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Researchers believe the oil slick will have lasting damage on the health, growth and reproductive output of marine life © Sean Gardner / Greenpeace

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Scientists use shellfish to assess toxic impact of BP gulf oil spill

Ecologist

26th May, 2010

Concerns rise that smaller animals will absorb toxic compounds and pass them along the marine food chain causing lasting damage to fisheries and marine ecosystems

Scientists are to study the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on marine life, amid fears that toxic compounds are being absorbed by fish.

Over the next few months researchers from US will look at the shells and body tissue of three different types of mollusks from the Gulf Coast; oysters, tellinid clams and periwinkles, and see how quickly the harmful compounds from the oil spill are being absorbed by the animals.

Molluscs provide a valuable record of environmental conditions in their shells, which they grow by accreting new layers on a daily basis.

They are also at the bottom of the food chain, eating plankton and algae and as such are likely to be among the first animals to begin accumulating hydrocarbons and heavy metals. These harmful compounds may then be passed on to other bigger marine organisms that feed on the shellfish.

'The turtles, many birds, and so on may suffer immediate fatality from the oil's toxicity and fouling effects, but the stuff has more insiduous and longer-term ways of working into the system,' said study leader Dr Peter Roopnarine, from the California Academy of Sciences. 'Using the molluscs, we hope to gauge the pathways and rates at which the oil is incorporated into the broader food web and ecosystem.'

Work on other spills

Ongoing studies into another, smaller oil spill in San Francisco have indicated that marine life is likely to incorporate oil components long after an active spill. The researchers hope the latest work will provide more answers to the staying power and long-term impacts of hydrocarbons on animals' health, growth and reproductive output.

They also hope their findings, which are unlikely to be available until later this year, could provide stronger evidence against future offshore drilling.

'I don't expect that this will be of much immediate help for the current crisis, but it should provide data to guide us in reconsidering our policies and activities when it comes to offshore drilling, particularly in ecologically and economically sensitive areas,' said Roopnarine.

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