The Blog Aquatic » gulf News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Wed, 13 Aug 2014 13:00:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Interview: Deep-Sea Researcher Dr. Samantha Joye on Microbes in the Gulf Wed, 06 Aug 2014 13:29:13 +0000 Alexis Baldera

Dr. Samantha Joye aboard the research vessel Atlantis with the submersible Alvin in the background. Credit: Antonia Juhasz

This blog is part of a series of interviews with scientists who are championing marine research in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Samantha Joye is a Professor of Marine Sciences in the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She is an expert in biogeochemistry and microbial ecology and works in open-ocean, deep-sea and coastal ecosystems. Her work is interdisciplinary, bridging the fields of chemistry, microbiology and geology. Following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Dr. Joye joined a team of scientists in the Gulf, investigating oil plumes from the disaster in the open ocean of the Gulf, which at the time BP claimed did not exist. Her team’s discoveries proved that there was more oil and gas in the water than BP and government agencies had predicted. She continues to study the impacts of the BP oil disaster, as well as the ecological processes at natural oil and gas seeps in the Gulf, Arctic Ocean and in the Guaymas Basin.

OC: How long have you been conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico, and what are your current research interests?

Dr. Joye: I embarked on my first Gulf of Mexico cruise in 1994, and I did my first submersible dive on that cruise. I was completely enthralled and totally hooked on deep-water exploration from that instant. I began working in the Gulf in earnest when I joined the faculty at Texas A&M University (College Station) in 1995. I have been working in the Gulf since that time. My research interests include understanding the environmental and physiological factors that regulate microbial hydrocarbon degradation in the Gulf’s waters and in both shallow (upper meter) and deep (>5 meters) sediments. We are interested in the cycling of a wide spectrum of hydrocarbons, ranging from methane to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. We are also interested in the metabolic potential and capacity for hydrocarbon degradation (i.e., determining which microorganisms are there naturally, their abundance, and how fast and how well do they respond to large hydrocarbon infusions like that resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster).

OC: Here at the Ocean Conservancy offices, we have been following the deep-sea expeditions in the Gulf this summer, watching the live feeds, and listening to the scientists discuss what they are seeing. We would love to hear more about these cruises from you. What types of information have you been collecting? What have you learned on the cruises?

Dr. Joye: Our cruise in April 2014 was on board the R/V Atlantis. It was the first official research cruise using the newly renovated human occupied vehicle, Alvin, which was very exciting for us. The goal of this particular cruise was to visit and sample sites impacted by the Macondo blowout and to sample two types of very salty seafloor ecosystems called brines. Seawater is salty; it contains about 35 grams of salt per liter. However, in some places, super-salty brine fluids occur. Brines are defined as fluids containing more than 50 grams of salt per liter but some deep sea brines contain almost 10 times the amount of salt as seawater. Our saltiest site contained about 340 grams of salt per liter. We are studying two types of brines: those derived from ancient salt dissolution (which contain mainly sodium and chlorine and are sulfate-free) and those derived from gas hydrate formation (which are basically concentrated seawater and thus contain sulfate)

Our research cruises are intense; we conduct operations around the clock. Alvin operations occur between 8a.m. and 5p.m., and starting around 6p.m., we collect water and deeper sediment samples through the night. We also do geophysical surveys at night and during transits between sites to search for interesting seafloor geological features and gas and oil plumes. Being an oceanographer requires that you are able to thrive in this intense environment, where sleep is a luxury and where focused, hard work is required around the clock. It’s worth it because each dive presents an opportunity for discovery, and discovery is what it’s all about!

On our April cruise, we discovered some amazing things that we will be reporting in our science blog and in publications during the coming months. But first, a lot more hard work is required in the lab to process all of the sediment, water and brine fluid samples we collected on the ship. Cruises are intense, but it does not stop there. Post-cruise analyses and experiments keep us busy for often six to eight months. Then the phase of manuscript preparation and publication begins.

OC: Some people may not realize that as much as 16 million gallons of oil naturally seeps from the Gulf seafloor each year. How does that compare to the oil and gas that was released by the BP oil disaster?

