Gulf oil spill gets UNCW expertise
August 6, 2010By Alison Lee Satake
Wilmington scientists and technicians have been sought out for their expertise in the aftermath of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the disaster on April 20, a handful of staff, students and graduates from the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s marine biology program and Cape Fear Community College’s marine technology program have gone to the Gulf to work. Although many have had to sign non-disclosure agreements barring them from publicly discussing their work in the Gulf, a few were able to share their insights from the frontlines of what is being called one of the country’s worst environmental disasters.
Dr. Erin Fougeres received her training in marine mammal stranding as a PhD student at UNCW. Now, she is the administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association marine mammal stranding program in St. Petersburg, La., a post she’s held since January 2008. Since the oil spill, her job has been consumed by spill response work. “It’s pretty much all I do now,” she said. “Every day is an emergency.”
About 69 marine mammals –mostly dolphins and one whale- have been found stranded in the Gulf region since April 30. “That is above average for this time of year,” Fougeres said. Bottle-nose dolphins are the most common cetaceans (the order that includes dolphins and whales) to strand in the southeast. Typically, the average number of stranded mammals in the month of May is five, but this May saw 33 mammals stranded. However, even before the oil spill, Fougeres was seeing a higher than average number of strandings.
“To put it into context, in the month of March (before the oil spill) the monthly average stranding rate was 18 animals, but this year was 62,” she said.
She authorizes local organizations in the oil spill impacted area between the Texas-Louisiana border and Appalachicola, Fla. to respond to the stranded marine mammals, which can be on barrier islands or other areas difficult to access. She manages the personnel, equipment and protocols for collecting data on the stranded animals. “We’re collecting those samples and analyzing them, which will potentially be used in a case against BP,” she said.
Rebecka Brasso is a PhD student in marine biology at UNCW. “I have been studying the use of birds as biomonitors of environmental contaminants, most specifically mercury, for the past 5-6 years,” she said. Because of her expertise, she has been hired to design protocols and studies to evaluate injury to birds in the oil spill impacted region.
She is on contract through the fall to assist with the Natural Resource Damage Assessment related to the Gulf oil spill for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “Our job is to assess damage. Restoration is a step that comes later,” she said.
The long-term effects of the oil spill may result in new interdisciplinary studies, such as biology and economics.
“You have scientists collect data. And, business wants to know what that means in dollar signs,” she said. As a result, she sees job potential for people who understand economics and policy with a biology background.
Andy Shepard, associate director of a joint program between UNCW, NOAA and Florida Atlantic University, returned to Wilmington at the end of July from a research expedition exploring and assessing the condition of deep water coral ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. “One of the main goals of the mission is to try and establish baseline water quality and ecological information for reef habitats up to 100 miles offshore,” he said.
The expedition, which explored waters inaccessible to scuba divers and deeper than 50 meters with a submersible, originally was planned for next May. But “once the oil spill happened, our executive director asked to use the submersible and move the expedition up to do a pre-impact assessment of these reefs,” he said. The five-week expedition aboard the R/V Seward Johnson illuminated new coral ecosystems, many of which have been damaged from commercial fishing.
Although the researchers did not see any oil or gas in or on the water, he said, it’s not always visible. Small droplets of oil and more organic material in the water are subtle.
“In our case, if there are impacts from the oil and dispersants, we’re expecting a more sub-lethal impact,” he said. For example, one of the biggest indicators of the oil spill is “sea snot,” a flem-like bacteria that feeds on organic material like oil and eats up the oxygen suffocating fish and other marine organisms.