With storm rescue and recovery efforts underway along the Florida panhandle, officials are still trying to get a handle on the scale of the devastation brought by Hurricane Michael. But it was eight years ago that the Gulf of Mexico was devastated by a catastrophe of a different sort, when an explosion on a deepwater drilling rig led to 4.9 million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf, over 87 days. Today, the long-term impacts of the spill remain largely unknown. But researchers at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas are trying to find answers. Associate Professor Andrew Esbaugh is part of that team.
Esbaugh says that exposure to oil can cause various cardiac problems in fish. This affects how well fish can swim and take in oxygen from the environment. As a result, these fish are less effective at being able to capture prey, avoid predators and obtain resources.
“I think that everybody knows that oil is a really important natural resource, especially in Texas,” Esbaugh says. “It’s not going anywhere. But what we want to do is to make sure that policymakers are informed on the potential risks, especially risks that are pertinent to other natural resources like fish and fisheries.”
Esbaugh says that oil spills, like the energy industry itself, have economic consequences, too.
“Oil is a big money-maker in Texas, but recreational and commercial fisheries are also a big money-maker,” Esbaugh says. “There’s a lot of communities on the coast that really rely on these resources, so we have to make sure that policymakers understand the risks when they’re planning how the oil industry expands.”