Dr. Joye: Natural seeps are in no way similar to the Deepwater Horizon discharge, which released almost 210 million gallons of oil from a focused source (the wellhead) over the course of 84 days. Natural seepage releases about 0.04 million gallons a day over the entire Gulf of Mexico, while the Deepwater Horizon discharge released 2.5 million gallons a day in a localized area. If you compare the discharge per area released during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the blown out well discharged orders of magnitude more oil than natural seepage. This was an unprecedented perturbation that led to a large number of unanticipated phenomena and impacts to the Gulf ecosystem even hundreds of kilometers from the discharging wellhead. The chronic impacts of this perturbation are only now coming to light.

OC: Considering that there are natural petroleum seeps in the Gulf, does this lessen the impacts of the BP oil disaster?

Dr. Joye: Absolutely not. Many people argue that since the Gulf is a site of extensive natural hydrocarbon seepage, a large discharge such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster would have little effect on the system. The implicit assumption here is that the system was primed and poised to respond to hydrocarbon inputs because the waters are exposed routinely to hydrocarbons. But this argument has several shortcomings. First, what this assumption neglects to consider is that the offshore Gulf is a blue water system, where the nutrients that fuel microbial growth are sparse and fiercely competed for. Oil and gas oxidizing bacteria require nutrients to build biomass and increase metabolic rates. Nutrient availability may well have limited the degradation of Deepwater Horizon oil and gas significantly. Second, natural seepage inputs are sparse and diffuse so the populations of microbes that eat oil and gas during normal conditions are, in fact, rare. They can respond rapidly, but as has recently been shown, they are often not able to sustain high rates of hydrocarbon consumption. So, how much of the Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbons were consumed by bacteria? I don’t think we know for sure, but I have done some simple back of the envelope calculations of nutrient demands by hydrocarbon degraders, and the results suggest it would be difficult to consume all of the discharged hydrocarbons given the nutrient pool available.

OC: Can you describe what a cold-seep community is and how the BP oil disaster might have affected those in the Gulf?

Dr. Joye: Natural hydrocarbon seeps are magical systems that evolve and change over time. The biological diversity of these environments – which is fueled by oil and gas degradation, driven by the activity of indigenous hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria – is astonishing. I remember vividly my first dive to the Gulf seafloor in a submersible in 1994. When the lights came on and I saw all the odd and amazing organisms living on oil and gas, I was simply shocked. My jaw was on the floor and I knew I wanted to study these incredible systems for the rest of my career, because they are fascinating and because we know so little about what makes them tick.

Natural seep habitats, especially deep-water coral communities which are the “old growth forest” analog of the seep evolution sequence, were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil plume and by weathered oil-containing marine snow, or tiny bits of organic matter that sink down from the surface to the seabed. Dispersants may well have also impacted the organisms at natural seeps, but many more experiments are needed to verify this hypothesis.

OC: A few of your recently published papers have focused on the fate of dispersants in the Gulf, and the impacts of the BP oil disaster on open-ocean ecosystems in the Gulf. Can you tell us more about your research on these topics?

Dr. Joye: Dispersants are complex chemical mixtures that act to break up oil and presumably make it small enough for microorganisms to eat. However, the literature on this is split: few studies show increased hydrocarbon biodegradation after dispersant application, and many show no effect or a negative effect on biodegradation. The Deepwater Horizon dispersant application was made after much scientific discussion and debate. The dispersants were applied to keep oil from reaching the coastline, and the potential impacts on open-water organisms, from microorganisms to fish to sharks, were not known. We still do not know conclusively how dispersants impact microorganisms, but what we do know is that it affects different microorganisms in substantially distinct ways. We need to know a lot more, and we are working diligently to obtain this information by doing detailed experiments in the laboratory. So the jury is out on whether dispersants increase hydrocarbon degradation and on how they impact the structure and function of the hydrocarbon-degrading bacterial communities that they are supposed to stimulate.

OC: During your deep-sea expeditions in the Gulf, have you found significant differences between oiled sites and non-oiled sites, or differences at the same site before and after oil exposure?

Dr. Joye: Both. We had been studying one site, Mississippi Canyon 118, for about five years prior to the oil spill, so we had a very good baseline there. The microbiology and geochemistry of the water column and sediments changed after the discharge. If you compare an oiled site to a non-oiled site, you also see striking differences, irrespective if you are at a ‘control site’ or a natural seep. The oiled sites are distinct in terms of microbiology and geochemistry. The differences are significant and prominent.

