By Estelle Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund
The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) hosted its 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference January 26-29 in Mobile, Ala. GoMRI was created soon after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster when BP committed $500 million over 10 years to fund a broad, independent research program with the purpose of studying the environmental and public health impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The conference drew several hundred attendees from academia, state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations who gathered to hear presentations on cutting-edge research about the impacts of the Gulf oil disaster and continuing socio-ecological recovery. This conference, the second of its kind, facilitates interdisciplinary discussion by giving GoMRI-funded researchers from many different fields an opportunity to come together.
The four-day event entailed around 150 oral presentations in 10 different sessions, more than 400 poster presentations and nearly a dozen other associated meetings, events and plenary sessions. Some of the conference sessions were very technical, including transportation of oil spill residues (i.e., tar balls and tar mats) and dispersants, and impacts of the oil spill on fisheries, coastal marshes and nearshore water ecosystems. Other sessions were technological, focusing on ecosystem monitoring and data management, while others examined the human side, looking at public health and socio-economic issues.
Some of the research coming out of the Coastal Waters Consortium is particularly interesting because it goes beyond the physical and chemical impacts of the spill, focusing on broader ecological issues such as coastal processes and food webs. Dr. Sabrina Taylor is the principle investigator looking at the post-spill reproductive success, survival and dispersal of the Seaside sparrow, a bird that lives its entire life on salt marsh and is very sensitive to environmental changing, making it an excellent “indicator species.”
Dr. Christy Bergeron Burns presented preliminary results showing less species abundance and less reproductive productivity for the Seaside sparrow in oiled versus unoiled areas of Barataria Bay, La. While the trend in abundance was less pronounced in 2013 than it was in 2012, the trends in reproductive indicators (number of nests, failed nests and fledglings) remained consistent. With more data to collect in 2014, this study has not yet reached any final conclusions. But these preliminary results are prompting questions that are shaping the ongoing research to determine the factors that are causing these trends: Has exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs – compounds found in crude oil – directly impacted the bird’s reproductive success and habitat selection? Is PAH exposure, or environmental stress in general, affecting hormone levels in this species? Or has the primary food source of the birds – insects – been impacted by the spill somehow, indirectly affecting reproductive success and habitat selection of the Seaside sparrow?
After scientifically assessing the correlation of ecological changes to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers will dig deeper to understand what has actually caused these changes. Continued collection and analysis of data will give the scientific community a clearer, evidence-based picture of how the oil spill affected specific components of the Gulf ecosystem. But the Gulf Coast region will not get the most benefit from this extensive research until scientists have started to develop a more comprehensive, ecosystem-wide understanding of how the oil spill has impacted the Gulf of Mexico.