Image: Researchers in the Gulf of Mexico
Jae C. Hong  /  AP
Kevin Boswell, a researcher from LSU, trails a gloved hand through oil floating on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Louisiana, Wednesday, May 26, 2010.
updated 5/28/2010 11:51:59 AM ET 2010-05-28T15:51:59

As the oil spreads throughout the Gulf, researchers have been racing to gather samples from sites around the region to document how the oil disperses, degrades and how it affects wildlife and the food chain.

The efforts aren't only for science alone, but could shed light on how food taken from the Gulf, such as shellfish, is being affected. The research could also have consequences for later investigations into accountability.

One team rushed to collect oyster, clam and marine snail samples at sites along the Alabama and Louisiana coast before the oil hit shore to track how the oil is incorporated into the food web of coastal ecosystems.

"We got out to the coast really early," said Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, whose collaborator, Laurie Anderson at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, did the sampling.

More at end of summer
The researchers gathered more samples from the shoreline sites last weekend as the oil arrived, and they will return again at the end of the summer.

"The way these animals grow their shells, they're essentially laid down like tree rings," Roopnarine said.

The researchers will test the shells for trace metals — nickel and vanadium — that are common in crude oil. The appearance of the metals in the "tree rings" of the animals' shells will reveal when the organisms took the oil into their bodies.

"The oyster, the clam and the snail, they feed very differently," he said. "We'd like to see how they incorporate it differently. If the (trace metal) all arrives at the same time, if we find it in their tissues, it's likely that they are absorbing it directly from the water."

But if it enters through the food chain, via plankton or sediment or algae, the animals will probably show different patterns of metal uptake in their shells, he said.

Another team tracks oysters
Another team is also tracking oysters, but along Florida's Gulf Coast as part of a larger study to look at oyster beds all along the East Coast.

"In an ideal world, we would already have this project in place for a year. Now we're kind of scrambling to try to get some 'pre' measurements," said team member Jeb Byers of the University of Georgia in Athens. "There will be a lot of people looking at the acute effects — how many fish does it kill?"

Byers aims instead to see how the oil affects the food web. "Is it changing what organisms are eating? Are they getting a lot of their oil directly?" he wonders. "It could be that the oil is completely eliminating certain food items from the diet. It could be that it is altering the toxicity of food items so organisms are choosing different foods."

In addition to making isotope measurements that will reveal what the oysters have been eating, the team is measuring oyster health and growth.

"The money for this grant hasn't come in yet. We're trying to shoestring this and get the samples that we can and get them in the freezer," Byers said, before oil hits on Florida's Gulf shores.

Legal battles may ensue
In some cases, researchers are proceeding with extra caution, knowing that legal battles will be waged using certain data as evidence.

Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi wrote to Discovery News from a research vessel 15 miles from the spill site, where he's measuring the amount of oil in water samples.

"We’re hoping that samples for legal battles will be acquired by others so that we aren’t the ones dragged into court," he said.

"We are only looking for the truth; we are not seeking to 'prove' anything one way or the other. Our interest is purely scientific and we want to know where this material is going, how the ocean is responding to it, and what will be its ultimate fate.

"However, NOAA and EPA did send 'observers' along this time and they’re working very hard to record every sample taken, presumably so that they can be used to prove something to someone at some time."

Researchers aboard the "Pelican" research vessel, who discovered huge underwater plumes of oil, had to spend time taking careful inventory of all of their samples, according to reports from aboard the ship.

Monitoring marine microbes
Ralph Portier of Louisiana State University is measuring how fast marine microbes are consuming oil in samples from the Gulf.

Portier is an expert in using microbes to help clean up contaminated sites, including past oil spills, so he is accustomed to his work carrying legal significance. His samples all follow a chain of custody with paperwork documenting where they came from and where they are going. He also splits his samples and sends part of the material to laboratories certified by the Environmental Protection Agency to be analyzed as confirmation of his findings.

Ed Overton, an environmental chemist at Louisiana State University, has been analyzing Gulf samples for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to determine how the oil is weathering, to identify underwater plumes of oil, and to track the effect of dispersant use on where oil goes.

His samples also follow a chain of custody, though he noted that he is doing his research to provide scientific information to the Coast Guard for mitigation purposes, not as part of the damage assessment, a separate government team charged with formally assessing the damage from the spill.

Despite these efforts, some fault NOAA for not doing more to track the spill's effects.

"There is a lot of inshore science being done right now. What they have tragically missed is the offshore pelagic ecosystems," said Rick Steiner, a professor, formerly at the University of Alaska and now a marine conservation consultant, who was part of the Exxon Valdez response.

"They (NOAA) have two vessels (out gathering data), but this is five weeks in there and this is so late."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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