Unnatural consequences
September 11, 2019

It has been more than nine years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, starting 87 days of uncontrolled gushing in which more than 160 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf. A decade later, the wreckage of Deepwater Horizon is barren of life, except for two creatures, deep-sea shrimp and red crabs, according to a new study by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. The crab and shrimp are drawn to the site by chemicals released as the oil breaks down, mimicking sex hormones, scientists speculate. But instead of mates, the creatures find death.

"There's not much there," Tristan Baurick, a reporter for The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, told Texas Standard on Tuesday. "There's no food, so these animals just wander around looking for mates, and then they get contaminated with the oil and get really sick. ... There's really no life but these sick and dying crabs and shrimp."

"Their shells were black, and they had a lot of parasites on them," Craig McClain, LUMCON's director, told The Times-Picayune. "Many (crabs) were missing claws. They looked really unhealthy." The researchers' "hypothesis is that the degraded hydrocarbons mimic natural hormones, especially ones used in sexual attraction and mating," he added, and watching the dying crabs wander around around the Deepwater Horizon site made for "an emotionally draining dive — probably the most depressing in the course of my career."

You can see photos of the crabs at The Times-Picayune and listen to Baurick talk about the findings at Texas Standard. Peter Weber

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