The BP oil spill is the largest in history -- it's 12,000 miles wide with a 50 million-gallon proof-point. *Tear drop.*
So what does this mean for ocean life? Because we're at the top of the food chain, we're often very detached from where our food comes from and don't consider how natural disasters like the oil spill can affect the food we eat.
But, the truth is that oceans are the engines for life on the entire planet and provide half of the world's oxygen supply. Mess with the ocean life, and ultimately you mess with our food supply.
Although it's still too soon to determine how much ocean life and land life will be altered by this spill, there are five ways we know it'll screw up the food chain and our economy.
1. Phytoplankton are being killed. Let me break it down for you on how the food chain works: At the very bottom are phytoplankton. They live in marshes near the surface and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen that ocean life needs. Plus, they give nourishment to fish and shrimp, which are eaten by larger fish, birds, and people. If the base collapses, the rest of the food chain will die, too.
2. Endangered animals and extinct species. Already the Kemp's Ridley turtles, Leatherback sea turtles, Sperm Whale, and birds like the Piping Plover and Gulf Sturgeon are endangered in the Gulf. The EPA is trying to get Bluefin tuna on the list, too. Some scientists fear the oil disaster could wipe out whole species, which in turn will throw off the entire food chain.
3. Toxic rain. Hurricane season is coming, which means that oil-tainted rain could affect land life, too. Toxic rain can travel hundreds if not thousands of miles from the BP spill and can kill microbial life on land (similar to how the phytoplankton works in the chain), and therefore affects the entire food chain from beetles to birds to deer. Word is this could go on for many years! Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources even thinks it could be North America's apocalyptic destruction. Eek!
4. Chemical dispersants. BP dumped nearly one million gallons of chemical dispersants into the ocean. The dispersants don't get rid of the oil but rather just spread it around. So, the oil that would normally float on the surface is seeping deeper into the water where they are being absorbed by plants, organisms, and fish. Therefore, not only oil but human carcinogens like naphthalenes, benzene, toluene, and xylenes are entering the food chain, which can have negative long-term effects on species.
5. Reproductive and survival challenges. Scientists are already starting to see larval fish and fins of small fish encased in oil. This limits their ability to out-maneuver prey, which means that less of that species will be around. Food chain is all about balance, and survival issues will greatly affect it. Also, scientists are finding oil in crab larvae; fish that eat this larvae can metabolize the oil, but it accumulates in their bodies with continued exposure. The result? Major reproductive problems among sea creatures -- including less births and/or defective ones.
Image via MarinePhotoBank/Flickr