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May 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 4
Turtle banner image: Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

In This Issue

Science in the News

U.S. Government to Study Gulf Oil Spill Health Impacts

beach cleanup
Long-term health effects of Gulf oil spill on cleanup workers to be studied by U.S. government. NOAA

In the midst of much criticism over the absence of adequate protocols to monitor human health in the days immediately following the Gulf oil spill, the U.S. government has launched the Gulf Long-term Follow-up (GuLF) Study. The study will be conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and will look at the spill's impacts on a projected 55,000 cleanup workers and volunteers. Expected to last up to 10 years, it will examine such long-term health concerns as cancer, birth defects and psychosocial ramifications.

However, according to a recent review in the New England Journal of Medicine, the inability of federal agencies to mount a timely human health research response means that many short-term symptoms such as headaches, eye and skin irritation, nausea and dizziness that could be linked to the spill have receded. The extensive delay challenges the ability of workers to remember oil exposure details and severely limits the use of exposure studies as biomarkers of chemical effects diminish over time or are confounded by other types of contaminant contact.

The review's authors, led by Bernard Goldstein at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, note that the potential health consequences of oil spills can be delineated into four categories: those related to worker safety; toxicologic effects in workers, visitors, and community members; mental health effects from social and economic disruption; and ecosystem effects that have consequences for human health. However, greater attention, they say, should be given to particularly vulnerable populations, such as immigrant workers, who are less likely to seek health care support and more likely to suffer long-term health consequences. They conclude that "[S]everal initiatives are urgently needed, before similar disasters occur in the future: rapid development and implementation of protocols for baseline clinical evaluations, including respiratory function; biospecimen banking; short- and longer-term medical surveillance and monitoring of workers; and development of psychosocial interventions."

Meanwhile, researchers who studied the social and psychological impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill on residents of Cordova, Alaska, have turned their attention to small Alabama fishing communities affected by the Gulf spill. Their soon-to-be-published research found that close to one-half of polled residents were experiencing either moderate or severe stress, much the same as found in Cordova, considered "ground zero" for the Exxon Valdez event. The research team, from the University of Southern Alabama, Oklahoma State University and the University of Colorado Boulder's Natural Hazards Center, warn that if the trends observed in Cordova continue to be mirrored in coastal communities in Alabama then significant spill-related psychological stress should be expected over the next decade. They write that, "Like the Exxon Valdez, and technological disasters in general, the aftermath of the BP oil spill will include '"contested"' scientific evidence concerning ecological damages, secondary traumas resulting from the claims process and litigation, and serious community conflict and mental health problems."

Further, a recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives warns that the psychological toll on residents of fishing communities indirectly affected by the spill may be underestimated. The study, conducted by Lynn Grattan of the School of Medicine of the University of Maryland and colleagues, found clinically significant depression and anxiety in residents from both Franklin County, Florida (which was not directly affected by the spill) and Baldwin County, Alabama (which was) and no significant differences between the two communities in terms of psychological distress, adjustment, neurocognition or environmental worry. They conclude that there is a "need to extend public health education and outreach, psychological monitoring, and mental health services beyond the direct spill areas" and that, furthermore, "these interventions need to be immediately available in the communities where the impacted individuals live."

Caughey, P. April 19, 2011. Gulf spill similar to Exxon Valdez in social impact. Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine. Available online at /gulf-spill-similar-to-exxon-valdez-in-social-impact/

Goldstein, B.D. et al. 2011. The Gulf oil spill. New England Journal of Medicine 364:1334-1348. Available online at

Grattan, L.M. et al. 2011. The early psychological impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Florida and Alabama communities. Environmental Health Perspectives: doi:10.1289/ehp. 1002915. Available online at

The National Institute of Health GuLF STUDY website at

Reardon, S. 2011. Ten months after Deepwater Horizon, picking up the remnants of health data. Science 331(6022): 1252. Available online at

Contact: For more information on the GuLF Study or to become a study participant call toll free at 1-855-644-4853 or visit

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Science Briefs

Ocean Acidification Helps Seaweed Outcompete Coral

coral and seaweed
Ocean acidification helps seaweed kill coral. ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Marine Photobank

New experimental evidence shows that ocean acidification affects the interaction between the two most abundant bottom-dwellers in coral reefs: reef-building corals and seaweeds. These two groups compete on reefs for both space and light. Often, in situations of low herbivory, seaweeds have the upper hand and may win out the competition for space. But when seaweeds are kept in check by their predators, and the reef is healthy, corals and seaweeds are in a competitive balance. Now Australian researchers, led by Guillermo Diaz-Pulido of Griffith University and writing in Ecology Letters, demonstrate that ocean acidification enhances the ability of seaweeds to outcompete corals, leading to coral death.

