|Beyond the Deepwater Horizon: Finding New and Better Ways to Protect the Gulf
Wednesday will be the one-year mark of the Gulf of Mexico’s worst environmental disaster. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and spilling more than 200 million gallons of oil into one of the world’s most productive bodies of water.
For many Americans, the August announcement that the well was finally capped marked the official end of the disaster and the nation turned its attention elsewhere. But for the 14 million of us who call the Gulf coast home, there are still many unanswered questions.
For Mote, and for all the scientists who study the Gulf, the spill and its effects will remain a key scientific focus for years to come.
If nothing else, this disaster illustrated the need for more coordinated research efforts Gulf-wide and the need for better and more long-term information about everything from ocean currents, to animal species and the various habitats they need to survive.
Soon after the spill occurred, Mote scientists began monitoring Florida’s waters and coastlines for oil and gathering environmental data for a “before” picture of these ecosystems, should an “after” be caused by oil. Fortunately, most of Florida’s beaches never saw oil and Mote scientists have since evolved their efforts to focus on the spill’s long-term effects, which could ripple throughout the food web that underpins the health of the Gulf.
Today, Mote’s oil spill response remains an ongoing team effort among a diverse group of scientists who study everything from large animals — sharks, dolphins, sea turtles — to those who look for the most minute changes in the DNA of organisms.
But Mote’s efforts have gone beyond singular studies on the effects of the spill. By hosting and co-sponsoring workshops related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and participating in those hosted by others, Mote is also helping to shape the future research agenda for the Gulf of Mexico.
In September 2010, Mote hosted a meeting of U.S., Mexican and Cuban scientists who successfully outlined a formal plan of action to improve the health of the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean. Bringing the three nations together is especially important now given Cuba’s plans for oil drilling.
In November 2010, Mote and its partners from the National Wildlife Federation and the University of South Florida held a successful national symposium to craft recommendations for long-term responses to the spill. Their major recommendation is for a unified research and monitoring effort that will be able to quickly detect the spill’s effects as they arise and give management agencies the information they need to implement changes to deal with effects as soon as they are detected.
And on May 11-13, Mote will host “Beyond the Horizon,” a conference to highlight habitats and needed protections for the Gulf. The conference will focus on protecting and preserving this important water body and include discussion of the mechanisms that can be used to develop a more comprehensive approach to managing it and its resources.
Think about this:
- The Gulf provides habitat for 15,400 documented species and half of all the oil production and refining capabilities in the U.S. are based in the Gulf.
- Each year, the Gulf’s commercial fisheries land 1.3 billion pounds of seafood worth $662 million.
- Tourism generates 620,000 jobs worth $9 billion in wages.
These numbers illustrate the importance of the Gulf — not just to those of us who call the coast home, but to the entire nation.
In the days and weeks after the spill, we saw first-hand how important the Gulf is to our community. Many of you showed your support by donating to Mote’s and other oil response efforts and hundreds of you offered your time and resources to help with any cleanup efforts.
But perhaps the most important part of the response to the spill is yet to come. Now is the time for us all to look at the mistakes that were made and to learn from them — to find new and better ways to conserve and protect the Gulf of Mexico.
I invite you to register for the Beyond the Horizon conference and join us as we embark on this discussion. (Registration is required. Click here for more information and registration details.)
Kumar Mahadevan, Ph.D.
President & CEO, Mote Marine Laboratory
Mote's Oil Response: One year after the spill
Mote scientists remain at the forefront of research on the oil spill. Here are some of Mote’s key response efforts:
Sharks, Tunas and Billfishes
Scientists in Mote’s Center for Shark Research are gathering samples from large sharks and other large migratory fishes in oil-impacted parts of the Gulf to see whether traces of the oil are present in the animals' blood, muscle or organs and whether the oil has affected their immune systems, fertility or DNA.
Researchers will compare the samples taken from oiled areas to those taken from animals in non-oiled areas to look for oil-related effects on the long-term health and future generations of sharks in the Gulf.
Mote scientists have so far collected blood and tissue samples from seven species of sharks and nine species of large fishes during two research cruises — one about 100 miles from the oil spill site and another in Southwest Florida’s coastal waters. Scientists from Mote and other institutions are analyzing the blood and tissue samples, with results expected in the coming months. Mote researchers will collect more samples near the spill site during the last week of April, 2011.
Mote deployed four autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, on multiple missions to patrol for signs of oil and dispersants from May through October 2010 in waters from Southwest Florida to the Florida Keys. These robots detected no signs of oil or dispersant. However, they gathered new and critical information about ocean currents that is helping to refine future models that would be used to determine movements of pollutants like oil.
As questions arose about the impact of the spill along beaches, Mote expanded its Beach Conditions Report™ to include oil spill impacts on 33 beaches on Florida’s west coast. As it has during the Florida red tides that led to its creation, this system continues to prove itself as an important source of credible, real-time information for the public. Today, the Report includes photos of the beaches as well. Click here for the report.
