Gulf oil spill: It’s what we can’t see that worries researchers

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As businesses and property owners wait for the weather and ocean currents to choose where the bulk of oil will wash up from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, UAB researchers are acting to protect their research interests along the Alabama and Florida coastlines.

bird_webIt’s not just the oil that we see that concerns Stephen Watts, Ph.D., professor of biology and a researcher whose pioneering work in sea urchin nutrition and culture is being studied worldwide in aquaculture and fisheries. He says the oil we can’t see poses as big of a threat to the wildlife as the slicks themselves.

“My biggest concern is the water-soluble fraction of the crude oil, not the oil seen on the surface,” Watts says.

“The damage from the oil will be definitive; it will come ashore and kill plants and animals,” he says. “Important microbial communities will be altered. We know that’s going to happen soon. It’s the water-soluble fraction of the crude oil, something we can’t see, that’s also extremely dangerous to the wildlife. There’s a certain amount of the mixture within the oil that will leech into the water, and that’s probably what is going to cause significant problems to the early larval and juvenile stages of the animals that live there.”

What is the water-soluble fraction? If you put oil and water together in a glass and shake it up, the two will eventually separate with the oil rising to the top above the water.

What is not seen, Watts says, is the part of the oil that has an affinity for water and will not separate from it.

“If you were to take all of the oil out of that glass of water and then smell the water, you’d still smell the oil because part of it never separated,” Watts says. “That small part that remains is highly toxic to the animals that would attempt to live in it. They couldn’t survive. It will kill them. That’s my concern for the sea life who cannot easily flee.”

That residue also presents a problem for birds. Many of the birds that will die do so after consuming the dead fish floating on the water that were caught in the water-soluble fraction.

“The birds are going to take a beating on this,” Watts says.

Another group of organisms of concern are what’s known as meiofauna, small worms and invertebrates that live in the sand and are a vital part of the food chain.

“They live between the sand particles that feed the small organisms, which feed the small fish and right on up the chain,” Watts says. “If you wipe those meiofauna out, you’ve done something pretty significant to harm the food web.”

Those concerns have Watts ready to make a trip to Saint Joseph’s Bay in the Florida Panhandle where there are natural populations of sea urchins. He’s prepared to make a large collection if necessary.

“We’ve got permission to go down there and collect a large number of urchins,” Watts says. “We’re talking about less than one-tenth of 1 percent, but a collection that will be large enough to satisfy research needs and, should it be required, use as a founder population to go back into the Gulf at a later date. 

“We may not be able to go back in there and re-establish the population of urchins as they are now, but it’s better than nothing.”

Turtle release on hold

Watts says he and his fellow UAB marine researchers are hopeful BP can cap the leaks and that the currents will limit the oil’s progression to the east.

Some of the other researchers with Gulf interests include Thane Wibbels, Ph.D.; Jim McClintock, Ph.D.; Ken Marion, Ph.D.; Robert Thacker, Ph.D.; and Doug Watson, Ph.D.

In 2006, Wibbels, Marion and biology graduate student Andy Coleman began conservation and recovery efforts to save the Diamondback Terrapin. The team’s work led to the creation of a turtle hatchery and head-start program on the UAB campus as a means to grow the dwindling turtle population that lives in the unique ecosystem of the Cedar Point Marsh adjacent to Dauphin Island.

The UAB team was planning to release a large number of head-started terrapin from the UAB hatchery into Cedar Point Marsh in early May but temporarily has postponed the release because of the oil spill.

Wibbels hoped to release 50 of the 150 turtles early this spring during mating season. An early release also would have given them the entire summer and winter to acclimate and adapt to their environment before it got cold. Now he’s considering other alternatives.

“It may be we shift to a second strategy and hold them back in case there’s a major impact on the salt marsh and wait until the salt marsh recovers,” Wibbels says.

Blue crabs anyone?

Watson has been researching blue crabs for 20 years and received national attention for his research this past year; he is unraveling the process by which blue crabs molt. His research could lead to the creation of a new industry that could create jobs and stimulate local economies through private aquaculture or farming operations across every state touching the ocean.

The states of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas brought in a blue crab bounty worth a total of $45.8 million in 2007, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Watson has purchased crabs from local sources or crabbers on the coast for 20 years. Now he’s forced to make preparations to purchase them elsewhere in the event the Gulf Coast fisheries are shut down for an extended period.

“We have some alternatives in Florida that we can turn to, at least during the short term,” Watson says. “What’s happened doesn’t immediately affect my research because we do mostly bench science, and I can get crabs from alternative sources. But if the worst of what’s predicted happens, it’s a tragedy for Alabama. Those waters are one of our real treasures.”