A coral reef described by National Geographic as “one of the most surprising finds in modern sea research” is under imminent ecological danger as big oil companies like BP and Total have announced their plans to begin drilling operations in the area. Together, the companies own five licenses allowing drilling around the Amazon river delta and are waiting to be granted permits to begin exploratory drilling this year. The Brazilian government, under the leadership of the right-wing and notoriously corrupt Michel Temer, is expected to comply. Total and BP told Greenpeace’s Energydesk that “the existing environmental studies acknowledge the reef and said they plan to proceed without further risk assessments.”
The coral reef was discovered off the coast of Brazil by chance by a group of scientists who followed the clues laid out by a“1977 six-page research paper that included a hand-drawn map suggesting this region might mask an extraordinary set of reefs.” The mouth of the Amazon proved to be congested with a layer of thick, heavy mud— a condition which would normally smother the growth of a tropical reef. It is believed to be more than 600 miles long, extending from the southern tip of French Guiana to Brazil’s Maranhão State. The eco-system uncovered largely exists without light, photosynthesis and only very small amounts of oxygen. So far, 73 species of fish and 61 types of sponges have been identified as inhabitants.
Given the murky conditions, scientists estimate only 10% of the reef has been surveyed to date. The discovery team worries that contamination from oil drilling could gravely harm the thriving reef, the vast majority of which is yet unexplored. “Such large-scale industrial activities present a major environmental challenge, and companies should catalyze a more complete social-ecological assessment of the system before impacts become extensive and conflicts among the stakeholders escalate,” indicates a new study detailing the discovery. Further studies are required to understand the level of risk involved with drilling in this area, and the scientists are suggesting more comprehensive intervention of Brazil’s ministry of environment, IBAMA. The study suggests that the environmental impact reports prepared by the oil companies and Brazilian government thus far are “still incipient and largely based on sparse museum specimens.”
Environmental impact reports suggest these species are particularly vulnerable to extinction if their environment suffers in any way. One of the scientists involved, Dr. Asp, reported to Energydesk that the reef is ecologically essential and of great value to the environment and scientific community,
“This reef system is important for many reasons, including the fact that it has unique characteristics regarding use and availability of light, and physicochemical water conditions; it has a huge potential for new species and biotechnology; it has a very large extension; it is important to fisheries as well, which is an important socioeconomic aspect of the Amazonian Coastal Zone.”