When it occurred on April 20, 2010, scientists and marine biologists knew almost immediately it was one of the worst environmental incidents in human history. Almost as soon as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was capped, researchers set about studying the immediate and long-term effects it had on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.
Photo Credit: NOAA – Deepwater Horizon
To that end, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) was formed to provide grant funding to researchers studying the effects of the oil spill. The funds came from $500 million committed over a 10-year period with the sole purpose of creating a broad, independent research program to be conducted at research institutions primarily in the U.S. Gulf Coast States. Over the years, many Nova Southeastern University researchers at the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography have received grants to further their work – and additional funds were awarded for ongoing studies. The newly funded research project is:
- TITLE: "Deep-sea Risk Assessment and Species Sensitivity to WAF, CEWAF and Dispersant"
- Principal Investigators (PIs): D. Abigail Renegar, Ph.D., Tammy Frank, Ph.D., Bernhard Riegl, Ph.D., working in conjunction with researchers at Texas A&M University
- Amount: $590,000 (anticipated) over three years
- Summary: Despite intense research effort into the ecological consequences of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill, many questions remain regarding the current health of the ecosystem, and what this disaster can teach us for responding to future spills. One important component of the Gulf ecosystem that has received relatively little attention is the deep-water column micronekton (e.g., shrimp, fish and squid) and plankton (amphipods, copepods) etc. inhabiting depths from 200 – 1,000 m.
These organisms are key trophic intermediates in deep-sea food webs, and represent a major trophic link between deep-water and shallow-water ecosystems. These animals are involved in one of the largest animals migration on earth, during which huge populations of animals migrate from the mesopelagic zone (deep-sea) into the epipelagic zone (shallow waters) on a nightly basis, forming massive sonic scattering layers that can be picked up on shipboard sonars. There is evidence of variable, yet distinct, petroleum/dispersant incorporation into shallow water zooplankton through polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) accumulation and isotopic carbon depletion, which would not only affect their survivorship, but also may be accumulated in their predators. Mechanistic studies on the effects of petroleum and dispersants are rare for deep-water organisms, due to the difficulties in collecting live animals that will survive in the laboratory for any length of time.
In order to better understand the ecosystem effects of petroleum and dispersants, both alone and in combination, and to support the interpretation of process-based studies in response to the DWH spill and future events, NSU researchers will conduct a series of studies using a range of individual hydrocarbons as well as WAF, CEWAF and dispersant aimed at understanding toxicity in several ecologically important deep-sea zooplankton/micronekton. The mesopelagic taxa to be investigated are a critical component of the Gulf ecosystem, most notably in their role connecting biological processes occurring at depth with those in the surface waters. This data will be of immediate use to those conducting process-based studies in the Gulf by allowing more definitive incorporation of mesopelagic animals into their data interpretation. It will also inform those designing data collection programs in response to future spills in the Gulf and elsewhere as to what aspects of deep-sea micronekton and zooplankton biology are critical parameters to measure in order to capture the response in these organisms.