Environmental Monitoring and Assessment
(From left to right) Mike Henry, manager of the Chemical Fate and Effects Program, Rebecca Medvecky, staff chemist, intern Matteo Ichino and Jim Culter, manager of the Benthic Ecology Program, spent several days in Pine Island Sound in Charlotte Harbor gathering baseline samples. In this photo, they are cataloguing what they've gathered for future analysis. Photo by Nadine Slimak/Mote Marine Laboratory.
Mote responded immediately to the spill by monitoring for oil and studying the condition of Florida’s marine and coastal ecosystems in a joint effort with Sarasota County, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. This rapid response was possible because of support from the local community, including a grant from Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
Mote scientists gathered baseline samples of water, sediment, total organic carbon and bottom-dwelling organisms like oysters, clams and seagrasses from sites in Sarasota Bay, barrier island beaches and Charlotte Harbor, Fla. These baselines from oil-free areas can be compared with oiled areas or be used to study the before-and-after if any other environmental problems occur in these areas. In addition, scientists in Mote’s Center for Coastal Ecology assisted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mussel Watch program in collecting oyster samples from Apalachee Bay, Fla., to the Florida Keys.
Mote also surveyed the abundance and distribution of mole crabs, ghost crabs and coquinas in the surf zone on Lido Key so that a baseline existed for those animal communities. The project was the first in-depth scientific survey of these species in Sarasota County.
In an ongoing project, Mote, The National Aquarium and Johns Hopkins University are using semi-permeable membrane devices (SPMDs) to test for the presence of oil contaminants in the Gulf. These membranes filter water and collect the organic contaminants it contains. The devices can then be brought back to the lab and studied to determine whether chemicals indicating oil contamination are present.
The researchers deployed SPMDs during summer 2010 in Southwest Florida’s Sarasota Bay to get baseline samples of the environment in advance of any possible oil impacts. When no oil arrived, the team shifted their efforts to the northern Gulf of Mexico, including waters off Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. In those areas, Mote scientists are also collecting oyster, sediment and other environmental samples for a thorough picture of oil effects on northern Gulf ecosystems.
The researchers plan to deploy more SPMDs in the northern Gulf in May 2011.
Mote scientists have been studying the potential effects of oil and dispersants on coral larvae at Mote’s Tropical Research Laboratory on Summerland Key. This project was designed to reveal whether oil, dispersants or the two combined will affect the survival of the larvae or make it harder for them to settle and grow into adult corals. Two species of coral in Florida — elkhorn and staghorn — are listed as threatened under federal law.
A Sarasota Dolphin Research Program team watches as two dolphins are released in Palma Sola Bay following a health assessment in May. The Program, a partnership between Mote and the Chicago Zoological Society, recently received a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation to collect baseline data on dolphins off Sarasota to help understand how the animals might be affected by the oil spill. Photo by Bill Scott/Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.
Scientists in the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, a partnership between Mote Marine Laboratory and the Chicago Zoological Society, have been studying bottlenose dolphins in Gulf Coast waters off Sarasota, Fla., and the Florida Panhandle in coordination with NOAA to monitor for possible oil effects. They have been studying the distribution and abundance of dolphins by taking photos of their dorsal fins, which have unique patterns of nicks and notches that allow scientists to recognize specific dolphins.
They have also taken small samples of the dolphins’ skin and blubber, which will be analyzed for environmental contaminants, genetics and indications of their diets.
Program scientists plan to participate in a health assessment of bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf during summer 2011. In the fall, they plan to expand their studies of dolphins that range over the Gulf’s continental shelf.
Mote scientists are working within a Gulf-wide Natural Resource Damage Assessment to study the possible effects of oil on loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species. Project scientists are looking for oil impacts to female loggerheads, their young and their nesting beaches by taking samples of blood, skin, eggs, beach sand and more. The researchers will also track turtles with satellite tags to better understand their lives at sea.
This project includes partners from Mote, the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Florida and focuses on beaches of Florida’s Panhandle, Southwest Florida and the Keys. The project is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital provided the last step in the recovery and release of 17 sea turtles rescued from oiled waters of the northern Gulf. The turtles, which were cleaned of oil before arriving at Mote, included Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles — both endangered species. Mote staff worked closely with state and federal wildlife officials to release the turtles in oil-free waters off of Florida’s Gulf coast.
Ecosystem Monitoring in the Florida Keys
Mote’s ecosystem monitoring system in the Florida Keys, which was in place before the spill, helped to reveal that no oil reached the Keys. This system, called the Marine Ecosystem Event Response and Assessment Project, or MEERA, continues to provide early detection and assessment of biological events occurring in the Keys — which are home to the continental United States’ only barrier reef — and surrounding waters.