OC: How might these impacts affect the larger Gulf ecosystem and food web?

Dr. Joye: The Gulf’s food web starts at the top, and the key there is nutrients. A key question is how much of the nutrient inventory was taken up by oil-degrading bacteria and how much of that sunk to the bottom. It will take a very, very long time to return those nutrients from the seafloor up to the surface where phytoplankton can again incorporate them into the food web from zooplankton to small fish and ultimately big game fish and whales. Food web impacts often take 5-10 years to materialize (i.e., to be quantifiable) because it takes a while to start catching the fish from the 2010 year-class. Other considerations include the impact of oil and dispersant exposure on larval fish; that will also take a long time (5-10 years) to become quantifiable. Finally, there is the consideration of oil and dispersant exposure on adult fish and their health. A recent study by Dr. Steve Murawski at the University of South Florida showed that fish caught recently contained Deepwater Horizon polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in their livers. So the food web impacts from the Deepwater Horizon incident are poorly understood and will take years more of research to fully unravel and understand.

OC: Looking forward to the restoration process, it is clear we didn’t have a good baseline understanding of some of the habitats in the Gulf before the BP oil disaster. How will we know when they are recovered? What are realistic goals for restoration of some of these areas, such as deep-sea and open-ocean ecosystems?

Dr. Joye: Baselines are essential when it comes to evaluating environmental impacts. It is clear that not enough funds have been invested in developing baselines for microbial communities in the open water and seafloor of the Gulf. This is both surprising and disappointing, given the industrial presence in the Gulf. I believe it is in the best interest of the oil and gas industry to devote substantial resources into developing collaborations between industry and academic scientists to obtain such baseline data. What would this require: instrumentation, monitoring platforms, access to research vessels and interested scientists on both sides. I believe all of the required parts are there; the missing piece of the puzzle is funding. Given the amount of money generated by the oil and gas industry in the Gulf, the funding required to generate environmental baselines for the system would be small potatoes (relative to oil company profits), but the value of these baseline data would be immense.

Because we do not know the baseline, it is extremely difficult to judge when the system is recovered. We don’t even know if it will recover to the “baseline”. It could end up at a new steady state.

But there is satellite data that can be use that to evaluate how chlorophyll has changed since the oil disaster and those data can be used to describe pre- and post-spill carbon fixation scenarios. So, it is easier to evaluate the status of the open-ocean system compared to the seafloor system because deep-water corals, for example, grow very slowly. When a 500-year-old coral is damaged or killed by oiling, it will require a very long follow up study to evaluate recovery of that system.

Restoration of these systems is essentially impossible; what we can do is monitor recovery and attempt to understand what regulates its efficacy. That is the goal that many of us are working towards.

OC: It has been over four years since the BP oil disaster – what is the status of the ongoing research in your area of expertise? Are you as far along as you and your fellow researchers hoped to be by this point?

Dr. Joye: I am a microbial geochemist. Basically, that means I study the effects of microbial processes on elemental cycles. The Deepwater Horizon discharge served, in essence, as a tragic experiment. Tragic because eleven people lost their lives, and thousands more lost their livelihoods and an experiment because we have never had a marine oil disaster of this scale in U.S. waters. As far as microbial research goes, we have learned a great deal from it and we’ve had quite a few surprises and some interesting debates along the way. We’ve also realized how much we do not know.

Every research cruise we go on, every experiment we do, every time I simply sit in my office and ponder what I’ve seen and what my group and our collaborators have done, these things lead to additional questions that require further observation and experimentation. That’s how science works. Science is not static, and there is no end to it. There is always more work to do, more things to learn, more discovery and more excitement. I feel like we have made a tremendous amount of progress, but we have so much more to do and so much more to learn. In my opinion, we have only now begun to scratch the surface and dig into the details that drive many of the patterns observed during the discharge.

Honestly, I had no idea where we would be four years out because I did not know where the initial studies would lead us, but they have led us to very fruitful ground that will keep us busy for decades, funding permitting.

OC: What research remains to be done in the Gulf? What are the most important gaps we need to fill for research in the deep-sea, open-ocean or other ecosystems you study in the Gulf of Mexico? How can we fill those gaps?

