Most commonly, we deal with oil spills on the surface of the ocean. In most cases these discharges occur very close to shore. We are most concerned when the contaminating oil comes to shore to befoul beaches, birds and shoreline inhabitants of the ocean with which we are most familiar. This is only natural, as we humans recognize these creatures as those with which we share our ocean bounty.
The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout and its impact on the ocean is a horse of another color. It is a massive amount of crude oil discharged nearly a mile below the surface in near-freezing water. Much of the oil may not reach the surface anytime soon. Instead it will travel in somewhat discrete patches in many directions beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Existing as large patches of emulsified droplets too heavy to float and too light to sink to the bottom – it will be trapped in the middle layers of the ocean. Although comfortable for us since we cannot see it, here it has the potential to do untold amounts of damage to our ocean ecosystems. Likely victims of subsurface oil contamination are copepods.
Copepods are a type of crustacean (related to crabs and lobsters) that are nearly microscopic and are very numerous in most parts of all ocean basins. They are prominent components of the zooplankton community – small animals that swim and drift in the open ocean. In fact, copepods are the dominant component of many zooplankton communities. In food webs, copepods serve an invaluable link between microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and larger animals (krill, fish, crabs and lobsters) in the ocean. Copepods consume solar energy trapped by phytoplankton and are consumed by larger animals. They create a major conduit of energy of the oceans.
Copepods are so numerous that some scientists believe they make up the largest biomass of all animal species on the planet. Pretty amazing to think that nearly microscopic organisms can, in combination, weigh more than all the fish, whales, or elephants on the planet; but they do. Who would have thought that the workings of the oceans rest upon the mighty, tiny copepod?
Now, as toxic crude oil flows into the subsurface layers of the Gulf of Mexico, we need to be aware of these magnificent little creatures. And, we need to be concerned for the plight of copepods whose open ocean habitats are befouled with our oil. The need for our awareness and concern stems from several reasons.
Copepods are magnificent little animals deserving all the rights and considerations we convey to their fuzzy or feathered long-distant relatives: they too are our planetary co-inhabitants worthy of our stewardship. They are also probably more important to our existence on this planet than are the pelicans or otters whose aid we readily come to in a time of need.
Research has shown that copepods do not do fare well in the presence of crude oil. Among other things, they decrease their rate of reproduction. There will likely be less of them available to transfer energy to the other species of animals in the ocean. With less food, fewer animals that prey upon them are likely to survive to ultimately be consumed by animals higher on the food chain – like us.
I wish there were easy ways to “save the copepods”, but there is not at this point in this disaster. The first step is to know they exist and know they are important to our existence. Use less energy and demand that we use energy sources less harmful to our planet.
Let’s think about the deep ocean impacts of ocean pollution – not just the shoreline impacts. Don’t let the clean up of birds and shorelines be the total solution to this disaster – demand that we focus on all aspects of the oil contamination.