UWF Researchers Part of $112.5M in Grants to Study Oil Spill

University of West Florida researchers will participate in two major studies on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem.

(From PNJ.com / by Richard McVay) — UWF has roles in two of eight groups, mostly made up of universities, that are funded by a 10-year, $500 million fund established by BP to study the spill’s effects. The eight groups will receive a total of $112.5 million; UWF officials are not sure of the breakdown of the money.

The University of South Florida and Florida State University lead the two groups in which UWF will work.

“I think overall, it shows how good the UWF sciences are at partnering with larger state institutions,” UWF President Judy Bense said. “It’s a typical role that we play. It means that we are a player in the oil spill research efforts.”

Bense said students will perform much of the research.

“That’s absolutely wonderful for an undergraduate,” she said. “Marine biology is just huge at the university. It always has been and always will be.”

The FSU-led group will study life and oil levels along DeSoto Canyon, said Dick Snyder, professor of biology and director of the Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation at UWF.

The DeSoto Canyon is a unique spot in the Gulf, where waters from the Appalachians, the Mississippi River and the Mobile River combine, and an upwelling from the canyon supplies a healthy food chain that allows fish to thrive, Snyder said.

“That (DeSoto Canyon) shelf is where most of the production happens for our fisheries,” Snyder said. “Our role will be to look at plankton productivity there.”

Marine biologist Heather Reed, who has performed contract work for the city of Gulf Breeze, said the grant is “a great opportunity” for UWF.

“The DeSoto Canyon is responsible for bringing the nutrients into the Gulf that feed fish larvae,” Reed said. “It’s why we have such a rich seafood industry here. My concern is submerged oil — how is it affecting the larvae? I think that’s a great opportunity for study.”

Snyder said the study not only is focused on determining the effect from the spill, but also seeks to establish a baseline of oil levels.

“We don’t know what’s normal,” he said. “We will be watching these numbers. If they start to disappear, we’ll know it was from the oil spill. If they continue to bounce around, it may be from other sources.”

The USF-led group will study deeper waters surrounding DeSoto Canyon, Snyder said.

That study will focus on microbial degradation and oil degradation in the deeper waters of the Gulf, Snyder said.

He said the studies don’t overlap, with the USF study picking up where the FSU study leaves off.

After the three years of funding are up, the eight study groups will have a chance to reapply for more funds, Snyder said. He said the grant is a boon for a body of water that has been the subject of far less study than others in the nation.

“Relative pennies have been spent in the Gulf compared to other water bodies in this country,” he said. “This is the most productive water mass in the country.”

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