Dr. Joye: The microorganisms that call the ocean home have enormous metabolic potential and, when exposed to perturbations, it is almost certain that some microorganisms are sentinels that could alert us to changes that are occurring in their environment. There are numerous data gaps – we know so little about the physiology of the billions of microorganisms that are present in a few drops of seawater. What are the dominant organisms and how do they respond to perturbation? What about the rare organisms? Who are they and how do they respond to perturbation? We have to understand the language of microorganisms – their language is spoken in terms of their diversity, physiological capacity and ability to tolerate or adapt to perturbation. We have to understand these three things to know what they are telling us when a perturbation occurs, whether that perturbation is a hurricane, ocean acidification or an oil discharge.

But this is my dream – to develop long-term microbial observatories in the Gulf and elsewhere. When I look at what one long-term ocean observatory site has taught us, Station ALOHA off of the island of Oahu in Hawaii, I know that this is a dream that I simply must make come true.

OC: Thanks for your time Dr. Joye! It has been a pleasure chatting with you and we look forward to hearing more about your future research.

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BP Oil Marring Deep-Water Corals 13 Miles Out Thu, 31 Jul 2014 19:09:33 +0000 Rachel Guillory

Photo: Fisher lab, Penn State University

Deep-water corals keep good records, which come in handy in the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Researchers from Penn State University discovered this week that the impact of the BP oil disaster on corals living in the cold waters at the Gulf of Mexico seafloor is bigger than predicted.

This study joins dozens of others on fish, dolphins and birds as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a legal process that’s critical for tracking the damage that started four years ago at the bottom of the Gulf. Scientists first discovered corals coated in a brown substance only 7 miles from the now-defunct BP well in late 2010. The oil left over from the disaster is more difficult to find in the deep sea (in contrast to the coastline, where the occasional 1,000-pound tar mat washes up on shore), so scientists must look to corals for clues on how the marine environment was impacted. “One of the keys to coral’s usefulness as an indicator species is that the coral skeleton retains evidence of the damage long after the oil that caused the damage is gone,” said lead researcher Charles Fisher.

As you can see in the photo above, the normally gold-colored coral has a number of patchy brown growths, which is not found on healthy coral colonies. This coral has been damaged by BP oil.

So how did the oil get so far away from the source? Since these corals are deeper and further away than those previously discovered, Fisher said it could mean that the oil plume could have been bigger than we thought. Potentially, more oil sank to the seafloor than scientists originally predicted.

Not surprising, BP is already trying to refute the scientists’ work, claiming that the corals could have been oiled by the oil and gas that naturally seep up through the Gulf seafloor. However, natural seeps release only 40,000 gallons a day through small cracks in the seafloor across the entire Gulf of Mexico, from Cuba to Mexico to Mississippi. BP released seven times that—2.5 million gallons a day—in one part of the vast Gulf. It seemed obvious that so much oil over a concentrated area of the seafloor would have serious impacts on our deep-sea corals, and after years of careful study, researchers are now providing the scientific links to document those injuries.

Photo: Ocean Conservancy

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Fishermen and Scientists Work Together to Track Sick Fish Mon, 21 Jul 2014 14:22:59 +0000 Alexis Baldera

University of South Florida Professor Steven Murawski began studying diseases in fin fishes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill when Gulf of Mexico fishermen began reporting a surge in fish with visible lesions. Credit: C-Image. Caption from

Fishermen are on the water every day, which means they are often the first to notice when something changes. After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, we heard reports from fishermen that they were catching more fish with lesions than they had ever seen before. Immediately after hearing these reports, Dr. Jim Cowan at LSU began investigating the frequency, location and cause of the reported lesions. Many other scientists have collected data on this same issue, and last week a group from the University of South Florida published the first round of results in a scientific journal.

Through extensive study, the scientists ruled out other potential causes, such as pathogens or oceanographic conditions, and concluded that the BP oil disaster is the likely cause of the fish lesions. Oil has a distinct chemical signature that allows scientists to differentiate between different origins, and contamination in the sick fish was a better match to oil from BP’s Macondo well than any other source.

