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The Oil Spill's Impact on Gulf Coast Oysters

November 2010

Citation: ELR 11097

Author: Mike Freeman, Stephen Gidiere, and Mary Samuels

Oysters are an integral part of the Gulf of Mexico. They clump together to act as coral reefs that protect, shelter, and form vital nursery grounds for other aquatic species. They act as natural water purifiers, filtering anywhere from 25 to 50 gallons of water per day in the bays and estuaries where they dwell. Often referred to as the "backbone of marine life," oysters fall near the bottom of the food chain, providing nourishment for all types of sea life, including birds at low tide. Due to their proximity to shore, oyster shell reefs (living and dead) also help reduce shoreline and wetland erosion by forming natural ridges on the sea floor that minimize waves and tidal impact. And last, but certainly not least, oysters are a gastronomical delicacy whether done Rockefeller or Bienville style or just fresh, open, and on the half-shell. In the Gulf Coast region, this unique and valuable resource generates approximately $131 million in annual revenues.


Undoubtedly of critical importance to the Gulf's marine life, oysters are highly sensitive to the quality of their surroundings. Oysters feed by filtering nutrients out of seawater. Because they are immobile creatures, if the water around them is contaminated, oysters will collect these chemicals and pollutants, making them one of the most vulnerable species threatened by the BP oil spill disaster.


From April 20 through July 15, 2010, approximately five million barrels of oil gushed out of a deepwater oil drilling well in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil penetrated the water column and formed a thick oil slick that eventually reached the shores of the Gulf Coast, contaminating everything it encountered--including the world's last, largely intact network of oyster reefs. Because of the presence of oil in the water, state health departments closed the oyster seasons along the Gulf Coast, resulting in economic losses for oystermen and other businesses not only in the Gulf region, but across the United States.


Mike Freeman, Stephen Gidiere, and Mary Samuels practice environmental law and litigation at Balch & Bingham LLP in Birmingham, Alabama.

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