USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab studying oil spill impact

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - By Steve Phillips – bio | email

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - It's been six months and two weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico.

And even though national news coverage of the BP oil spill is fading, the impact of the disaster is still very much on the minds of scientists and researchers.

There remains hundreds of unanswered questions about the impact of the BP oil spill.

For instance:

  • Where did the oil go?
  • How will fisheries be impacted?
  • What about potential long term implications?

One of the leading groups of researchers working to answer such questions can be found at USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs.

Large, colorful crabs may provide clues about the oil's impact on animals that live in the deep, cold waters of the gulf.

Researcher Harriet Perry has been studying red crabs since the 1980's.

One of the trapping stations where these crabs were caught is just 12 miles north of the Deepwater Horizon site.

"From the trapping survey, we found a less healthy population. They were dead, most of them were dead when they arrived at the surface. They had enough energy to get in the trap and normally they will survive that trip from the bottom to the surface. We found fewer numbers and at one of our productive sites, we didn't find any red crabs," Perry said.

Perhaps more unusual than the absence of crabs, was the abundance of another species.

"This is the deep sea isopod, bathenomis," Perry said, while holding one of the strange looking creatures, "And it is replacing red crabs in the habitat we have sampled so far."

This bizarre looking creature, with a face like Darth Vader, has always been there though little is known about it.

As for the crabs, both live and dead will be analyzed for any presence of oil or dispersant.

"Dissect the animal and look at various tissues. Crabs tend to store things in their hepatica pancreas, or their fat glands. So, we would analyze the fat glands, the ovaries. A lot of the females came up with eggs, so we will analyze the eggs, the gills. And we will also look at the muscle tissue," said Perry.

Perry's research team also studies the larvae of blue crabs. One room in the lab is filled with hundreds of jars. And each of the jars holds a sample.

"This is what we're looking for blue crab larvae in. So, we have passive collectors out that we sample every day," Perry explained.

"We have to find the crab larvae and then we have to use the microscope to determine the species of crab."

The crab researcher got national attention over the summer after discovering "droplets" of oil inside tiny blue crabs.

That fueled fears about oil entering the food chain.

"I would really like to know what's happening in the natural environment that is causing what we see in these animals. What's the origin and source of those droplets? We know they weren't there before the oil spill from 11 years of sampling where we looked at those animals every day for 11 years," said Perry.

While the oil was still gushing, she worried about a worst case scenario of "fishery failure".

"Then we worried about a 'diminished year class' that those animals that were going through their larval development offshore when the oil hit, that we might lose those animals to the fishery. But I'm pretty hopeful that we will actually see a pretty average recruitment year with blue crabs. We're monitoring the settlement now, but we're not seeing worst case scenario, which is wonderful," she said.

One big advantage of Gulf Coast Research Lab is the abundance of research from years past, which provides critical 'base line' data when studying the oil's impact.

Copyright 2010 WLOX. All rights reserved.