Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Blog Whale Sharks

Whale Sharks deaths connected to Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Whale Shark Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The Gulf oil spill occurred in crucial habitat for the world’s largest fish.

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published September 24, 2010

SPECIAL SERIES | DEEP IMPACT
Deciphering the unseen, underwater effects of the Gulf oil spill.

The Gulf oil spill fouled a vital stretch of feeding habitat for whale sharks, possibly killing some of the world’s largest fish, new research suggests.

An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil (one barrel equals 42 gallons, or 159 liters) flowed into an area south of the Mississippi River Delta, where of one-third of all northern Gulf of Mexico (map) whale shark sightings have occurred in recent years, scientists say.

The 45-foot-long (14-meter-long) fish, still largely a mystery to scientists, is considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

(See “World’s Largest Shark Species at Risk, Expert Says.”)

“This spill’s impact came at the worst possible time and in the worst possible location for whale sharks,” said biologist Eric Hoffmayer, who studies whale sharks at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

Sightings confirmed that the animals were unable to avoid the slick at the surface, where the giant fish may feed for seven to eight hours a day. The oil may have clogged the fish’s gills, suffocating them, or it might have contaminated their prey—though no dead whale sharks have been found, Hoffmayer noted.

“We’ve seen aerial photos with animals within a few miles of the wellhead and swimming in thick oil,” said Hoffmayer, a National Geographic Society Waitt grantee. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

“At the end of the day, if these animals were feeding in an area where there was surface oil, and if they ingested oil, there is a good possibility that they died and sank to the bottom. At this point we have no idea how many animals have been impacted.” Read more..

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