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Oil Drilling Threatens Recently Discovered Amazon Reef

In late January, the world saw the first photographs of a stunning new coral reef near the mouth of the Amazon River. Sadly, oil drilling already threatens it.

In late January, the world saw the first photographs of a recently discovered coral reef near the mouth of the Amazon River. Initially found in 2012 and officially announced in 2016, a team from Greenpeace first documented the Amazon reef earlier this year. The organization hopes that its images will help protect a discovery that’s already threatened by the specter of human greed. Even though the reef may represent a unique marine biome, oil giants Total and BP have initiated plans for exploratory drilling in the area.

What makes the Amazon reef special?

Although reef conservation is always important, this reef is particularly deserving because of the unique conditions under which it exists. Most corals depend on ample sunlight and consistent salinity levels. The Amazon reef, however, thrives at the confluence of a freshwater river and the saline Atlantic Ocean. Sunlight is scarce because of the corals’ depth and the high levels of sediment carried out to sea by the Amazon River. But despite all the odds, this fascinating reef supports at least 73 different species of fish. There are also as uncounted numbers of corals, sponges and invertebrates.

Researchers discovered the reef in 2012 when they visited Brazil to research the Amazon River plume’s effect on the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide. One of the scientists, Rodrigo Moura, decided to scout for potential reef sites at the same time. Previous scientific papers, which recorded surprising numbers of fish caught at the river’s mouth, inspired him. The team used sonar to map the area. Using samples dredged from the seafloor, they confirmed their suspicions that a reef existed below the plume. They found corals and subtropical reef fish, confirming a reef that scientists now think covers around 3,600 square miles.

The reef under threat

Currently, scientists have mapped less than 5 percent of the Amazon reef. “It has huge potential for new species,” says Federal University of Pará researcher Nils Asp. However, scientists may be running out of time to study the reef. Less than a year after its official announcement, the region is already at risk. Together, Total and BP own five deep-water exploration licenses in the Amazon River mouth-area. Both are currently applying for exploratory drilling permits.

If the government approves the permits, one of Total’s drilling blocks is just five miles from the Amazon reef. This puts the ecosystem at constant risk of an oil spill. Asp says a spill would “[dramatically] affect the reef, as well as the mangrove coast of the region, which is ecologically highly connected with the reef system.”

A spill in the area would also affect the Amazon River basin, home to rare species like the Amazonian manatee and the hawksbill turtle. Nevertheless, the Brazilian government is expected to approve the drilling permits in a matter of weeks even though the accompanying environmental risk assessments were submitted before the paper announcing the reef was published.

Protecting the reef

Greenpeace designed their recent expedition to the Amazon reef to make the Brazilian government take interest in the future of this exceptional discovery. The team took photographs of the reef’s deeper sections with submersibles. The organization hopes that the images will add weight to ongoing research and lead to protective measures. The photographs, shot at around 700 feet (213 m), are incredibly clear. They showing colorful corals and inquisitive fish, including crayfish, angelfish, butterflyfish and squirrelfish. Regardless of the permits, scientific research will continue on the reef.