USF's R/V Bellows Departs Friday for Gulf Research

Nine scientists will collect data on marine life, water quality and sediment along Florida's west coast.

By Vickie Chachere News Manager

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (July 7, 2010) – The R/V Bellows will set sail Friday for a nine-day research venture along Florida's west coast to collect baseline data on marine life, water quality and sediment in order to assess the impact should the area become contaminated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Researchers also will perform oceanographic measurements to assist in models predicting the oil path near the west Florida shelf, and use University of South Florida's unique underwater imaging system, the SIPPER, to gather pictures of microscopic marine life deep in the Gulf's water. The research team will include scientists from the state of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and the Department of Environmental Protection.

Data from this Bellows cruise will be compared to observations and information gathered in early August when the R/V Weatherbird II returns to the oil spill zone to assess the status of life in the northern Gulf.

Oil from the April 20 well rupture has not reached the areas south of Florida's Big Bend where the Bellows will travel on its research mission. The areas of northwest Florida near Pensacola have had the most visible impact from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but the remainder of Florida's fishing areas and beaches are open.

USF biological oceanographer Kendra Daly, who is an expert on zooplankton ecology and marine food webs, is heading the project.

Daly said the “goal of this project is to assess the impact of oil on the Gulf marine ecosystem and to establish a baseline and ecosystem indicators on the west Florida shelf south of the Big Bend region so we can understand the effects should the oil come down this far.” The Bellows' planned trip will include stops at 15 pre-determined “stations” over the shelf where sampling will be taken.

USF researchers tracking the movement of surface and subsurface oil in the Gulf caution that Florida's western shelf could be impacted by the oil months from now.

During the summer, the currents and winds work in Florida's favor in moving the oil-tainted waters west. But if oil is still present in the fall, the reversal of currents could bring a threat of oil moving toward the west Florida shelf, which serves as key feeding and spawning grounds for fish.

Scientists also will be closely monitoring the Gulf's process of upwelling nutrient-rich waters from its deepest areas onto the Florida shelf. The concern is that subsurface plumes discovered by the Weatherbird II and other research vessels could produce a long-term threat should underwater clouds of degraded oil particles be caught in the upwelling process and pushed into feeding and spawning grounds.

Daly said researchers on the Bellow's cruise are focusing on lower components in the food web – the microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton), which provide food for fish and larger marine animals. The researchers also will be collecting sediment samples and taking current measurements, which will help improve spill trajectory forecasting.

The Bellows, lead by Capt. Thomas Worle, will carry nine scientists and a three-person crew during the research venture. The cruise is being funded by the USF Research Foundation.

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.