For the Gulf, studies that help us understand the lingering impacts of the BP oil disaster are critical to achieving recovery. They are also a reminder that we cannot close the door on studying the effects of the disaster or the impact of our restoration efforts until we are certain the job is complete. The results of the USF study are only the beginning of this story about how fish were impacted by the BP oil disaster. In order to achieve complete recovery, we need long-term research on how lesions and other oil impacts affect the survival and reproduction of fish, how their populations are responding to habitat and water quality restoration efforts, and what that means for the fishermen who first identified the problem.

Location of sampling stations and the percent of skin lesions per station for June–August 2011. The percent of skin lesions at a station is indicated as follows: white circles = 0%, red graduated circles = 0.1–2.0%, 2.1–4.0%, 4.1–6.0%, and >6.0% (from smallest to largest). The gray shading is the cumulative distribution of surface oil occurring during the duration of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) event. Map credit: Murawski et al., 2014

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A Victory for Gulf Sea Turtles Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:32:54 +0000 Kara Lankford

Blair Witherington

Last September, we asked you to help us protect the Gulf’s sea turtles and today, I have some wonderful news to share. Thanks to more than 5,000 of our supporters, 685 miles of beaches and nearly 200,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico have now been declared critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles. The newly protected areas include floating Sargassum mats, where young sea turtles live and grow.

This victory is an important step toward a fully restored Gulf. During the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, tens of thousands of sea turtles were located in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico where oil accumulated at the surface. The BP oil disaster started during sea turtle nesting season, and as millions of barrels of oil bubbled up from the seafloor that summer, loggerhead sea turtles were returning to the Gulf Coast to lay their eggs. Almost 300 sea turtle nests had to be relocated from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast in 2010, in order for the young turtles to have a better chance at survival. This meant over 14,000 loggerhead sea turtles hatched along Atlantic Coast instead of their home beaches in the Gulf.

Several other environmental organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and Oceana played a key role in this victory. These groups took legal action, which forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to act.

Victories like this one inspire me to continue working towards a healthy Gulf. It proves that decision-makers are listening and it reminds me that together, we have the power to make a difference for the Gulf.

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Troubling News for Mahi-mahi in the Gulf Fri, 20 Jun 2014 19:20:24 +0000 Libby Fetherston

Photo: Kelly the Deluded via Flickr Creative Commons

As we watched the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster unfold on beaches and in bays of the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, we wondered, too, about the impacts beyond what we could see on shore. Some of the answers to that troubling question are rolling in. We previously learned about damage to fish embryos, and the latest news involves mahi-mahi, or dolphinfish. These fast-growing, colorful predators are a favorite target of recreational fishermen and restaurant-goers alike across the Gulf, and despite their savage speed, it seems they could not outrun the impacts of BP’s oil.

A new study from the University of Miami last week demonstrated that even “relatively brief, low-level exposure to oil harms the swimming capabilities of mahi-mahi, and likely other large pelagic fish, during the early life stages.” And while it’s troubling to hear that oil reduces the fish’s ability to swim fast – a necessity for finding food and evading predators –the more disturbing revelation is how little oil exposure it takes to cause this damage to such an economically important fish.

The more we find out about impacts to open-ocean swimmers like mahi-mahi, tuna and amberjack, the more concerned I get for their bottom-dwelling counterparts.  If these powerful fish, renowned for the distance they can cover, could not escape harm, then what of the snappers and groupers and triggerfish that live much more closely associated with the bottom of the sea? Red snapper, for instance, spend their vulnerable juvenile years in the muddy nearshore flats around the northern Gulf. Many of these same flats were covered in oil and toxic dispersant in 2010. Has it lingered? If brief, low-level exposure is harmful, what will this mean for these fish as they grow to adults?

In the face of this mounting concern, we have two options. We can watch and wait and hope for more independently-funded studies to offer pieces of the puzzle until the Natural Resource Damage Assessment studies are made public, or we can invest restoration money now into fish and fisheries research. The State of Florida is on the right track—they’ve committed $3 million to collect additional data on reef fish through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. Florida covers only a portion of the Gulf’s deep waters, however, and in order to properly understand the impacts of oil on offshore fish, we must expand fisheries research to include the entire Gulf.

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800,000 and Counting: The Soaring Deepwater Horizon Bird Death Count Thu, 22 May 2014 18:21:58 +0000 Alexis Baldera
According to a new study, scientists estimate that between 600,000 and 800,000 coastal seabirds died because of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, a number far greater than any previous estimate. Understanding the ripple effect of 800,000 coastal birds dying in the Gulf of Mexico is critical to the recovery of this special place. These findings come from a study to be released this summer in Marine Ecology Progress Series, which was recently reported in the New York Times.

This new estimate for bird deaths in the Gulf is unprecedented for an oil disaster. For context, the estimate of dead birds following the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was around 300,000.

What are the ecosystem effects of 800,000 birds dying?

In response to the study results, BP has released statements refuting the methodology and objectivity of the authors. Many of the studies that BP cites as counter arguments have not been shared with the public, and as far as we know, have not been peer reviewed. BP’s veil of confidentiality prevents the public from understanding their methodology and results. This is an obvious double standard, and we must ask ourselves:  who has more to gain from discrediting these findings and underestimating bird mortality than BP?

In order to increase transparency and have an accurate discussion about how to best estimate bird mortality or other impacts, it is necessary for all of the data and methods be on the table. This is critical information that managers and scientists need in order to know the full extent of the injury. And BP is blocking this information because they’re in the middle of a legal battle over the oil disaster.

The bird death  study comes at a time when BP is refusing to pay for key science critical to fully understanding the effects of the disaster on natural resources. This science is part of a series of ongoing studies under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) that BP previously funded. The fact that they are refusing to pay for this science at a time when some NRDA studies are underway, is telling. It is imperative that BP fund ongoing and future NRDA studies. These studies, required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, are designed to assess the extent of injury to natural resources and the subsequent restoration needed to compensate for that injury. Trustee agencies carry out NRDA studies, but the responsible party—in this case BP—is required to pay for them.

As the authors of the new study indicate, it is very likely that even this new examination of bird deaths underestimates the true number of birds killed by the disaster. For example, birds living in the coastal marshes or past 40 kilometers from shore (what scientists call offshore pelagic birds) are not included in the total. The range of impacts estimated in this new study contributes to our evolving understanding of what should be done to restore injured bird populations. Ocean Conservancy is focused not only on tracking the best available science to determine the full impact of the BP oil disaster, but also how we can restore the Gulf’s marine and coastal environments. There are opportunities to use innovative technologies to monitor and restore bird populations in the Gulf. We’ll explore these solutions in a future blog.

To view where some of the coastal seabirds make their home in the Gulf, our Marine and Coastal Atlas has maps of the northern gannet, brown pelican and royal tern.

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Interview with Marine Mammal Researcher Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael on the Stranding of Dolphins, Manatees and Whales Tue, 15 Apr 2014 13:50:57 +0000 Alexis Baldera

This blog is part of a series of interviews with scientists who are championing marine research in the Gulf of Mexico.

We know there was a very significant increase in the number of marine mammal strandings observed following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael talks to Ocean Conservancy about her work to respond to strandings when they occur, collect data to better understand these strandings and put together public outreach programs to prevent them in the future.

Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael is the senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and associate professor of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama. Her research seeks to better understand the biological and physiological responses of organisms to environmental change. She also studies how nutrient enrichment and pollution, coastal structures, climate change and harvest pressure affect coastal habitats and species. As the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network coordinator, she serves as a first-responder for dolphins and other animals that get stranded on the Alabama coast.

Ocean Conservancy: Why do marine mammal strandings occur in the Gulf of Mexico?

Dr. Carmichael: Marine mammals strand for a variety of reasons, some natural and some influenced by people. Most often, in coastal Alabama, animals strand after death and the specific cause of death is unknown, but may be related to illness or disease, natural or man-made environmental stress, problems during calving, old age, or human interactions. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) makes information on strandings available to the public.

OC: What exactly do marine scientists mean by the term “stranding,” and how historically extensive has this problem been in the Gulf?

Dr. C: Stranding refers to animals that wash ashore or are otherwise trapped or stuck in a location that is not normal or favorable for survival. This may occur when carcasses wash ashore after death or when animals are alive, such as dolphins ‘beaching’ or manatees orienting to a wastewater treatment plant outfall and failing to migrate when water temperatures turn cold.

OC: Can you talk specifically about dolphins and strandings, and what types of environmental conditions in the Gulf cause strandings?

