Oct. 11, 2011 -- The demise of the gulf's minnowlike killifish could be the start of an ecological tsunami, experts are warning.
"They're a fairly sensitive indicator relative to other species, which is good," said Andrew Whitehead, assistant professor of biology at Louisiana State University. "They act as a canary in the coal mine, if you will."
Whitehead and his research team studied killifish from the still-blackened Louisiana marshes and in gulf waters that seemed clear of oil. What they found is disturbing -- the toxic brew from last year's oil spill and remnants of the oil may be poisoning the marsh's most abundant fish.
Whitehead said the phenomenon was alarmingly similar to the ecological fallout seen in the years after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill, in which populations of otters, ducks and herring were decimated.
"A lot of the early warning indicators for those species that had problems in Alaska, we're seeing the exact same early warning indicators in our fish."
That means generations of gulf shrimp, oyster and snapper could also be at risk.
In Lafitte, La., two months into the white shrimp season, shrimpers are telling The New York Times that this one of the worst seasons they have ever seen.
But, with no statistics available yet to corroborate the anecdotes, it is difficult to determine how bad a season it has been.
While there are a variety of theories as to why the catch may be down, those whose livelihoods are made on the shrimp boats are hoping it is just one bad year and not an indication of things to come as Whitehead's research may show.
"When you look at the structure of the gills from these fish that were hit by oil," Whitehead said. "Their gills look pretty sick. And the gills are pretty important for enabling fish to live in these estuaries."
The threat isn't just from the water, but also the wetlands.
Whitehead said that sediment acted like a sponge soaking up toxic oil, destroying killifish embryos and causing others to hatch late or develop heart defects.
"The sediment exposures are a knock over the head," he said. "There's very clear, compromised development in embryos that are exposed to the sediments."
If other marine life is affected in similar ways it could be catastrophic for the seafood industry.
The U.S. government says that seafood from the gulf is safe to eat and that cancer-causing chemicals are at acceptable levels for humans.