updated 4/24/2011 11:20:43 AM ET 2011-04-24T15:20:43

Scientists say it is taking far too long to dole out millions of dollars in BP funds for badly needed Gulf oil spill research, and it could be too late to assess the crude's impact on pelicans, shrimp and other species by the time studies begin.

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The spring nesting and spawning season is a crucial time to get out and sample the reproduction rates, behavior and abundance of species, all factors that could be altered by last year's massive spill. Yet no money has been made available for this year, and it could take months to determine which projects will be funded.

"It's like a murder scene," said Dana Wetzel, an ecotoxicologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. "You have to pick up the evidence now."

BP PLC had pledged $500 million — $50 million a year over 10 years — to help scientists study the spill's impact and forge a better understanding of how to deal with future spills. The first $50 million was handed out in May 2010 to four Gulf-based research institutes and to the National Institutes of Health.

Rita Colwell, a University of Maryland scientist who chairs the board overseeing the money, said the protocol for distributing the remaining $450 million would be announced Monday at the National Press Club Washington. After that, scientists will be allowed to submit proposals, but it could take months for research to be chosen.

Michael Carron, a Mississippi marine scientist selected to head the BP-funded post-spill research project, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, doubted money would be available before June. He acknowledged not being able to study the spring spawning of shrimp, crabs and other animals would be a problem.

"This will be the first good glimpse of what happened to larvae, the first class" of species born during and after the spill, he said.

With the BP funds so slow to get out the door, scientists are trying to get funding from federal grants and other sources. And it's possible the BP money will be handed out on an expedited basis, Carron said.

From the outset, the $500 million has been fraught with problems and questions over how the money would be distributed and how much scientists would be influenced by BP. The result has been paralysis.

It took until last month for BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a nonprofit headed by Gulf Coast governors, to finally agree on how to spend the rest of the $450 million. Under the agreement, BP pledged that research would be independent of the oil giant and the Gulf alliance and that scientists could publish their results without BP approval.

Still, BP will exert some control. For example, the funds will be overseen by a BP-hired contractor, and the oil giant has appointed half of the members on a 20-member board that will decide what research to do.

BP declined to comment and referred questions to the Gulf research initiative.

Larry McKinney, the director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said the science board overseeing the money was solid and unlikely to be heavily influenced by BP.

Scientists who take the BP money will have to credit the oil giant for funding the research, and BP may be able to obtain patents for inventions derived from the research. McKinney said those requirements were standard.

The delay in BP funds has rankled scientists. There was a dearth of scientific investigation to understand the effects of the massive 1979 Ixtoc spill in the Gulf's Bay of Campeche, scientists said, and there are fears the same could happen in the wake of BP's spill.

"The science was abysmal to start with," George Crozier, the head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said about the effect of oil spills in the Gulf. "But, golly, the questions have become bigger and more important."

And scientists don't have many other places to turn for research dollars.

While a lot of sampling and data collection is being done by BP and the federal government in the natural resource damage assessment, the legal battle over damage to the ecosystem also known as NRDA, scientists say that work is hardly cutting-edge and may not pick up the subtlest of changes in reproduction, DNA and other important factors.

"NRDA is not designed to advance science, it is designed to establish the damage done," Crozier said. "It is a legal-driven process."

NRDA also focuses on the commercially important and top species — not the worms, shorebirds, jellyfish, bait fish and tiny crustaceans that make up the bottom of the food web.

"There are areas of research we don't have a handle on," Wetzel said. "We're in the waiting room. We still don't know what's happened and we're waiting for someone to step up and say this is important to find out."



Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative:

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Video: One year after Gulf spill, oil remains

  1. Closed captioning of: One year after Gulf spill, oil remains

    >>> a year to the day after the deep water horison oil rig explosion fell into the waters of mexico, killing 11 workers, some of the survivors, family workers flew over that site today, and sin that day, grief has been mixed with anger over this disaster all along the gulf coast . our chief environmental affairs correspondent is with us tonight.

    >> reporter: good evening, late today, bp filed suit against the maker of the blow-out preventers alleging a faulty design contributed to the oil spill . some of that oil is still in louisiana's marshes, and now officials here are trying to decide if the effort to clean it up is worth the risk to this fragile coastline. one year later, there are still clean-up workers in one of the most heavily oiled areas in louisiana' coast. using a giant hedge clipper , they cut a marsh to get at the oil trapped by the grasses. a giant rake gets the debris.

    >> this is a little bit of resid ial left.

    >> it has a sticky consistency.

    >> it's kind of like a peanut butter consistency. if you try to get it all, you would really be potentially excavating the marsh and losing it.

