What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

New science shows Gulf spill is still killing dolphins

More than 1,000 bottlenose dolphins have died off the Gulf Coast since 2010, the year a massive Deepwater Horizon spill spewed millions of gallons of oil and chemicals. A new study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examines why. The NewsHour’s William Brangham joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the findings.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: the lasting impact of America's biggest offshore oil spill.

    It comes as officials are grappling with a new spill along the coast of Southern California near Santa Barbara. It began yesterday when an onshore pipeline ruptured. Slicks are now spanning a total of nine miles and the line was operating at full capacity when it broke.

    Today, a new study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at why dolphins died in such large numbers after the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010. It was the strongest link yet to the spill and to the deaths of bottlenose dolphins. More than 1,000 dolphins have died in the Gulf since 2010.

    The spill lasted nearly three months, spewing millions of gallons of oil and chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico.

    We get the latest from William Brangham, who weekend viewers will recognize, and he is now here with us as our newest NewsHour correspondent.

    And we welcome you to the team, William.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Thanks, Judy. Great to be here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, let's talk about this, what researchers are saying. What do they say these new studies show?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    What they're saying is that this has been the first definitive link where they can directly connect the death, this massive die-off of dolphins — as you mentioned, over 1,300 — I think it's 1,200, 1,300 dolphins — linking those deaths directly with the oil spill.

    I mean, scientists have been studying these dolphins for several years, ever since the spill occurred. This is the first time they have said, we now know why they died and in such large numbers, and it's because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, BP is pushing back, of course. They are saying there's no proof that there's a connection to the oil that came out of the Deepwater Horizon rig. What do scientists say about that?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That's true.

    This has been BP's argument all along, and in fact they have also pointed out that there were die-offs of dolphins that happened all the time on the Gulf, and that actually some of these dolphins had died off before the spill even occurred.

    But scientists went to great lengths today to say that they looked at all the other factors that have caused die-offs in the past, and that this particular spill, the impact the oil has had on marine mammals, they can directly connect it to the dolphins that they have seen. And, in fact, the research that they did showed in the areas where there was more oil in the water, more dolphins died, areas where there was less oil, less dolphins died.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, are the bottlenose dolphins still dying off, or was this a one-time phenomenon?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The deaths have occurred ever since the spill began all the way to the present day. The current study only looked at a couple of years after the spill.

    And what they did is, they examined 46 particular dolphins that died, and they were quickly able to catch them on the beaches of the Gulf. And they analyzed their tissues and found lung and adrenal gland problems. So this is — they think this may be an ongoing problem, but this study just looked at this particular period.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And do they offer an explanation for why they're seeing this with the bottlenose dolphins, but not with other animal species, crab, fish, shrimp, and so forth?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The impact on those other species may occur. They just haven't found the data on them yet.

    The reason that dolphins, the scientist says, are the — are particularly acute sort of ways to understand this is that, if you think about how a dolphin lives, they're mammals. They breathe air. So during the spill, they come to the surface to breathe the — to breathe. They enter the area of the water where the oil is sitting, and so they take a huge, deep breath with their blowhole, suck oil and chemicals into that.

    Then they take a deep dive and hold that breath for a very long period of time. So, they're particularly able to, in essence, suck in the oil and cause great deals of problems. Also, the scientists were able, to all throughout the spill, find these dolphins. They were able to go out and find them. They're very large mammals swimming around in the water.

    So, they can observe them, they can capture them, they can do tests on them while they're alive. And when the dolphins die, they wash up on the beaches, unlike a lot of other animals, that just might die and fall to the ocean floor. A dolphin washes up on a beach, people pay attention. They call local officials, and scientists can quickly go in and examine them before the tissue deteriorates.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, I know people are going to listen to this, and one of the things they're going to ask is, what about other — what about those other animals? Are they saying that nothing is going to happen down the line to them, and particularly what about the potential seafood in the Gulf?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That, of course, is always a concern of consumers all over the country.

    There are current research projects going on under sea turtles to see the impacts on them and several other Gulf species. As far as the food that we eat, the shrimp and the crab that we're used to, the FDA and all of the national government scientists that look at this have declared that those animals, at least the impacts that we would experience by eating them, those seem to be fine and we have been given the green light to eat Gulf seafood again.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But their research is ongoing, meantime.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Correct.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    William Brangham, thank you.

    And, again, welcome to the NewsHour team.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Thank you so much. Great to be here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we have a note to add.

    Late today, a $211 million settlement was announced between Transocean, which is the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and businesses and individuals claiming damages from that 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Latest