Researchers shed light on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Credit: Florida International University

Credit: Florida International University

(from PHYS.org / Evelyn S. Gonzalez / Sept. 27, 2016)

It has been six years since the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Plants and animals were harmed and the places they call home destroyed. The money brought in by fisheries and tourism was cut. A way of life was tarnished.

With the highly anticipated Deepwater Horizon movie starring Mark Whalberg, Kurt Russell and Kate Hudson due for release later this week, attention to one of the world’s worst oil spills is sure to be reignited.

But long before cameras started rolling on the disaster thriller, researchers at FIU’s School of Environment, Arts and Society have been focused on uncovering the far-reaching environmental damage done to the Gulf of Mexico from the oil spill. Their goal is to inform future ecological assessment efforts to better monitor and understand changing conditions.

Marine scientist Kevin Boswell is one of 10 researchers from across the state selected by the Florida Institute of Oceanography to help fortify the health of the Gulf of Mexico. The fisheries ecologist is studying coral reef fish communities impacted by the oil spill. Coral reefs form some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, offering shoreline protection, commercial fisheries and recreational opportunities. Seemingly rugged and everlasting, reefs are fragile ecosystems under threat from pollution and climate change. Boswell’s Fisheries Ecology and Acoustics Lab is using sonar and remotely operated vehicle technologies to provide baseline information on coral reef fish diversity and ecology.

“One of the things that hit us in the face when the oil spill occurred was the lack of knowledge on the Gulf of Mexico as an ecosystem on a broad scale,” Boswell said. “This is an exciting opportunity to interface two technologies in a novel way that will allow us to fill data gaps.”

From the hidden crannies deep inside coral reefs to the depths of the sea floor, marine sciences Ph.D. student Laura Timm is diving deep to examine what life is like for crustaceans after the oil spill. Conducting her research alongside Heather Bracken-Grissom, she is examining different species of crustaceans, including shrimp, to determine how the event impacted genetic diversity, population connectivity and communication. Her hope is to develop a timeline of their recovery and genetic sequencing protocols for future research.

Timm, Bracken-Grissom and Boswell are part of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative’s DEEPEND Consortium, an international research effort dedicated to understanding the Gulf of Mexico and the impacts of the oil spill on the Gulf. Their research will play a role in the initiative’s efforts to ensure scientists, first responders and policy makers are better prepared to understand, respond to and mitigate damage from future spills.

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