction rates will be studiedover the coming weeks, she said.

"We have to be careful with our conclusions about this kind ofdata," Brooke said, noting it will take more than just a few divesto determine the extent of the damage. "We'll take further analysisbut from what we've seen so far, it seems like they've dodged abullet."

Long-term impacts, for instance, from 1989's much smaller ExxonValdez spill in Alaska took years, even decades to understand.

"We're just going to have to continue watching," said MargotStiles, a marine scientist with the conservation group Oceana.