USF student receives Guy Harvey award for oil spill research

Nearly a year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, many scientists and conservationists are still involved in the research and restoration of the water and marine life.

Among them is Mark Squitieri, a graduate student studying Marine Resource Assessment (MRA), a new concentration in the College of Marine Science at the USF St. Petersburg campus. In part, his research project entails detecting the effects of oil spill exposure on fish using elemental crude oil markers recorded on otoliths, part of the inner ear of a fish.

Squitieri first became interested in marine biology while fishing with his family and growing up in the Tampa Bay area. His interest only increased throughout his coursework, as well as volunteering at the Florida Aquarium and participating with undergraduate research at USF.

The estimated cost of his project is $30,000, and his goal is to complete the research and report by summer 2012.

To help offset the cost, he was one of four students awarded the $5,000 Florida Sea Grant’s Guy Harvey Excellence Award in Marine Science 2011 in December.

According to the Florida Sea Grant website, the award recognizes and rewards full-time graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in universities throughout the state to conduct research that will improve the renewable and finite marine resources through science.

According to the Guy Harvey website, Harvey is an artist, scientist and conservationist who created the award, along with others, to allow students a hands-on experience with their studies.

Squitieri said he not only looks up to Harvey for those reasons, but also because they share a similar hobby: T-shirt design.

The website states that Harvey created a “Save Our Gulf” campaign by creating special edition T-shirts shortly after the initial oil spill. The money from the sales was donated toward researching the effects the spill had on marine life. This year’s awards were based on the common theme of dealing with the effects the oil spill has on marine pelagic fish, an open water fish such as tuna that migrates.

Squitieri was informed of the award through an email about different awards and grants students in his field could apply for just a few days before the application packet was due.

“I applied for this award because I had previously started a project that somewhat related to it and I added onto it,” he said. “With this award, I was able to expand my project from just oil spill effects on red snapper to include pelagic fish.”

Squitieri also received money from within the commercial seafood industry from the National Fisheries Institute (NFI).

Not only is his project important to marine biology because of the research that will be gathered for future use and determining the spill’s impact, but it’s also personally important to him.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the science community in some way,” Squitieri said. “I am developing techniques, and I hope people use them in their own work to test their hypothesis.”

Ernst Peebles, associate professor at the College of Marine Science, said he believes that Squitieri receiving this award has a positive influence on the college because it uses both commercial and non-commercial sponsors.

“We are particularly pleased with this award because it provides the first spark of what we hope will be long-term interaction with non-commercial interests in ocean conservation,” he said. “His project represents a common effort by two major stakeholders, one commercial and the other non-commercial, to jointly improve the sustainability of our living marine resources. This perspective is consistent with Dr. Harvey’s visions, which promotes the formation of partnerships to attain sensible fisheries management and improved ecosystem balance.”

Through his work, Squitieri can detect if fish exposed to oil in the water experience a spike in nickel levels over time. From there, he is hoping to determine if the oil affects fishes’ growth rate, mortality and overall health.

Peebles said learning from the environmental disaster will help people understand future catastrophes.

“There is no upside to the Gulf oil spill, but we are taking the opportunity to look for signs of stress in the surviving fish,” Peebles said. “This will help us determine which species or groups of species were affected most, so we can anticipate these problems in the future.”

Squitieri said he spends countless hours in the lab working as the main person involved with the project. He’s already considering a future in this field of continuing research and eventually teaching.