Eight years ago, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank off Louisiana, one of the big problems facing scientists trying to assess the damage caused by the oil spill was that no one knew much about what lives in the Gulf of Mexico.
That's no longer a problem, according to the University of South Florida's College of Marine Sciences.
Partially funded by money that BP had to pay in the wake of the 2010 disaster, USF scientists joined with colleagues from three other universities to put together the first-ever comprehensive look at what fish and other wildlife call the gulf their home.
Compiling the data for their study, just published in the scientific journal Marine and Coastal Fisheries, required 12 separate voyages over seven years on the USF research ship R/V Weatherbird II. That included two trips to Mexico and one to Cuba, according to lead research scientist Steve Murawski of USF.
During those voyages the scientists caught 15,000 fish of 166 species from 343 locations. They tested the specimens for oil residues and other pollutants. Overall, the degree of oil contamination of fish from the northern gulf continues to decline, the report said, but none of the areas assessed so far have been free of oil.
One surprise in their findings, Murawski said, was that the part of the gulf with the lowest diversity of fish species is the area of the gulf with the greatest number of offshore oil rigs.
"They've had 50 to 60 years of oil development there," he said. "So that may be one of the at-risk areas" in case of a future oil spill. A disaster like Deepwater Horizon could more easily wipe out the fish living there to the point where they could not bounce back, he explained.
Another surprise was how different the area off Cuba is from the rest of the Gulf, he said. All around the gulf, the continental shelf keeps the water fairly shallow for a long way out from the shoreline, he explained. Not in Cuba, though.
"It's more like a coral reef area, where two miles off the beach the water is a mile deep," he said.
The most difficult aspect of the study: Navigating all the bureaucratic requirements to take the research vessel to Mexico and Cuba, he said.
But those trips proved crucial to painting a full picture of the population of the gulf, he explained. Co-authors on the study included scientists from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Universidad de La Habana, as well as Texas A&M.
"Everybody was keen to look at the Gulf of Mexico as an ecological organism, not just chopped up into little pieces," Murawski said. "We hope this will open the door to more of these kinds of studies."
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Seeing the results, he said, made him wish the government had required oil companies to do this kind of research before allowing them to drill for oil offshore. That way, scientists would not have been in the dark about what marine life was lost or destroyed as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.