Marsh grass study a part of GCRL oil spill research

By Steve Phillips – bio | email

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - BP has set aside $500 million for scientific study about the impact of the gulf oil spill.

One of the institutes that will apply for some of that funding is USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs.

As you would imagine, the BP oil spill in the gulf has fueled countless scientific experiments and proposals.

One scientist referred to the gulf oil spill as, "this catastrophic, but opportunistic occasion".

Scientists and researchers, not just from GCRL but from around the world, are anxious to investigate.

The oil spill's impact on coastal marshes is the subject of one new study at Gulf Coast Research Lab.

Spartina ulturaflora or smooth cord grass is the plant targeted for study. Plant and soil samples from marshes where oil came ashore, will be compared with similar samples where no oil was present.

"What we're hoping to find with this sampling is to find out whether or not there's still oil, even though we can't visibly see it, and whether that oil is being transferred into the food chain, which is of course concern for a lot of people. They don't want to see oil in their seafood, they don't want to see oil in organisms where there might be problems down the road in terms of organisms dying, not reproducing correctly. Or just having a higher stress level," said GCRL associate professor, Dr. Patrick Biber.

Speckled trout are the focus of another GCRL study. The lab's aqua-culture program has raised this popular gamefish for years.

Researchers would like to know if the oil spill might impact the growth of trout.

"We're actually looking at the growth effects on coastal fishes. My focus there is spotted sea trout. We're trying to understand spotted sea trout that were exposed to oil in the marsh when they were considered to be new recruits to the fishery, usually within the first six months to a year of life when they start to enter the fishery. And the impact on the growth at that age is likely to, is likely to have been impacted. And we're interested in looking at that," said Dr. Richard Fulford.

Dr. Fulford is also interested in how the oil might impact a variety of "chains" within the gulf eco-system.

Organisms and impacts on them are inter-connected.

"I'm a food web scientist primarily. I'm interested in the food chain and how things, small things people don't think about much, like plankton and smaller creatures that live down in the mud.  When those populations are impacted, it tends to show up later in the more interesting things: fish, sharks and so forth. So, I'm interested really in that," said Dr. Fulford.

Scientists and students at Gulf Coast Research Lab are busy with numerous projects and experiments that should provide concrete answers to some of the countless questions about the gulf oil spill's impact.

Read Hendon is assistant director of GCRL's Center for Fisheries Research.

"Really, from day one we felt that our role in this process was to maintain our independence, what we as a lab have always done. When I say independence, we look at everything scientifically. We develop sample plans based on sound scientific methodology. We go out and conduct that sampling, analyze it to the components of the plan, then present those findings, whether they're for one side or another, it doesn't matter. We're just there to present what we find," said Hendon.

Despite the $500 million set aside by BP for oil spill research, funding remains the biggest challenge for scientists.

As one scientist at the research lab put it, "while it sounds like BP dollars are everywhere; they haven't funneled down yet".

Much of that $500 million will likely be distributed to universities, which bodes well for Gulf Coast Research Lab, which of course is a part of the University of Southern Mississippi.

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