    >> reporter: 60 miles away , another area devastated by the spill, a path of blanks leads the way to the path of oil. the pungent odor of the summer is gone, but all it takes is a couple shovel fulls of muck and you can see the tell tale rust colored signs of oil.

    >> the sheen on the surface.

    >>> james peters who makes his living leading deep- sea fishing trips is seeing it, too.

    >> you can see a sheen and oil droplets in the water.

    >> there is no more visible oil on the island where we first saw the pictures. how healthy does cat island look to you?

    >> frankly, it doesn't look too healthy.

    >> he points to the dying man mangroves on the edge and the leafless interior. still, pelicans make their nest here. for all the effort of the past year, environmentalists say cleanup without coast restoration is pointless.

    >> it's for naught because in five years all of that's going to be eroded away. in 50 years, it's all gone. everything you see is gone.

    >> now, finally tonight, the government is strongly disputing an associated press report that says 3,200 wells in the gulf of mexico do not have cement plug and threaten to leak oil into the waters. the government said those are sealed and they're monitored every six month.

Photos: The BP spill revisited

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  1. Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010. (USCG) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Smoke from the Deepwater Horizon rises high above the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010. The rig sank the next day. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Northern Gannet, normally white when fully grown, is washed to remove oil from the spill at a facility in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Glenn Corbett, of Pensacola, Fla., gets help from his granddaughter Emma Wilmoth, 5, as they joined hundreds of volunteers picking up trash along Escambia County beaches on May 2, 2010. Officials organized the massive beach cleanup in anticipation of an oil slick. (Scott Keeler / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mark DeFelice, executive chef at Pascal's Manale restaurant in New Orleans, lines up Eastern oysters for customers on May 3, 2010. The oysters were harvested from Louisiana waters before the oil slick caused fishing and harvesting closures. (David Friedman / Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Alabama National Guardsmen assemble a barrier to block oil on Dauphin Island, Ala., on May 4, 2010. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Rob Lewis, center, and Dexter Strange unload crab traps from their boats on May 5, 2010, after having to dump their catch in Shell Beach, La., due to the oil spill. (Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Conservationist Rick Steiner collects a sample of oily water near Breton Island, La., on May 5, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Some of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead is seen on May 6, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horsman surveys oil pooled between reeds and brush at the mouth of the Mississippi River on May 17, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats some 15 miles northwest of the spill site on May 18, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, center, and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, right, tour the oil impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19, 2010. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Nesting pelicans are seen as oil washes ashore May 22 on an island that is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well as terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills in Louisiana's Barataria Bay. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A BP cleanup crew removes oil from a beach at Port Fourchon, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A sign warns the public away from the beach on Grand Isle, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Oil streaks into the Gulf of Mexico on May 26 near Brush Island, La. (Win Mcnamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An image taken from a BP video feed shows a robotic arm using a wrench during the "top kill" procedure on May 27. The bid to stop the flow failed. (BP via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A brown pelican coated in heavy oil wallows in the surf on East Grand Terre Island, La., on June 4. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A worker cleans up oil in Plaquemines Parish, La., on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A cleanup worker picks up blobs of oil with absorbent snare on Queen Bess Island in Louisiana's Barataria Bay on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tar balls sit on the beach in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 5. (Dave Martin / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil in Grand Isle, La., on June 6. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. This protest at a BP gas station in Pensacola, Fla., on June 6 targeted the oil giant. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A dead sea turtle floats on a pool of oil in Barataria Bay off Louisiana on June 7. (Charlie Riedel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Jars of water mixed with oil collected off Louisiana and Alabama are stacked in front of Gulf Coast residents as they attend a news conference June 16 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Thick crude oil from the BP spill is seen in Barataria Bay near Port Sulphur, La., on June 20. (Erik S. Lesser / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. James McGee vacuums oil in Barataria Bay on June 20. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Out of work fishermen seeking to be hired as cleanup crew talk to BP representatives in Larose, La., on June 20. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. People line up in Pensacola, Fla., on June 26 to protest offshore oil drilling during a 'Hands Across the Sand' event. The protest took place in hundreds of cities across 30 countries. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. With no tourists to hire him, fishing guide Raymond Griffin eats lunch in a nearly empty cookhouse at Griffin Fishing Charters in Lafitte, La., on June 26. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A heavily oiled bird is rescued from the waters of Barataria Bay on June 26. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. In this image taken from video on July 12, oil flows out of the top of the transition spool, which was placed into the gushing wellhead prior to the well being capped. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Oily water washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 26. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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