USF Awarded $11 Million for Gulf Spill Research

The College of Marine Science is selected as one of eight centers nationwide for continued studies of the 2010 BP oil spill.


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Aug. 30, 2011) – A research consortium led by the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science has been awarded more than $11 million through BP’s Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to continue assessing the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean and coastal ecosystems and to build better ways for predicting damage from future spills.


The announcement was made Tuesday in Washington by Rita Colwell, chair of the Gulf Research Initiative’s board.  USF’s College of Marine Science is one of just eight centers selected from 77 proposals nationwide.  The college will lead an international consortium of universities in four states, Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany, in examining the impact of the spill and the use of chemical dispersants.


“This is a tremendous opportunity to continue our work in the Gulf,” said College of Marine Science Dean Jackie Dixon.   “The college, its faculty and its students are focused on the science associated with the spill.  Together with our national and international partners, we look forward to contributing to the Gulf recovery effort.”


The USF project was part of a round of funding from the Gulf Research Initiative that provides $112.5 million over three years to address the spill.


USF researchers will focus on two themes related to the spill: understanding the physical, chemical, biological and geological processes that control the dispersion and fate of oil and gas released during a deep-sea blowout; and understanding the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the marine ecosystem.


The goals of the research project include an effort to understanding what occurred in the epic 2010 spill and its long-lasting effects and research that delves into the scientific processes that occur in deep-sea blowouts to aid response and mitigation efforts in future oil spills, USF researchers said.


Citing the wide-ranging impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill from the deep ocean to the fisheries, and specific ecosystem components on the continental shelf slope, coastal marshes, beaches and estuaries, the scientists said their project seeks to create a more accurate understanding of contaminant distribution, composition and ecosystem impacts from the Deepwater Horizon spill and future well blowouts.


The research will build on USF’s front-line scientific work in the immediate aftermath of the physical, chemical and environmental impact of the spill which continues on in several fronts some 16 months later.


“This critically important research project will provide the public with a greater understanding of the impact of this spill and provide crucial information for our state, national and international leaders on how to best respond to future incidents,” said USF Provost Ralph Wilcox.


 “The University of South Florida is immensely proud of the work conducted by our researchers and students in response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill and remains committed to a full scientific explanation of the impact of the oil and dispersants. This project draws upon the collective capabilities of a talented group of international researchers and undoubtedly will provide essential insight and answers for the people of the Gulf States.”


USF played a leading role in tracking the movement of the oil spill through the Gulf through USF’s Ocean Circulation Group and the Optical Ocean Laboratory. USF researchers and the crew of the R/V Weatherbird II also were among the first to identify the existence of deep-sea plumes, including two moving away from the Deepwater Horizon well toward ecologically-sensitive areas of the Gulf in the DeSoto Canyon. In August 2010, USF researchers found Deepwater Horizon oil buried in the canyon’s sediments and documented the toxic effects of oil and dispersants on the tiny organisms that make up the base of the Gulf’s food chain.


More recently, USF has joined with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Florida Wildlife Research Institute and the commercial fishing industry to investigate a surge in anecdotal reports of fish suffering from strange lesions, discoloration and fin rot since the spill occurred. Working with commercial fishing fleets over the summer, USF scientists led by Florida Institute of Oceanography Director Bill Hogarth and USF Biological Oceanographer and fisheries expert Steve Murawski have gathered thousands of fish from the Gulf using chartered fishing vessels to document the mysterious ailments and investigate potential causes.


U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa who has played a signfiicant role in supporting scientific efforts in the aftermath of the spill, said the research project will have a wide-ranging impact on Florida and its recovery from the spill.


“The marine research conducted by the University of South Florida and other Florida universities is critical to understanding the scope of the damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster," Castor said in a statement released Tuesday.


"The $11 million awarded today to the consortia led by USF is vital in the ongoing effort to address the environmental and ecological implications of the BP blowout. Rightfully, the research money comes from BP and not taxpayers. The award highlights the need for a coordinated response to remedy the long-term economic and environmental damage caused to the State of Florida, our small business owners and marine ecosystem.  Another benefit of the grants announced today is investments in valuable technicians, researchers, project managers and scientists – jobs that are important to the dynamic State of Florida. That is good news for our economy and our environment.”


“Our public universities are on the frontlines of the challenging work to restore and monitor the health of the Gulf as well as Florida’s critical marine economy and ecosystem,” said Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the State University System.


“I am proud of the ongoing commitment by the highly regarded marine science programs in the State University System of Florida, because through both their work on the State University System Oil Spill Task Force at the very beginning more than a year ago, and through the critical early science monitoring projects vetted by the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a statewide academic coordinating organization, it is clear that Florida’s public universities continue to amass and utilize nationally regarded talent and public assets while conducting important monitoring and data-mining,” he said.


USF scientists involved in the newest research effort are: Dixon, Murawski, Cameron Ainsworth, David Hollander, John Paul, Ernst Peebles and John Walsh.


Florida accounts for three out of the eight centers funded by the Gulf Research Initiative with a total of $46.3 million awarded to USF, FSU, and University of Miami. USF scientists Robert Weisberg, Benjamin Flower, Al Hine, and Stanley Locker will carry out projects as part of FSU’s effort.


The USF-lead consortium is comprised of: Eckerd College; University of West Florida; Florida Institute of Oceanography; Texas A&M University; Florida State University; University of Miami; Mote Marine Laboratory; North Carolina State University; University of California at Los Angeles; University of California at San Diego; Pennsylvania State University; Leibniz Institute, Hamburg University of Technology; NHL University of Applied Sciences; University of Calgary; and Wageningen University.


BP has pledged $500 million over 10 years to support scientific research in the Gulf and established the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative as an independent body to consider research proposals. The GRI Research Board has 20 members, 10 appointed by BP and 2 recommended by the governor of each of the five Gulf Coast States.


In June 2010, the Florida Institute of Oceanography was awarded $10 million from BP to fund research projects through the state’s public and private marine science institutes who are members of the consortium. Details on those projects and their results can be found at


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