— Scientists returning from an expedition off the Gulf Coast said Friday they found dead and dying deepwater coral near the BP oil spill site that was covered in a brown substance.
"The compelling evidence that we collected constitutes a smoking gun" that the substance is tied to the BP spill, the chief researcher on the cruise, Penn State biologist Charles Fisher, said in a statement Friday.
"We have never seen anything like this," he added. "The visual data for recent and ongoing death are crystal clear and consistent over at least 30 colonies; the site is close to the Deepwater Horizon; the research site is at the right depth and direction to have been impacted by a deep-water plume, based on NOAA models and empirical data; and the impact was detected only a few months after the spill was contained."
The researchers found the evidence at a site 4,600 feet deep and some seven miles from the BP well.
"Much of the soft coral observed ... (was) covered by what appeared to be a brown substance.," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement. NOAA sponsored the cruise.
"Ninety percent of 40 large corals were heavily affected and showed dead and dying parts and discoloration," NOAA added. "Another site 400 meters (1,200 feet) away had a colony of stony coral similarly affected and partially covered with a similar brown substance."
NOAA called the damage "recent" and NOAA Chief Jane Lubchenco said she was concerned about "impacts to marine life in places in the Gulf that are not easily seen."
But NOAA stopped short of attributing the substance to oil from the spill, or to the chemical dispersants used to break up some of the oil.
"Further testing will also determine if the substance is oil, and if so, whether it is consistent with the release from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill," NOAA said.
The researchers from government and academia worked off a ship that had a remotely operated vehicle that took samples and photographs. The ship returned to port on Thursday after three weeks at sea.
Ocean Conservancy, a group that had worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill restoration efforts, urged the Obama administration to constantly and consistently monitor the subsea areas around the BP site.
"The deep sea coral damage that has been identified by federal scientists is another reminder that the governments must vigorously explore all possible injury from this oil disaster and seek appropriate compensation in support of Gulf restoration," Stan Senner, Ocean Conservancy’s director of conservation science, said in a statement.
"The Gulf of Mexico is a special place, providing the nation with food, jobs, and a unique way of life," he added. "Measuring its full impact will take years, and fully restoring the Gulf will take decades."
A Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force ordered by President Barack Obama last month will have its first public meeting on Monday. Made up of federal and state agencies, it is headed by Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency.