More than 700 academic experts, state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations are in Mobile this week to share the latest Gulf of Mexico ecosystem science research results at the third annual Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference.
The conference is sponsored by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), an independent research program funded by a 10-year, $500 million grant from BP in 2010 to support research into the effects and impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. GoMRI funding decisions are made by an independent board and not vetted by the oil industry. All GoMRI-funded research results are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Chuck Wilson, GoMRI’s chief science officer, said this year’s conference was developed from more than 550 abstracts that were whittled down to a schedule of 150 oral presentations and about 350 posters, which will be presented today through Jan. 29 at the Riverview Plaza Hotel.
“Before Deepwater Horizon, there wasn’t much of a coordinated effort in the research community to respond to and remedy oil spills,” Wilson said. “This conference and some of the projects that have been funded through GoMRI are bringing everyone together to talk about how we’re investigating impacts and think about new technologies to prevent similar disasters in the future.”
Wilson said the research presented at the conference was conducted using the standards of both the National Science Foundation and National Academy of Sciences and focused on five areas including: the physical distribution, dispersion, and dilution of petroleum; the chemical evolution and biological degradation of the petroleum; environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; new developments in pre-sill and post-spill technology and; the impacts of oil spills on public health.
“We have some engaging presentations this year, from observations that indicate declining insect populations in oiled marshes to new satellite technology that can be used to track, trace and predict how oil spills move,” he said. “And for every one we present there are two or three we couldn’t fit into the schedule.”
One presenter, University of South Alabama Associate Professor William Patterson, had 12 minutes to explain the “acute and chronic effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the reef fish community and trophic structure.”
Simply stated, Patterson said his research used data collected before the spill to show declines in the age and population of reef fishes that persisted for “a number of years” after the spill, and is only just rebounding.
“What we’ve been able to do is take all this broad information we have about the system and show the preponderance of information we do have suggests the spill did have an impact on the trophic ecology of the fish, what they eat, what eats them, how fast they grow and how many babies survived to become adults,” Patterson said.
Still, Patterson said his conclusions were hampered by not having control sites outside of the spill zone and said many of the presentations should be digested with a “matrix of uncertainty.”
“There is uncertainty on all the information, but what you have to do is weigh the evidence and it appears to be going in the direction that we had a cause and an effect,” he said.
USA is currently heading up other research about the oil spill, Patterson said, including its impacts specifically to red snapper.
Wilson said beyond GoMRI’s 10-years of funding, researchers will probably be studying the Deepwater Horizon spill for decades.
“There have already been conclusions but there is so much we don’t know,” he said. “The Gulf did what was predicted it would do by people who knew about bacteria working with dispersant to degrade oil in that very quickly, the system dealt with the oil that was out there,” he said. “Now we’re looking at if there is a more lingering persistence of oil degradation products in aquatic species and marsh areas or how much oil is bound up in sediment offshore. General results here are applicable to what we are developing and what will be used in the next spill to determine how we will respond and what resources will be drawn on.”
For information about GoMRI and the annual conference, visit gulfofmexicoconference.org.