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Protecting Our Water: USF Biological Oceanographer Tracks the Oil

Though seven years have passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill dominated Floridians' attention, the event is still on the surface of Steve Murawski's mind nearly every day.

While not forgotten, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill no longer dominates Floridians’ attention as it did in the spring and summer of 2010, when 210 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico after an oil rig explosion.

Not so for Steve Murawski, PhD, a professor in the USF College of Marine Science.

Researchers from USF and Eckerd College conducted a time-series study to better understand impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It’s at the surface of his mind nearly every day. Since coming to USF in 2011, he has worked to bring in more than $30 million in grants to study the spill’s effects. There’s good news, in that the Gulf continues to sustain a great deal of life. But there was lasting damage – and it could happen again.

“I hate to say it, but it’s likely that some other accidents will happen,” he says.

That’s because of the nature of ocean oil drilling. The risks increase as drillers go deeper in search of the oil. And Murawski, who directs the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems, wants the research community and industry to be ready for whatever comes.

He started at USF amid the distress and urgency of assessing the Deepwater spill’s impact. He’d had a long and successful career with the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But this was a chance to study an unprecedented threat to the health of the Gulf of Mexico, which supported fishing and tourist industries worth billions in Florida alone.

The event began with an explosion that killed 11 crew members, destroyed the rig, and allowed crude oil to gush from the ocean floor. Because the well was so deep, it took the company in charge of the drilling, BP, 87 days to cap it.

As oil spread across the Gulf surface, a massive effort began to protect beaches and wetlands from Louisiana to Florida. Part of this involved BP’s use of a chemical dispersant, Corexit, which marine researchers soon realized created underwater plumes that snaked into the canyons and shelves where ocean life fed and spawned.

Emily Chancellor, MS, examines a burr fish on a USF research trip in Tampa Bay. Chancellor studies how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may have impacted larval fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The spill devastated animal communities along the coast and exposed fish and corals and other bottom-dwelling creatures to oil contamination. Oil still lurks on the ocean floor. But after nearly seven years, Murawski says, the Gulf survives. It’s not what he would describe as healthy, but many of the fish and other creatures that were able found places to feed and spawn beyond the spill-affected area.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we have seen the worst,” Murawski says.

That is, if there isn’t another spill.

That possibility motivates his other research. He and his team are in the process of setting a baseline for the health of the Gulf overall, traveling its length and breadth to test existing contamination levels in sediments and fish. They’re also building a computer modeling system, using everything they have learned about the Gulf and its biological resources to predict what would happen if another spill occurred – directly off the Florida coast, for instance.

Murawski and USF are also part of an international consortium studying the long-term effects of the 1979 Ixtoc oil spill off the coast of Mexico. It was like the Deepwater spill, happening in a similar area with a similar response, including the use of chemical dispersants.

“It’s kind of sad that after 37 years, they’re using the exact same tools,” he says. “There have to be better ways, more targeted ways that have less of an environmental footprint.”

Economic activity vital to Florida depends on a healthy Gulf of Mexico, says USF biological oceanographer Steve Murawski.

While the Gulf has demonstrated its resilience over the past seven years, we can’t let the Deepwater spill dissolve in our memories, he says. Work must be done if oil drilling and other Gulf activities are to co-exist.

“We consume Gulf oil,” he says. “We also eat Gulf seafood. We vacation at the shore. An enormous amount of economic activity depends on a healthy Gulf.”

Story by Lindsay Petersen, from USF Magazine, Spring 2017 issue
Photos courtesy of the C-Image Consortium

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