Dr. C: In coastal Alabama the peak stranding period is usually in the spring, consistent with one of the two broad peaks in calving in our area. But strandings can and do occur year round. Since early 2010, the region has experienced an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), the cause of which has not been determined. Hence, relationships to overall conditions in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem are hard to define. We know that timing and location of some strandings have been related to extreme cold events and an associated spring freshet in 2011. We also know from NOAA research that some animals have been in poorer body condition and experienced disease.

OC: As the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network (ALMMSN) coordinator, you are the first call when someone reports a stranded animal. Tell us about your experience responding to those emergency calls.

Dr. C: Because the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding network responds to all marine mammal strandings (cetaceans, such as dolphins and whales, as well as manatees), our response is divided based on federal oversight for these species.

I personally take all emergency calls for manatees in the states of Alabama and Mississippi that come into our 24-hour emergency hotline for strandings, sightings where the animal is still on site, and other issues of immediate concern. I then either respond directly, report the issue to enforcement if it involves harassment, or dispatch a team to respond depending on the nature of the call and the location of the event. In the case of manatee strandings, this usually means salvaging a carcass for necropsy the next day by a team of staff and volunteers. We have only had one known live manatee wash ashore in Alabama, and unfortunately that animal was in such poor condition that it could not survive transport. We do not hold or rehabilitate manatees.

For cetacean response, I have an excellent stranding coordinator, Noel Wingers, who takes all emergency calls for these species and makes decisions regarding direct response or dispatching a team, depending on the situation. In the case of cetaceans, which are under the northern Gulf of Mexico UME and managed a bit differently, response is also a bit different in terms of whether a carcass is salvaged or sampled and disposed of after necessary data are collected. For live cetacean strandings, in every case, we follow National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) guidance regarding how animals are handled, transported and where they go for rehabilitation. The details are different for every case. We do not transport or rehabilitate cetaceans.

We also rely on assistance from municipal, county and state authorities to assist with moving and disposing carcasses in some cases, and we are very grateful for their support and cooperation.

OC: It has been four years since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began – what is the status of the ongoing research in your area of expertise? Are you as far along as you and your fellow researchers hoped to be by this point?

Dr. C: Since 2010, we have been unable to conduct any research on biological samples from stranded marine mammals. As the result of litigation over the UME, all samples taken from stranded marine mammals in the state of Alabama have been collected by NOAA. We don’t know when or if we will be able to retain samples or have previously collected samples returned to continue our regular program of diagnostic study.

OC: Is more work needed to establish clear baselines for healthy and sustainable populations of marine mammals in the Gulf? What still needs to be done? And how would you explain its significance to the public?

Dr. C: Yes, more data are needed to establish baselines. Very little research has been done on stranded marine mammals in the north central Gulf of Mexico, and Alabama in particular has been a ‘black hole’ for data. We have had inconsistent stranding response and data collection in the past. With the establishment of the ALMMSN at Dauphin Island Sea Lab we hope to provide continuous, consistent and scientifically rigorous data collection from stranded marine mammals to better and more rapidly define causes of death, define relationships between environmental variables and stranding patterns, and enhance survival of live stranded animals. A major need is funding to operate the ALMMSN and to train dedicated long-term personnel who will build capacity for future stranding response and research on marine mammals. The only way to ensure recovery and conservation of marine mammals throughout the region is to properly outfit and support operation of dedicated consistent stranding networks. We also require additional data on live animal populations in the region, including data on genetics, population structure, contaminant exposure, health and body condition, feeding dynamics, reproduction and interactions with other populations, among other basic ecological data that are not available for our area.

OC: There are many animals on the Gulf Coast that can get stranded in addition to dolphins, including whales, manatees, turtles and sea birds. Can you tell us more about the importance of these species and their role in the ecosystem?

Dr. C: Many of these species are threatened and endangered. All are part of our community heritage and the natural resources that make up a healthy Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. And many are sentinel or key species that reflect broader ecosystem health and function, with implications for commercial fisheries success and human health risks. They all also support local economies as part of a growing regional ecotourism industry.

OC: We know there was a very significant increase in the number of strandings observed following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. For example, 930 strandings were reported in the northern Gulf between February 2010 and April 2013. But these large numbers are just numbers to many people. Can you put these numbers in context? Has anything like this happened before?

