GALVESTON — While the lasting images of the Galveston Bay oil spill may be of oiled birds and beaches, some experts worry that the last damage will be in places that are more unseen.

Ecological experts say the 168,000 gallons could have lasting effects on the undersea ecosystem in Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

“We want to know if the oil is going to be toxic, and based on previous studies, we know that it is toxic,” said Antionetta Quigg, a professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “Given that plankton is food for high-traffic levels of fish, we think that they then become toxic, too.”

Quigg said that fish in the polluted water will get a “double hit” from encountering oil both in their physical environment and their food sources.

While cleanup efforts are still underway to collect the thick, tarry heavy fuel oil from Gulf waters and shorelines, officials have said some of the substance could have sunk to the seabed as it picks up sediment. From there, the oil can smother or poison prey animals like shrimp or crabs, which could then start a chain reaction up the bay’s food chain.

For food at the bottom of the chain, a pollutant like oil can have harsh effects. But those effects can be muted by the short life span of some animals.

“Plankton divides fairly quickly, so as long as (the oil) keeps being cleaned up and moving offshore, we’ll have a new community popping up fairly quickly,” Quigg said. “It will be detrimental perhaps for another few weeks, but then life should resume for something close to normality.”

For other, larger animals, however, the recovery can take longer.

The Galveston Bay oil spill comes the same week that a study was released in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences that found evidence that some fish, including species of tuna and amberjack, could develop heart defects as a result of the oil spilled during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Another study released in December found that dolphins on the Louisiana coast were suffering from lung diseases and low birthrates in the wake the BP spill.

Whether those effects will be felt in Galveston remains to be seen. TAMUG scientists said that there was a fear earlier in the week that the dolphins that normally swim in the ship channel had fled the area, but on Tuesday they were seen following the university’s boat during a sampling trip.

Quigg said the university would continue studying the health of the Bay and the animals that live in it for years to come.

Other agencies are also looking out for the animals that are on the top of the food chain.

On Thursday, the Texas Department of State Health services issued a seafood consumption advisory for Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The advisory recommended that people not consume fish, shrimp or crab from areas where oil is present, and that any food that has already been fished, but has a hydrocarbon smell or taste, should be discarded.

A DSHS spokesperson said Friday that the advisory would remain in place for as long as needed, and that health officials would collect and test captured seafood until it is determined that that they are safe to consume.

The spokesperson could not, however, say if that testing would continue after official cleanup efforts are completed.

“At this point we don’t have an estimate of long,” the spokeswoman said.

Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or john.ferguson@galvnews.com.

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