ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly four years ago, research teams regularly launched vessels out of Bayboro Harbor seeking signs of the oil that gushed from an underwater well in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 people.
News crews waited at the dock when they returned with water, sediment and fish tissue samples, and politicians toured their labs and vowed to hold BP oil company accountable.
That clamor is gone, but scientists continue to do research, and they say untold damage is still being wrought on Gulf of Mexico wildlife.
This week, the National Wildlife Federation is releasing a report that updates how dolphins, sea turtles, bluefin tuna, pelicans and other marine life in the northern Gulf have fared in the past four years, and their prognosis is grim.
Although Tampa Bay in many ways missed out on the April 2010 disaster's effects, some are saying it's not exactly in the clear.
“We have seen, certainly in the last year, a number of findings that show us the impacts are continuing,” said Cathy Harrelson, Florida director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “It's an ongoing, slow-motion disaster.”
Some of those findings suggest that oil reached the shores of Florida's Gulf Coast. Others show generations of marine populations suffering from deformities and low birth rates.
“We do know that the Gulf oil spill disaster is far from over,” said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation.“The impacts on the Gulf and its wildlife are continuing. We also have a long way to go ... in understanding the full impacts.”
The report points to ailing wildlife populations nearest the well site off the coast of Louisiana, 14 species in all. Dolphins are among the most dramatically affected, with more than 900 dolphin strandings in the areas near the site of the well.
“Bottlenose dolphins in oiled areas are still sick and dying and the evidence is stronger than ever that these deaths are connected to Deepwater Horizon,” Inckley said. “The science is telling us that this is not over.”
Kemp's ridley sea turtles also are still reeling in the wake of the disaster, scientists say. The population was recovering from near-extinction, but since the spill their growth rate has tapered off. The report says about 500 sea turtles have washed up in the well area in the past three years.
The report also lists sperm whales and bluefin tuna as having been affected.
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Oil is still being found. Several months ago a large oil mat washed up on a Panhandle beach. Oil traced back to BP's well was found even in Tampa Bay last year.
“Despite what the oil company would have us believe, the impacts of the disaster are ongoing,” said Sarah Gonzalez-Rothi, a Gulf restoration policy specialist with NWF. “Just last year, nearly 5 million pounds of oiled material from the spill were removed from Louisiana's coast. And that's just what we've seen. An unknown amount of BP's oil remains deep in the Gulf with untold consequences for wildlife.”
Tampa Bay's marine life hasn't been nearly as badly affected. In fact, researchers in Sarasota used a local, healthy dolphin population for comparison in its study on an ailing group of dolphins in Louisiana's Barataria Bay.
The trouble for Tampa Bay, environmentalists say, comes in large part from economics. Although the tourism industry bounced back and now flourishes, the fishing industry is concerned about the spill's continued effects.
The NWF report says a chemical associated with Deepwater Horizon causes irregular heartbeats in bluefin and other types of tuna studied, and a decline in red snapper was seen after the leak.
“We have a lot of commercial and recreational fisheries in this area,” Harrelson said. “It's a big business, big industry. Those impacts, certainly the economics of Tampa Bay, they start to have an impact on people's livelihoods.”
Lawsuits against BP and other corporations involved in the event are ongoing. Gov. Rick Scott last month joined a multi-state lawsuit against BP, Anadarko and Transocean. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of South Florida and a range of other institutions continue to explore the event's possible effects on the health of the Gulf of Mexico.