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USF Marine Scientists Featured in Film ‘Dispatches from the Gulf,” Narrated by Matt Damon

Film about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill explains USF’s critical role in documenting the spill’s impact on the Gulf of Mexico.

TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 26, 2016) – “Dispatches from the Gulf,” a new episode in the series “Journey to Planet Earth,” shares first-hand accounts of scientists from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science as they documented the impact of millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil well.

The hour-long film, narrated by actor Matt Damon, will be premiere at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 29, at the Mahaffey Theater, located at 400 1st Street South, St. Petersburg, Fla. 33701. Admission is free, with a panel discussion featuring Deepwater Horizon oil spill researchers and responders to follow the film at 8:15 p.m.

The event, which triggered history’s largest scientific endeavor around an ocean-related event, is coordinated by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

USF College of Marine Science professors David Hollander and Steven Murawski have led the USF work in the Gulf, which included looking at fish populations for oil contamination by taking tissue samples, as well as taking sediment cores from the sea floor and examining them to determine parallels between oil in the cores and oil toxicity in the fish.

“This was a catastrophic disaster,” says Hollander. “But it was an opportunity to study how the ocean responds to such disasters.”

How fish populations were affected was a primary concern for Murawski and his fellow researchers, many of whom are USF graduate students. They used commercial fishing techniques to pull in hundreds of red snappers and subsequently took tissue samples from their organs and muscles looking for traces of oil contamination the effects of contamination.

“We were really interested in the fish north of the Deepwater Horizon event,” explains Murawski. “Some of the fish were quite contaminated and contamination can result in long-term genetic changes.”

Amy Wallace, a USF PhD candidate, opened the heads of the red snappers and retrieved the “odoliths,” the fish ear bones, hard, calcium carbonate structures located directly behind the brain which, back in the lab, she cut open with the goal of determining the age of the fish. USF research associate Isabelle Romero dissected the red snappers taking tissues from hearts, brains, livers, spleens and muscle as they were pulled on board the 115 foot USF Research Vessel (RV) Weatherbird II.

In a second phase of research on the same voyage, the USF team drilled core samples from the sea floor.

“Up to 10 percent of the sea floor in the area is covered with oil,” said Hollander. “We want to relate what we see on the cores to the condition of the fish. We will also distribute the cores to various scientific groups for research.”

According to USF research associate Patrick Schwing, by looking at the different colors of sediment in the cores to get a sense of what happened and when. “The Deepwater Horizon event can be seen in the uppermost window of time,” he explained, noting that the cores were like a history book of the sea floor and that looking at the levels of sediment were like “turning the pages” of that history. “This is fine clay, organically rich mud, and we analyze it to understand its chemistry.”

According to Hollander, as oil exploration moves further out into the Gulf and the drills go deeper searching for oil - perhaps up to two miles deep in unexplored areas - we need to better understand what is happening if another event like Deepwater Horizon occurs. “The onus is on us to understand and protect the animals that are likely to be highly vulnerable,” he concluded.

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