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USF looks into aftermath of Deepwater Horizon

USF’s Florida Institute of Oceanography has worked to understand the effects of the BP oil spill on the Gulf’s ecosystem and the industrial impact on coastal businesses. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

While it’s been over four years since the BP oil spill gushed 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico over
87 days, the effects of the largest oil spill in U.S. history persist. 

Last month, Sen. Bill Nelson announced that USF’s Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO) would receive $4 million to research how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacted the Gulf of Mexico.

The grant is funded by a percentage of fines levied against Transocean Ltd., the offshore drilling contractor that owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. 

“The work that we’re doing won’t be about how to prevent (oil spills) but to make sure that we understand the impact of this one,” said William Hogarth, the director of FIO.

FIO plans to examine the immediate impacts of the oil spill, such as the short-term effects on fisheries and the scope of the spill itself. 

“We’re looking at, for example, the use of dispersants, how much oil is still at the bottom,” Hogarth said. “We’re looking at organisms to (evaluate) long-term impacts.”

Hogarth said researchers will focus on specific areas, such as restoring the health of the Gulf’s fish population and developing technology to reduce the toxicity of chemical dispersants used to break up the oil.

“Depending on if we decide to look at fisheries,” he said, “We could look at oyster populations, what could be done to oyster beds to increase oysters.”

Lauren Sher, a legislative assistant to the senator, said the research might also benefit Gulf Coast communities by examining the impacts on coastal industries and how those industries can recover. 

“If you’re a fisherman, you rely on your commercial take of red snapper every year, and you don’t know why there’s a big drop in the population,” she said. “We need to have the science out there that’s telling us what’s causing these problems.”

Sher said research into the impact might be key to preventing further harm to the Gulf. Like the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill that took place off the coast of Alaska, she said the effects of the oil would undoubtedly damage the Gulf’s ecosystem long after it has stopped spilling.

“There’s never been a spill this size anywhere in the world,” Sher said. “There’s never been a spill of this caliber in the Gulf of Mexico. We need to figure out where the impacts are in the food web and in the ecosystem. We need to figure out what’s wrong and restore the Gulf.”

While the effects of the oil spill may seem to be subsiding, Hogarth said the long-term effects are currently unclear and that its an issue affecting every Gulf Coast resident.

Since the beginning of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, FIO has been Florida’s primary recipient of government grants to fund research on the spill. 

“The (government) looked to FIO because we knew they had the infrastructure,” Sher said. “Money … goes straight to research instead of having to create a new umbrella institution to award grants.”

Though Nelson already announced FIO would receive the grant, the funding will be distributed over the next two to three years.

FIO must first undergo procedures outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the institute must hear input from outside scientists and citizens in a public hearing regarding how money can be best spent. 

Hogarth said the grant would also allow FIO to collaborate with marine scientists from other Gulf Coast states. 

“If someone in Texas is a good expert in benthic (ocean bottom-living) organisms, we want to bring them in,” Hogarth said. “We want to make sure that collaboration is wide and that we get the best.”

Hogarth also said the money would help train future scientists. FIO recruits graduate students and may begin funding fellowships for marine science students.

“I think our students should want to know what happened, why it happened, what we learned from it and if we can prevent it from happening in the future,” he said. “Our lives are impacted by the Gulf, so we should want to understand … how it affects our lives and how we can
minimize it.”