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Gulf Oil Spill Symposium Concludes with Recommendations for Gulf-Wide Response
Published Wednesday, November 10, 2010 7:00 am
by Hayley Rutger



For Immediate Release: 11-10-10

Media contacts:

Mote Marine Laboratory: Hayley Rutger, 941-374-0081,

Vickie Chachere, University of South Florida,

Aileo Weinmann, National Wildlife Federation, 202-797-6801,


 Gulf Oil Spill Symposium Concludes with Recommendations for Gulf-Wide Response

Sarasota, FL (November 10, 2010)  - Researchers wrapped up a national symposium on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Tuesday with recommendations for long-term responses to the spill.

The 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. Such a unified system will require a much more detailed understanding of how the Gulf of Mexico lives and breathes, symposium participants said.

“Right now there is no agency that pulls together and coordinates all the information we need about the Gulf,” said Dr. Michael Crosby, senior vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory. “Scientists at different institutions might be collecting different pieces of data — but if we don’t put those together, we could miss the big picture until populations crash.”

The symposium, titled “Oil Spill-Induced Trophic Cascades in the Gulf: Exploring Impacts, Research Needs and Management Responses,” was co-sponsored and organized by Mote, the National Wildlife Federation and the University of South Florida College of Marine Sciences. The symposium convened approximately 40 experts from fishery management councils, local, state and federal resource management agencies, industry, academic and independent marine research institutions and environmental non-government organizations at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla.

Long-term problems caused by the spill are likely to include damaging ripple effects through the marine food web that underpins the health of the Gulf of Mexico. These so-called trophic cascades are chain reactions that can occur when a single key species or multiple species in an ecosystem experience stress or declines in population size, which in turn lead to dramatic shifts in the overall balance of entire ecosystems on regional scales. The phenomenon is one that many people associate with an ecosystem losing its top, or keystone, predators. For instance, when the Pacific Ocean had a decline in the sea otter population, it allowed their prey – sea urchins – to overrun and destroy algae beds that supported numerous other marine species. Many of those species, in turn, declined.

During the workshop, participants focused on four key questions:

  • Has the oil spill caused a significant migration of large pelagic (open-ocean dwelling) species to environments where they’re not typically found?
  • Will spatial redistribution of large pelagic species cause massive shifts in ecosystem dynamics, leading to negative ecological and socio-economic impacts?
  • Has the oil spill caused sub-lethal (negative effects that don’t kill an animal) and/or delayed population level responses in other keystone marine species —from plankton to vertebrates.
  • If any of these situations are occurring, what specific research, monitoring and resource management initiatives are needed to respond, minimize and recover from such impacts?

Effectively studying and managing Gulf ecosystems means linking many puzzle pieces together, participants said. These include life cycles of fish and numerous other organisms, natural ocean and weather patterns, patterns of oil movement, effects of oil on particular organisms and other human impacts the Gulf has absorbed over the years, among many other things.

“A key finding of this workshop is that we could see trophic cascades starting not just with large, open-ocean species, but also with a wide variety of species throughout the Gulf — so we need a risk-management effort throughout the Gulf,” Crosby said.

Many large sharks and other top predators may be so depleted by fishing and other pressures that their unusual movements wouldn’t cause trophic cascades, participants said. But these species could decline if the spill impacts their health and reproduction, and “lower” species on the food web — such as plankton — could be starting points for cascades.

Which species could face long-term changes? The list is long: shrimp, menhaden, blue crabs, various types of plankton, coral reefs, sargassum algae, seabirds, top predators such as large sharks, tuna and dolphins, sea turtles, mackerel, tarpon, other key sport fish and many others.

Addressing oil effects for these species means studying everything from tiny changes in their DNA to large-scale changes in their population size, migration patterns and the habitats where they feed, breed and bear young.

Programs are in place to study impacts on some these systems, but research is lacking in many areas and is also fragmented.

To address the need for a more complete response, symposium participants called for a new Gulf-wide response group involving research institutions, state and federal governments, non-government organizations, and people who live and work on the Gulf. 

Through this new effort, scientists would pool many kinds of ecological data to look for long-term problems related to oil and other environmental impacts, and then would provide direct feedback to marine resource managers to provide early warnings of trophic cascades and other problems.

“This symposium is very important for us because we don’t believe the oil disaster is over,” said John Hammond, regional executive director of National Wildlife Federation. “We do believe that there are some very specific scientific studies that need to be done to show us where the impact is and where the appropriate interventions ought to be. It’s essential to support ongoing research and monitoring efforts to determine the full repercussions of the spill and to inform restoration strategies and future policy decisions.”

 Other recommendations from the symposium include the need to create:

  • Detailed, science-based models of how oil could affect the Gulf
  • Long-term research sites to monitor for future oil spill effects and other environmental problems
  • Key research programs such as tagging of shark, tuna, billfish, sea turtles and other large open-ocean species
  • Funding streams for crucial research and monitoring efforts

“The decisions made in managing this vital and fragile ecosystem must be led by the most advanced and comprehensive scientific research our nation can muster if this great natural resource is to fully recover,” said Dr. William Hogarth, dean, College of Marine Science, University of South Florida.

Recommendations from the symposium will be put into a formal report for the public, government officials and the scientific community that will be distributed in January 2011.

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Media Contact: Hayley Rutger, Public Relations Specialist, 941-388-4441, ext. 365

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