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Reducing Ocean Mysteries will be the Legacy of the BP Oil Spill

It has been one year since a massive explosion on board BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster claimed 11 lives and became the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Damage was catastrophic along the Gulf Coast states. Oil and tar balls washed ashore, fouling beaches and estuaries. Marine organisms, seen and unseen below the surface, were sickened and killed in droves.

But on this infamous anniversary, some positive news can still be reported. The oil spill caused BP to provide millions of dollars to fund scientific research to gather basic information and determine the long-term impact of the spill. In doing so, scientists throughout Florida are unlocking the mysteries of the deep. Advancing oceanographic research will ultimately be the positive legacy of the spill among the negative ones.

BP provided a $10 million block grant to the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO) to fund researchers across the state to conduct projects that analyze the spill’s impact and address baseline parameters relating to the spill. All told, 27 projects were chosen. These projects ranged from measuring the chemical composition and breakdown of oil hydrocarbons and dispersants, to the behavior of the fish, plankton, and various deepwater invertebrates possibly exposed to oil.

Nova Southeastern University researchers are using BP money to collaborate with their colleagues at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University to study sponge species near the spill site to examine possible clues about how marine invertebrates and microbes cope with chemical pollutants. Sponges are an ancient ancestor of most living animals, having fossils that are over 500 million years old. Modern molecular genetics methods are being applied to reveal the hidden biology of marine sponges and develop them as potential sentinels (bio-indicators) to detect massive or subtle environmental changes. This study will apply sophisticated DNA sequencing and microbial analyses to better understand these marine organisms’ biology.

A better understanding of marine processes and resilience to events like oil spills will be gained through unbiased scientific research. Other benefits will be developing safer ways to drill and develop natural resources, new protocols to study and protect the biological diversity of marine life living near the top and bottom of the ocean, and a greater realization for what we still do not know about the vast oceans. Moreover, there may be a greater appreciation for the bountiful products, nutrition and employment that the oceans provide society in general. All of these are positive results from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

The FIO research projects should be seen as one way to decrease marine mysteries, illuminating the depths of our ignorance by gaining knowledge of dark marine habitats and shy marine organisms that live in our oceans. More research into the planet’s largest natural habitat, the ocean, is needed. Unfortunately, funding limitations and a deep economic recession have adversely affected NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) ability to fund researchers and academic institutions like NSU that conduct oceanographic research.

As tragic as the oil spill was, it did present us more funding opportunities from private enterprise. Private funding can fill in for decreased public support. The BP oil spill caused monumental environmental damage, but indirectly helped advance marine research. The more knowledge we gain about the oceans, the more we can help to protect them for future generations to enjoy.

Jose Lopez, Ph.D., is an associate professor at NSU’s Oceanographic Center, who is using a BP block grant to measure the oil spill’s impact on marine sponge and symbiotic microbial communities.

Ken Ma | Newswise Science News
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