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Consortium chooses projects for gulf oil research

ST. PETERSBURG — A consortium of Florida universities picked a slate of 27 projects Thursday that are aimed at assessing the impact of the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.

But the projects, taken together, would cost about $2 million more than the $10 million BP has sent to Florida to pay for such research.

So now University of South Florida marine science dean William Hogarth, acting executive director of the consortium, will begin negotiating with the universities sponsoring each project. They'll be looking for ways to reduce the cost, for instance through sharing ship time and using more student labor.

According to Mote Marine Laboratory vice president Michael Crosby, who headed up the committee that cut 233 proposals down to the ones most worth pursuing, "This amount of money, it's not even a down payment. We needed at least $35 million."

In June, after meeting with Hogarth in Louisiana, BP officials gave $10 million to the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of 20 institutions and agencies around the state involved in marine research, education and resources management. The group includes all 11 public universities in Florida, and such organizations as Sarasota's Mote and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

The goal: create a scientific program to gauge what kind of damage the Deepwater Horizon disaster might cause in the gulf.

Seventeen institutions, from the University of West Florida in Pensacola to the University of Miami, not to mention USF, submitted successful proposals. "They range from the physics to the fish, and from microbes to marine mammals," Crosby said.

Ideally, he said, the various studies will be able to predict some of the long-term "cascading" effects of the spill — say, on bluefin tuna, which were spawning in the vicinity of the spill — so the scientists can then suggest ways to deal with it, such as by temporarily adjusting fishing rules.

For instance, he noted, four years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the herring fishery collapsed because of that spill's long-term effects.

Scientists "had all the information" to predict that would happen, he said, "but nobody put it together. We've got to learn our lessons from history. We've got to get ahead of the curve."

The package of projects that Crosby's group recommended, and that the full consortium approved, would send funding to every university that belongs to the consortium. That was just "a happy coincidence," said Shirley Pomponi, chair of the FIO advisory council. Several projects call for cooperative work among institutions, such as an assessment of the impact on plankton by USF and Eckerd College.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Consortium chooses projects for gulf oil research 08/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 11:15pm]
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