Dr. C: Our stranding network is relatively new, but we can look at mean numbers of strandings reported historically in our area and make some comparisons. For example, in the past in Alabama (2007-2009) there were about a dozen strandings reported each year. During 2010-2013, numbers of strandings ranged from 25 to 60 animals each season. It is important to note that during historical periods, stranding response was sometimes inconsistent and we suspect strandings were under-reported, but this difference is still substantial, with at least two to five times more strandings after 2010.

OC: Given that strandings occurred before the BP oil disaster, are there patterns to the strandings that suggest causes other than exposure to oil? Your research with William M. Graham, Allen Aven, Graham Worthy and Stephen Howden suggests water temperature changes and unusual freshwater discharges may have played significant roles. The research also identified diet, nutrition and food web changes as likely contributing factors, correct?

Dr. C: Natural physical and chemical attributes of any system can affect when and where animals strand. These attributes interact with but do not preclude other factors that cause mortality. For example, a disease might result in mortality but the local water flow patterns may determine when and where the resulting carcasses wash ashore. Similarly, colder than usual temperature or exposure to oil related contaminants could affect the abundance, distribution and condition of prey species available as food for dolphins and other predators in affected areas. Altered food supply could, in turn, affect dolphin condition and susceptibility to disease or other stresses. Exposure to oil-derived substances could also directly affect the condition of animals in ways we don’t fully understand or have yet to discover. Hence, all of these factors can interact to directly, and indirectly, affect stranding dynamics.

OC: Lastly, why, after four years since the UME began, are the marine mammal stranding networks on the Gulf Coast still struggling to get the resources needed to carry out this important work?

Dr. C: I cannot answer for other networks, but in the case of the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network at DISL, we are relatively new. It takes time to build a relationship with the public and with other stranding authorities, train personnel, and build infrastructure. We are very fortunate that we received support in our early months, during and just after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster from NMFS and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation for basic start-up equipment and response activities. We have excellent colleagues in the stranding network and the NMFS southeast region, who have helped train our personnel and answered many questions. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have also been very supportive of our efforts.

It is also important to understand that all of the stranding networks in the Gulf of Mexico are over-extended in personnel time and other resources due to responding to the higher than usual number of strandings during the Gulf of Mexico UME. This has been the longest duration UME in Gulf history. As a result, most stranding networks remain in need of some additional support to maintain response quality and consistency. In Alabama, we have the added burden of beginning and institutionalizing a new program. This investment, however, is already paying off. Alabama now has a nearly four-year record of responding to 100 percent of marine mammal strandings reported in the state, providing mutual aid to neighboring networks, and performing full data collection, including biological sampling on 100 percent of the carcasses for which such data collection is appropriate. We are working hard to build stranding response capacity, to no longer be the ‘black hole’ for data in our region and to establish baselines needed to evaluate the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, as well as prepare for, assess and respond to future catastrophic events.

OC: As an interesting side note, many folks in Alabama are probably familiar with the manatee license plates, stickers, and signs associated with the awareness program that you started in order to change people’s perception about Alabama’s resident manatees. Can you tell us about that outreach program, and what inspired you to start it?

Dr. C: We started our outreach campaign for manatee awareness in Alabama for two main reasons. First, we wanted to enlist the help of the public to learn more about when and where to find manatees in our area and to gather and analyze these publicly sourced data in a measurable way to support our subsequent research. Many Alabama and Mississippi residents are on the water regularly and have an opportunity to see these animals, but in the past, nobody was collecting and assimilating this information. We wanted to give the public a place to consistently report sightings in a specific way that would make them useful for us and other end users (including the public) to learn about manatee habits and habitat use. By reaching out to the public we could get them involved and functionally increase our knowledge about these animals and their movements in our area to support conservation.

Second, we wanted to use this program to share data back to the public and other authorities and let them know that manatees are here in local waters, and because of public participation in our research, we know more. We could then let local residents and policy makers know when and where to expect to find manatees in our area to guide boating practices, coastal project planning, habitat conservation and restoration activities. Our data combined with historical data we compiled allowed a change in classification of manatees from Accidental to Priority for conservation in our area now that we know these animals are regular at least seasonal visitors to our local northern Gulf of Mexico waters. Our data have also been useful to better understand home range of manatees throughout the Gulf of Mexico region between our local waters and Florida, which contributes to Gulf-wide resource conservation and management for this endangered species.

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