Study: Deepwater Horizon Oil Causes Heart Damage in Tuna

A new study has found that a chemical in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill causes irregular heartbeats in bluefin and yellowfin tuna that can lead to heart attacks, or even death. The researchers believe that similar impacts may have affected a broad range of species in the wake of the Gulf oil disaster.

Schooling bluefin tuna feed in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy of NOAA Marine Photobank.
The study details how chemicals in the oil interfere with the cells in fish hearts, potentially making it difficult for the heart to contract, causing arrhythmias. In essence, each time the heart beats is a challenge, sometimes taking longer to beat than normal and thus creating irregular heartbeat patterns. As this happens more frequently, the risk of heart attack continues to increase.

In addition, the research indicates that the juveniles of other fish and vertebrates may be particularly vulnerable. In an Times Picayune, additional concerns were highlighted:

“The effects are believed to be more of a problem for fish embryos and early developing fish, because the heartbeat changes could also affect the development of other organs, including the lungs and liver”, said Nathaniel Scholz, head of the Ecotoxicology Program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

Results Indicate Potential for Broader Injury

National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Tyler MacDonald donated this photo of a loggerhead sea turtle, taken off the coast of Florida.
National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Tyler MacDonald donated this photo of a loggerhead sea turtle, taken off the coast of Florida.
These effects, scientists say, could help explain “crude oil toxicity syndrome,” which has been observed in number of fish species, across both fresh and saltwater habitats. Similar findings have been reported in killifish and mahi mahi.

Could these types of impacts be causing mortalities in populations of crabs, sea turtles, and dolphins?  It’s a possibility, as the paper points out that similar impacts were “potentially a common form of injury among a broad range of species during and after the DWH spill.”

In addition, the study points our that “other vertebrates may have been particularly vulnerable.” Other vertebrates is a large category, one that includes all fish, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. In fact, the paper specifically calls for more research into marine mammals, as marine mammals apparently have similar properties in their muscle cells as the tuna species studied.

Keep in mind that these findings are part of the ongoing Natural Resrouce Damage Assessment process being used to evaluate spill impatcs. As new research continues to confirm nongoing impacts from the oil disaster, it is imperative that additional research evaluate links between these symptoms in Tuna and those in other species potentially impacted by the spill.

Take Action

Take Action ButtonDolphins are still dying in high numbers of lung and liver diseases in areas affected by the spill—and infant dolphin deaths have spiked every spring. Make sure that every penny of the BP’s fines are spent on Gulf research and restoration.