Scientists have long suspected that ocean acidification may affect the coral-seaweed interaction, and that its effect would favor seaweeds. Lower ocean pH, resulting from more carbon dioxide in seawater, leads to reduced rates of coral growth, potentially lowering their ability to colonize space on the ocean bottom, which algae also occupy. It also leads to increases in the growth of some seaweed species, thereby enhancing their ability to overgrow neighboring corals. The algae would thus be expected to win the constant struggle with corals on space competition under lower pH conditions. The new study experimentally confirms this hypothesis using two of the most abundant species co-occurring—and competing—on the Great Barrier Reef. The branching coral Acropora intermedia and the brown fleshy seaweed Lobophora papenfussii were placed in tanks exposed to four different carbon dioxide-dosing regimes, simulating the range of historical and projected ocean acidification conditions: pre-industrial, present-day, mid-century and late-century carbon dioxide levels. The growth and survivorship of both seaweed and coral were monitored and measured for eight weeks, to quantify the level and outcome of the competition under these different pH scenarios. The results clearly showed that increased carbon dioxide strongly increases the mortality of corals in contact with the seaweed, demonstrating that ocean acidification enhances the ability of the seaweed to kill and thereby outcompete corals. The authors suspect that higher carbon dioxide in seawater prompts the seaweed to release coral-inhibiting chemicals, which eventually killed the corals.

The newly demonstrated ecological effect of ocean acidification compounds its threat to marine systems as it adds to other well-documented physiological effects, such as reduced growth rates and the production of more brittle carbonate shells and skeletons by mollusks and corals. The long-term and larger scale potential implications for reefs are significant: the make-up of future reefs can more likely and more easily shift to algal-dominated than previously thought, due to the "helping hand" that ocean acidification provides to seaweed at the coral detriment.

Source: Diaz-Pulido, G. et al. 2011. High CO2 enhances the competitive strength of seaweeds over corals. Ecology Letters 14(2): 156-162

Contact: Guillermo Diaz-Pulido, Griffith University. E-mail:

Review Highlights Social Impacts of Fisheries Privatization

fishing boats
Fisheries privatization can erode small fishing communities Ted Creaser, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Marine Photobank

Open-access, or common property, fisheries have long been associated with overfishing and economic inefficiency through excessive investment in fishing effort and capital. This has increasingly led fisheries managers to implement management schemes that incorporate some system of property rights or privatization with the goals of reducing fishing capacity and promoting long-term sustainability. Such efforts include, for example, limiting fisheries access, permit leasing and, increasingly, the implementation of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).

But as explained by NOAA anthropologist Julia Olson of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole in a recent review article in Ocean & Coastal Management, a wide range of fishing industry participants are impacted by privatization. This includes crew members, small-boat owners, wholesalers, shore support workers, families and communities, and many others, all of whom are embedded within the diverse sociocultural contexts associated within any particular fishery. Drawing on a range of studies around the world she notes the often negative impacts engendered by fisheries privatization—job losses, violation of cultural norms, consolidation of fisheries and declines in community sustainability—even when a particular privatization regime was designed with the stated intention of insuring the viability of more vulnerable sectors. For example, the geographic redistribution of fisheries to larger ports because of privatization has eroded many traditional smaller fishing communities in places such as Iceland and New Zealand. Local communities may not only lose a larger share of their quotas but face employment declines in both fisheries and the associated shore-side businesses, such as processing, baiting and boat repair.

Olson concludes that a better understanding of privatization impacts can only come from looking at all the participants and the larger cultural context. Furthermore, she considers that the privatization of fisheries is "not simply an issue of economic efficiency, but a question of what values to promote and what the future of the fishery and its fishing communities should look like, and who should decide."

Source: Olson, J. Understanding and contextualizing social impacts from the privatization of fisheries: An overview. Ocean & Coastal Management 54(5): 353-363, 2011

Contact: Julia Olson, Northeast Fisheries Science Center. E-mail:

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Banner image credit: Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries