As I read in the news that the Keystone pipeline spilled 210,000 gallons of oil into South Dakota, I was reminded of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Some 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and 1.84 million additional barrels of dispersant helped sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

Conservationists urge action by Louisiana to restore, protect critical Maurepas Swamp

For many the oil disappeared from both sight and mind, but for those of us who study deep water corals and knew the oil would land right on top of these beautiful creatures, the tragedy was only beginning. It has been seven years since the spill, but because deep water corals are often outside the reach of human divers, we are just starting to truly understand its impacts.

Deep water corals live in water up to 6,000 feet deep where sunlight cannot reach them. Because they do not have light to "power" their growth through zooxanthellae, they grow much more slowly. Scientists estimate that some corals are more than 2,000 years old and can provide clues about how our oceans have changed over time. Because they live in environments without strong wave actions, they tend to be more fragile.

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A detail of Julie Heffernan's "Self-Portrait on the Brink," originally titled "Self Portrait as Gulf Clean-Up Plan, is an imagined landscape inspired by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rupture that gushed 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Corals also face threats from boat anchors and certain fishing practices like bottom long-lining and trawling. In order to preserve these ancient species which we still know so little about, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is considering creating areas of protection. The public comment period is expected to begin in January and run until the council votes in April. It’s important we let the council know that deep water corals are worth protecting before it's too late.

Phillip Dustan

College of Charleston, Department of Biology

Charleston, South Carolina

Conservationists urge action by Louisiana to restore, protect critical Maurepas Swamp