Scientists Searching For Intruders In Gulf Waters

Dozens of marine biologists and other scientists from Mississippi and Alabama are busy surveying the gulf waters this week.

They're looking for invasive plants and animals, things that don't belong in our coastal waters. The idea is to identify and control any nuisance species before they become a problem.

These so called "invasive species" can quickly threaten the marine environment and economy.

A biologist jumped into the bayou and prepared to scrape barnacles from a piling. Another walked the shoreline, searching for samples. Both are looking for invasive species, life that doesn't belong here.

Leslie Gallagher is with the Alabama Marine Resources Department.

"We've all heard of these type of critters. We've heard of the zebra mussel up in the Great Lakes. We've heard of the snake fish up in Maryland. So, these things could happen here. And what we're doing today is try and see if one of these species that could cause havoc is here," she explained.

"Doesn't look like much here, but once you do the washing and lab there are microscopic animals that live on the surface," said the research scientist who scraped barnacles off the piling.

Comb jellyfish make up much of the marine life scraped from the wooden poles. Those creatures are native. But you may recall news of the giant Australian jellyfish.

"They came and they didn't stay. At least they didn't stay in great numbers. Now if they had come and stayed and reproduced and we found them year after year, they could have been a danger to the gulf coast," said Gallagher.

Finding and identifying invasive species gives scientists a head start in controlling potential problems.

David Yeager is with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program.

"There's a huge economic impact associated with potential invasives. The state of Florida spends some forty million dollars a year for the control of hydrilla alone, and that's an invasive plant that was brought in as part of the aquarium trade," Yeager said.

This research project will also have an impact on marine interests in Mississippi. A similar survey of the Mississippi Sound is planned for next year.

Some fifty scientists are spending four days on Alabama waters this week, taking samples and compiling a list of possible invasive species that could become problems.

The problem of invasive species is significant. The National Research Council calls it one of the five most critical environmental issues facing the ocean's marine life.