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Marine Science research earns recognition, $15M in wake of oil spill

Published: Thursday, May 17, 2012

Updated: Thursday, May 17, 2012 00:05

The plumes are gone, but oil remains in sediment along the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

Two years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, David Hollander, a chemical oceanographer, and other researchers from the USF College of Marine Science are still studying sediment where 205 million gallons of oil leaked for 87 days into the Gulf of Mexico.

Aboard the Weatherbird II, the College of Marine Science’s 115-foot-long seafaring vessel, researchers were prepared to investigate the site of the leak less than two weeks after the initial explosion.

The college’s dean, Jacqueline Dixon, said since then, the college has garnered between $15 million and $16 million in funding for oil spill research from various sources.

Four scientists received a total of $200,000 through the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response grant program, which awards funds to researchers at the sites of disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and oil spills.

The college was also awarded $11 million in 2011 and $2 million in 2012 from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, funded by BP’s $500 million oil spill relief fund.

The first grant the college received after the spill was paid for by USF’s Office of Research and Innovation for $500,000.

Dixon said the college’s quick reaction and prominence on the national stage during the oil spill helped bolster USF’s name recognition as a premier College of Marine Science.

“The perception of the college has changed but the college, the faculty, the infrastructure (and) the students — those things haven’t changed,” she said. “What we do every day is important, and it’s important to the public. It’s important to tourism.”

Hollander, who is studying the long-term impact of the spill on the ecosystem, said worms and other organisms that temporarily disappeared following the oil spill could cause lesions and ulcers on the fish that eat them, because of contamination.

“Those ecosystems were greatly impacted,” Hollander said.

He said this summer, he and other researchers will compare sediment and fish samples from like locations in the gulf near the site of the oil spill to see of there is a correlation between contaminated sediment and diseased fish.

Hollander’s experiment is one of nine ongoing studies revolving around the oil spill, according to Steve Murawski, a biological oceanography professor in the college who serves as principal investigator for the Center for Integrated Modeling Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem, or C-IMAGE, which is a consortium of oil spill researchers from around the world.

A fisheries expert, Murawski said there are two “clues” to suggest that the oil spill’s ecological impact is pervasive: the higher incidences of skin lesions and tumors on the fish and the evidence of oil in fish bile, which is being investigated under another study.

“Fish are just like humans, they have a rather elaborate liver, bile duct, gallbladder and bile system that removes pollutants and contaminants as we ingest them,” he said. “So if you have a few too many beers on a Friday night your liver is working overtime to try and get rid of them.”

Murawski said his research group has looked at 4,000 fish samples from the oil spill site and looked for 13 different toxic compounds found in oil. They found each compound to be relatively elevated.

“Even a year after the oil spill, we were getting substantial hydrocarbons in the last meals of these animals,” he said. “So is it BP’s oil source? Is it a leaky oil line? That’s really intriguing to us.”

Dixon said the college has tried to improve their research by incorporating lessons learned from oil spills around the world to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by including global experts in oil spills from the Netherlands, Germany and Canada to C-IMAGE. But she said the research also aims to help prevent future oil spills.

“The Coast Guard is leading the efforts to be ready for a potential oil spill off of Cuba,” she said. “So they are pulling together all of the first responders for Deepwater Horizon to learn the lessons and apply the lessons to a response plan if there’s a spill off the coast of Cuba. Because that’s really close to the Florida Keys.”

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