New Sea Grant publication addresses oil’s impact on coral communities

The largest accidental marine spill in American history, 2010’s Deepwater Horizon incident occurred deep in the Gulf of Mexico, spreading oil from the blowout site into coastal areas and impacting ecologically-important coastal communities in the process. A new Sea Grant publication Corals and oil spills explains what scientists know about what can happen to these communities during and after man-made oil spills.

What people refer to as “corals” are colonies of tiny polyps that attach to one another and anchor to the ocean bottom. Corals support a diverse ecosystem by providing food, shelter, and habitat to thousands of marine plants and animals. But corals all over the world struggle in the face of constant threats, from warming temperatures to changing levels of ocean acidity. Understanding how they respond to oil spills is important in light of the many hazards they encounter.

Coral colonies exist at every depth in the marine environment. Corals cannot escape pollutants like oil when it enters their habitat. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, various groups of researchers studied coral communities in the northern Gulf to see if the oil and related response efforts impacted their overall health. The Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Team read the available peer-reviewed scientific findings on corals and oil spills to create this report.

Scientists studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill discovered that oil exposure injured some deep water coral communities, while others in shallower areas remained unharmed. Various teams looked at how proximity to the wellhead related to signs of stress and deterioration. They also studied what role response methods, including the use of dispersants, played in coral health. Due to the slow rate of growth in the deep sea, it could take decades to hundreds of years for the impacted corals to return to their pre-Deepwater Horizon state.

To read more about how corals in the Gulf fared after the oil spill or any of the team’s other in-depth oil spill science publications, check out the program webpage. The team also hosts seminars on oil spill science topics. On January 9 in LaCombe, Louisiana, the workshop Responding to oil spills: Offshore and deep sea habitats will be free and open to the public. It will also be available online as a webinar.


The Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Program is a joint project of the four Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant College Programs, with funding from partner Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. The team’s mission is to collect and translate the latest peer-reviewed research for those who rely on a healthy Gulf for work or recreation. To learn more about the team’s products and presentations, visit

Photo courtesy of ECOGIG.