In the aftermath of 2010's Deepwater Horizon disaster, it seemed the Gulf of Mexico was seeing an ecological disaster that might continue for generations.
Today, along some northern Gulf beaches, you might never guess what happened. State tourism officials in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida report that, so far, 2015 is one of the best tourist seasons seen in years.
Part of that could be, finally, a rebound from the Great Recession. But $179 million in tourism promotional grants from BP certainly helped, as did another $57 million the company coughed up during litigation over damage to the tourism and seafood industries.
As for the Gulf’s other denizens, scientists are finally piecing together who lived and who died from the oil – part of an ongoing natural resources damage assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There’s no question that’s what killed dolphins that washed up on beaches from 2010 to 2012, according to a May 20 report by marine mammal experts and animal pathologists. The animals all had massive damage to their lungs and adrenal glands – the hormonal control center for the animals’ other organs.
“These dolphins had some of the most severe lung lesions I’ve seen,” Dr. Kathleen Colegrove, the lead veterinary pathologist on the study, told reporters in a conference call.
The findings are significant, and counter theories that the dolphins died of natural causes like pneumonia that occasionally cause strandings. In 2014 dolphins were still stranding at four times the average rate prior to Deepwater Horizon, according to a recent National Wildlife Foundation report.
Other biologists found oil could cause developmental and heart abnormalities in tuna.
But the danger of a greatly dreaded die-off of baby Atlantic bluefin tuna was exaggerated, other researchers found, because less than 10 percent of the bluefin spawning grounds overlapped with the extent of the spill.
Still to come: a final post-mortem on sea turtles. Dead turtles and the question of what killed them became another point of distrust between Gulf residents and fishermen when some in NOAA and environmental groups suggested turtles were dying from drowning in shrimp nets.
Suspicions were aroused when turtle deaths rose months after the spill, and fisheries agents found some nets without the mandatory turtle excluder devices. But fishing advocates insisted there was widespread compliance with the excluder rule.
NOAA officials say those forthcoming findings, like continuing work on dolphins, will try to predict the long-term prospects for the Gulf’s animal populations to recover.