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Wildlife recovered quickly after big Gulf spill in 1979

Tim Johnson McClatchy

MEXICO CITY – The Ixtoc 1 oil spill in Mexico’s shallow Campeche Sound three decades ago serves as a distant mirror to today’s BP deepwater blowout, and marine scientists are still pondering what they learned from its aftereffects.

In terms of blowouts, Ixtoc 1 was a monster – until the ongoing BP leak, the largest accidental spill in history. Some 3.3 million barrels of oil gushed over nearly 10 months, spreading an oil slick as far north as Texas.

Surprisingly, Mexican scientists say that Campeche Sound itself recovered rather quickly, and a sizable shrimp industry returned to normal within two years.

Luis A. Soto, a deep-sea biologist, had earned his doctorate from the University of Miami a year before the June 3, 1979, blowout of Ixtoc 1 in 160 feet of water in the Campeche Sound, the shallow, oil-rich continental shelf off the Yucatan Peninsula.

Soto and other Mexican marine scientists feared the worst when they examined sea life in the sound once oil workers finally capped the blowout in March 1980.

In the months after Ixtoc 1 was capped, scientists trawled the waters of the sound for signs of biological distress.

“I found shrimp with tumor formations in the tissue, and crabs without the pincers. These were very serious effects,” Soto said.

Another Mexican marine biologist, Leonardo Lizarraga Partida, said the evaluation team began measuring oil content in the sediment, evaluating microorganisms in the water and checking on the biomass of shrimp species.

As the studies extended into a second year, scientists noticed how fast the marine environment recovered, helped by naturally occurring microbes that feasted on the oil and degraded it.

Perhaps due to those microbes, aquatic life along the shoreline in Texas had returned to normal within three years – even as tar balls and tar mats remained along the beaches, sometimes covered by sand, according to Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

“We were really surprised,” Lizarraga said. “After two years, the conditions were really almost normal.”

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