Imagine a school of fish in the Gulf of Mexico, swimming aimlessly through the murky seawater, suddenly plummeting through a wall of brown, sludgy oil.
Professors at the University of South Florida’s Marine Science Department wish it were that simple to see.
Chemical oceanography professor David Hollander said much of the oil spill damage has yet to be seen.
“A lot of people imagine birds struggling to fly because they are drenched in tar or black oil,” he said. “But it’s really nothing like that at all. Scientists are now dealing with invisible oil.”
Yet, biological oceanography professor Steven Murawski said diagnosing a problem in the Gulf of Mexico is more complicated than it appears to be.
“People are forgetting this is science we are dealing with,” Murawski said. “Everyone wants answers, but there may never be an answer.”
Murawski designed an expansive survey to study the fish that were expected to be diseased as a result of the oil spill.
“The study covers about 500 miles of the eastern Gulf,” he said. “We have a fishing line about five miles longs with 50,000 hooks attached.”
Ernst Peebles, a biological oceanography professor and a colleague of Murawski, said the study was the largest scale fish survey ever performed.
Peebles and his lab investigate the age of fish with ulcers or lesions in areas both near and far from the spill’s source.
“My group takes a forensic approach to unlock codes located in fish,” he said. “We can examine otolith or ear bone by using laser technology to correspond age with time. We can count ear rings, like tree rings, to reveal the ages of the fish.”
Peebles said laser technology can detect 24 different elements located in the ear bones of the fish. Nickel and vanadium, elements not native to the Gulf of Mexico ecology, are often seen in the bones of fish near the oil spill origin, he said.
“Once we have this information we investigate if the minerals correspond with the ear bone at the time of the spill. We have a few, but not enough, fish that match these exact dates.”
“Finding out if these fish are sick as a result of the oil spill seems to be the billion-dollar question,” Murawski said,” he said. “Some fishermen have actually noticed a change in the fish and some have not.”
Murawski said the survey is far from providing answers, but rather is providing a place from which to start looking for them.
“We have considerable evidence, but we can’t make conclusions until enough data is taken,” he said. “We need to rule out as much as we can.”
The University of South Florida’s Marine Science Department is discovering commercial and recreational fish with oil in their livers since the BP oil spill occurred in 2009.
Chemical geological oceanographer David Hollander described the oil in the ocean as, “invisible bubbles.” Hollander said the invisible bubbles “are creating, essentially, an evolution in the Gulf.”
Two years later, effects of this evolution are beginning to appear. “We do a test called fingerprinting, which can match unknown oil to a particular oil,” Hollander said. According to this testing, BP’s oil is almost a precise match to the oil in the fishes’ livers.
Hollander compared fish ingesting oil to humans consuming alcohol. “Alcohol is poisonous to humans, but the liver does a pretty good job of filtering it out,” he said. “Fish are the same way. Fish ingesting oil can cause their immune systems to fail, which make them sick.”
USF biological oceanographer John Paul said, “These sick fish are altering genes, which can cause mutations in their eggs. I am just waiting for the day a fisherman brings up fish with two heads.”
Paul stresses the scary thing about this is there is really nothing we can do to remedy the fishes’ sicknesses yet. He said, “Nature must take it course, and we must study it as much as we can.”
David Hollander, a University of South Florida Marine Science professor, was guided by his knowledge and luck when he found extraordinary oil sea plumes.
Hollander describes sea plumes as giant hazy clusters of oil that become invisible. The plumes mean oil lingers at the bottom of the ocean, where it will have an effect on small organisms—the beginning of the food chain.
Hollander researched and explored petroleum in France. His foreign expertise became a key resource to finding the plumes.
According to Hollander, he and his crew knew there were sea plumes in the ocean because researchers in Georgia were the first to actually find one. The Georgia researchers took samples in plastic containers, which are also composed of meta carbons, or oil. Consequently, there was not enough solid evidence to prove to BP that sea plumes were present in the ocean.
Hollander had sea plumes in mind, and his crew set off in the school’s research ship, the Weatherbird II. “In contrast to Georgia’s studies of the south and west of the ocean, the USF team focused on the north and east,” Hollander said. “The north and east parts of the ocean were important because we were concerned about Florida’s coasts.”
Professor Bob Weisburg helped Hollander by creating a daily forecast of where the surface oil was going. By doing so, Hollander had a good idea of where to follow the oil.
Even though Georgia was technically the first to find sea plumes, Hollander and his team were luckily able to intercept the material and be the first to confirm oil sea plumes. “We were in the right place at the right time,” Hollander said. “Despite the tragic event, everything we touched was a new finding or a new understanding. It was very exciting from a scientific standpoint. I was a part of a true exploration.”
Since the plume finding, Hollander has made speeches to tell scientists and the public about the oil spill and its effects.
TAMPA—The $11 million BP Global grant will help marine science researchers at the University of South Florida determine the cause of deformities, lesions and discolorations on Gulf fish due to the oil spill in 2010.
The marine science department is researching the oil spill in the Gulf because it “could affect our ocean for the next 10 years,” said Marine Science Associate Dean Albert Hine.
“Accidents are going to happen. Planes crash, yet we keep flying them. Our goal now is to have enough knowledge to be prepared the next time this happens,” said Hine.
Although it has been over a year since the oil spill, research has not slowed down. Professor David Hollander continues to be heavily involved in studies of oil and how oil changes in time.
“When the oil was releasing from the bottom of the ocean, its temperature was about 150 degrees centigrade. When this extreme heat interacted with the four-degrees centigrade water at the bottom of the ocean, the oil’s composition changed drastically. Not only is temperature a factor, but also the different pressures played a role in changing the oil. Those are physical and chemical changes we are dealing with,” said Hollander.
Hollander was a part of the research team that wrote the $11 million research proposal. USF was granted three more years of research, which included chemical, geological and biological studies.
“This is really like solving a mystery, like in CSI. We have clues but no real answers yet.” Hollander said. “If we can understand the oil and its entire chemical composition throughout each layer of the ocean then that would help discover what kind of long-term effects it has geologically and biologically.”
The oil spill’s aftermath is becoming more prevalent. “We’ve been finding more and more fish with lesions and discoloring. Now whether or not it’s from the oil is still a mystery. Fish get sick just like humans do,” Hine said. “Now it’s our job to explore why these things are happening.”
Hollander compared fish ingesting oil to humans consuming alcohol. “As long as we drink alcohol in moderation our livers can process it. When we over-consume alcohol, we can get alcohol poisoning, psoriasis of the liver or the worst-case scenario: die.”
“We’ve found that the numbers are getting higher of fish with oil present in their livers. This is one of those long-term effects that are beginning to appear.”
Hollander spends nearly all of his time doing research and receives no additional pay. The $11 million only goes towards research and materials. He said: “The science and being a part of all of this is rewarding in itself. Let’s just say it has been a crazy year.”