A recent study from researchers at Auburn University suggests 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill had an immediate impact on some of the species inhabiting the Gulf Coast, and though much has improved, a lack of testing prior to the spill has made it hard to determine if all the damage has been undone.

The four-year study on the sands of Dauphin Island observed meiofauna  — several species of miniscule animals so small they actually dwell between the grains of sand in aquatic sediment.

Pamela Brannock, a postdoctoral researcher in biological sciences worked with professor Kenneth Halanych to observe the meiofauna, which the pair says plays a key role in a healthy ecosystem.

“These small organisms are the base of the food web,” Halanych said. “It’s very important for juvenile fish that have just settled. These organisms help support the fisheries, and they’re critical for the exchange of nutrients between the sediment and water.”

Brannock said some species of meiofauna, like nematodes, don’t change for their entire existence, but others can become macrofauna — such as urchins, snails and other invertebrates.

Pictured above is a drawing of one common species of meiofauna.

Pictured above is a drawing of one common species of meiofauna.

“There’s a fair degree of complexity here that represents a broad range of different types of organisms,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we looked at the community level, that way it’s not just how one species was impacted, but how the entire community was impacted by the spill.”

In the context of the oil spill, Brannock said meiofauna are important because they live in the sediment, where oil and dispersant ultimately would have settled.

“We have to treat the oil and the dispersant both together, because we don’t have a way to directly measure how much oil or dispersant hit the area, so we just have to refer to it as the spill event,” Halanych said.

The importance of meiofauna in the coastal food web is the reason researchers were concerned to find the presence of large of amounts of fungus when the study began in 2010, which is typically indicative of death.

An initial study conducted by Halanych and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire revealed the increased presence of fungus in the meiofaunal communities and a measurable decrease in the number of meiofauna themselves. At the time, researchers were concerned the oil spill may have irreversibly harmed the meiofaunal communities.

“The good news is, it looks like a lot of them have come back,” Halanych said. “The samples now are better, but we don’t know if they’re different because they’ve continued to recover, or if it is due to natural variations that happen in the Gulf.”

Brannock said the Gulf constantly changes from storms and hurricanes, and a lack of baseline data has made it difficult to say whether or not the communities the researchers observed have “recovered,” but she did say currently, the situation is “clearly much better than it was.”

BP remains locked in a legal battle over civil fees from the oil spill, but has already paid out more than $2 billion in criminal penalties. However, the company has steady denied claims oil left from the spill has had adverse affects on aquatic life.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the residual material is harming aquatic life,” BP said in a statement provided to Lagniappe. “A government study found that after Aug. 3, 2010, no water samples exceeded EPA aquatic life benchmarks for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from Macondo oil. In addition, more than 10,000 seafood specimens have been collected by the FDA, NOAA and the Gulf states since May 2010. Levels of oil residue in seafood have consistently tested 100 to 1,000 times lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA.”

Halanych is a member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Board (GMRB), which is a group of 20 scientists tasked with distributing $500 million — funds provided by BP for research specifically targeting oil spill response.

The GMRB awards funds to investigators based on a highly competitive, peer-reviewed proposal process. Though BP provided the funding for the GMRB, the money is now independent of the multinational oil and gas company.

“This work continues, and it has already made a huge difference for the Gulf Coast region,” Halanych said. “Unfortunately, in many ways, the Gulf Coast is the forgotten coast in terms of national funding priorities. The West Coast, especially southern California, and the Northeast really have major marine and oceanographic efforts, and there is a lot of money that goes there. The Gulf Coast does have institutions, but typically federal funding does not flow in the same way to these areas.
This research initiative is helping with that. It is helping to stimulate scientific research, and one of the things we are hoping is we will be able to build much stronger capacity so in the future we can address societal concerns and national research priorities.”

Halanych said that kind of research is critically important to assessing the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystem.

“One of the things we have learned is the effects from an environmental catastrophe like this can take a long time to be realized. One of the main reasons we should be concerned with or interested in studying the effects is, in all likelihood, another spill is going to occur. The Gulf Coast region has a huge number of rigs, about 4,000, and we keep going into deeper and deeper water to drill. As you move into deeper water, the engineering challenges become greater and greater and greater,” Halanych said. “The concern is another big blowout, like the Deepwater Horizon, may happen in the Gulf. The hope is we have collected enough information about the Deepwater Horizon spill that we can apply that knowledge to the next spill and be able to control the damage a little bit better.”