Critical Mission

By Vickie Chachere

ST.  PETERSBURG, Fla. (May 13, 2010) – After more than a week of examining areas of the gulf not yet affected by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill, USF researchers and their state and federal colleagues today begin the most crucial part of their mission: venturing into the oil spill zone to analyze its impact on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

The R/V Weatherbird II will spend Thursday and Friday working its way toward the center of the spill, using some of the world's most advanced underwater imaging technology to determine the extent of damage the toxic oil has had on microscopic life, the basis for the gulf food web.

The scientists will attempt to draw water samples and deploy imaging technology on the edge of the oil plume, which for nearly three weeks has spewed some 210,000 gallons a day, said USF biological oceanographer Ernst Peebles.

The R/V Weatherbird II will spend roughly 24 hours in the midst of the spill, using a USF-created underwater imaging system called the SIPPER to assess whether the microscopic zooplankton and fish larvae central to gulf ecology have been damaged by the oil.

The plan is to deploy the SIPPER three times, working toward the center of the spill. The final deployment is intended to capture detailed images of the tiny droplets of oil coming from the ruptured well, Peebles said.

The team of USF oceanographers, working with scientists from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Reserch Center, left St. Petersburg on May 5. The group of more than a dozen scientists and six Weatherbird II crew members are gathering data under the auspcies of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

To view photos of the Weatherbird II's departure, visit the USF Facebook Page.

For more than a week, the Weatherbird II team has collected data in areas of the northern gulf not yet impacted by the oil. That data will provide a baseline assessment by which oily waters can be compared, scientists said.

Thursday and Friday's work, though, presents the team with the most delicate and dangerous portion of their mission. Team members underwent hazardous materials training during a stop in Pensacola earlier this week, and the hull of the 115-foot, 194-ton Weatherbird II will need to be decontaminated before it can return to home port at the College of Marine Science complex in St. Petersburg.

The mission, though, is necessary for immediate mitigation of the oil spill and the long-term recovery of the gulf, which experts say could take decades given the massive amount of oil coming from the Deepwater Horizon well. Florida officials say the long-term effects of the spill on wildlife are not yet clear, even as endangered sea turtles and dead dolphin have washed up on the beaches of neighboring gulf states.

“We’ll have a better idea about the distribution of oil in the water column and date on the degree of oil contamination as it moves through the Gulf of Mexico,” said William Hogarth, dean of the College of Marine Science. “Forty percent of the recreational fishing industry is in Florida. This is a major part of our economy. We need to get out there and make a complete survey.”

The balance of life in the gulf is a delicate one – the microscopic zooplankton is critical food sources for larger birds and animals and also for sustaining vital fisheries. Among the most threatened species is the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, which spawns only two places in the world – the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Bluefin Tuna begin spawning in May, making the spill a potentially devastating event that could wipe out the fish, which before the spill had declined some 80 to 90 percent, said Hogarth, an expert on fisheries and who is the former director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In a separate research cruise, USF is also involved a federal assessment of Bluefin tuna that will continue for several more weeks.

The SIPPER is capable of capturing images of microscopic organisms and oil droplets invisible to the human eye, and can provide scientists with immediate images and data of how the oil is impacting marine life at depths of up to 1,000 feet.

The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.