Scientists say a unique reef habitat near the mouth of the Amazon is threatened by oil drilling plans. The reef was discovered in 2016 and researchers say it may contain many unknown species of medicinal or scientific value.
The Amazon Reef is unusual because it lies in deep water and is sometimes obscured by the muddy waters that flow into the sea from the world’s largest river.
Its depth — up to 220 m (725 feet) — and the strong currents in the area mean it has been little explored since its discovery.
“It’s a very broad area, there are things we don’t know yet,” says César Cordeiro, professor at the Center for Life Sciences and Biotechnology at the University of North Rio de Janeiro.
“There are species that may only be found in this area and nowhere else in the world.”
One of these is a sponge currently being studied at the University of São Paulo that has shown signs of anti-cancer properties.
“The study and protection of these systems offer great potential for economic gains,” says Rodrigo Leão de Moura, professor at the Department of Biology at the University of Rio de Janeiro and a leading scientist involved in the discovery of the reef.
“Of course we have this immediate need for cheap energy, but how much is that sacrificing a future based on biotechnology?”
The scientists fear plans by Brazilian oil company Petrobras to drill for oil near the reef could cause an oil spill that would devastate the ecosystem.
Petrobras plans to conduct a test this month to learn more about how oil would be distributed in the event of a leak.
If that satisfies Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama, exploration drilling could soon follow, 160 km (100 miles) offshore but much closer to the reef.
Brazil’s Environment Minister Joaquim Leite – a member of the outgoing government appointed by President Jair Bolsonaro – said it was possible to explore for oil and protect the environment there, but Prof Moura has doubts.
“This area has one of the strongest currents on the planet and a tidal range that can exceed 10 m (33 feet). These are environmental conditions that challenge any engineering job and make it very risky,” he says.
Many reefs occur in shallow water where the sun provides ample energy for coral growth.
This one is different. Deeper and murkier, it’s mostly made up of tough red algae, which are capable of low-light photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight, water, and CO2 into carbohydrates and oxygen.
“They are red algae that use light in a more filtered way – they use the blue light spectrum,” says Prof. Moura.
The algae are tough because they contain a chalk-like substance in their cell walls that allows large solid structures to grow over time.
The reef is believed to cover an area of 56,000 square kilometers (22,000 sq mi) and is home to many different sponges, some coral and at least 70 species of fish, shrimp and lobster. These, in turn, are a source of food and income for thousands of families along the Brazilian coast, some of whom are also concerned about Petrobras’ plans.
Fisherwoman Darcirene Garcia fears that the disruption caused by the oil company’s ships will drive the fish away: “They will go further out and we won’t be able to chase them in our small boats.”
An oil spill that hit the coast of northern Brazil in 2019 also casts a long shadow. Tons of thick black crude washed up in a thousand places, killing the tourism industry. Overnight, the largest market for locally caught fish disappeared. Other buyers also stopped buying for fear of contamination, causing sales to drop by 80% or 90%, says Carlos Pinto of Confrem seafarers’ union.
Darcirene Garcia attended a meeting with Petrobras on November 8 along with other members of the fishing community in Oiapoque, Brazil’s northernmost city.
“They seemed like ready-made answers,” she says. “Whatever we asked, her answer was always, ‘It’s too far from shore.’ At the end of the meeting, the fishermen rallied and said they were against drilling, but said nothing.”
Petrobras says it is holding meetings with communities that may be affected by the project to “clarify doubts and expectations.”
Oil finds along the coast of the countries to the north east – Suriname and Guyana – have raised expectations of important oil reserves off the Brazilian coast.
Petrobras signaled on December 1 that the north coast of Brazil would be a priority over the next five years, attracting half of the company’s $6 billion exploration budget during that period. However, it is not known if President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s new government will support the plan to drill near the reef.
His party’s environmental spokeswoman has signaled her opposition, but the last time Lula was in power, he relied on proceeds from oil discoveries in the Santos Basin, south of Rio de Janeiro, to fund social programs.
Professors Rodrigo Moura and César Cordeiro see the reef’s biodiversity as one of its main assets, but also point to others.
One is that it offers a more sustainable source of income than many other local industries.
“If people can’t fish, they have to find another source of income, and what is there to do in the Amazon?” asks Prof Moura. “Hunting, deforestation, opening of pastures, migration to forest areas?”
Another reason is that it acts as a carbon sink.
The tough cell walls of algae contain calcium carbonate, Prof Cordeiro points out, helping to remove carbon from the atmosphere indefinitely.