HANCOCK COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - The numerous bottles inside the freezer contain water and organisms that were collected from the Gulf of Mexico. USM researchers want to know if the fish, shrimp and oyster samples have been exposed to molecules found in crude oil called Polycyclic Aromatic HydroCarbons, or PAH.
"What we do is we look at the PAH because they're toxic. They have a toxic effect on the organism," said Dr. Scott Milroy, USM Assistant Professor of Marine Science.
The amount of PAH will help Dr. Milroy answer a nagging question: Is our seafood safe to eat?
"The PAH levels were much higher than background concentrations," said Milroy. "They were not high enough to trigger any kind of seafood safety closures or fisheries closures."
Dr. Milroy and other researchers at USM immediately started gathering data after the rig explosion. At the Marine Science lab at Stennis, technicians are using six different instruments and sensors to detect changes in the Mississippi Sound, like the oxygen level, temperature, and organisms at the bottom of the food chain.
"We went out during the spill and we're currently going out now. We do every month, sampling out," said Kevin Martin, a USM Hydrographic Technician. "We have a lot of data on what's going on out in the water as far as water quality and what some of the small organisms are doing."
Other USM researchers are conducting their own tests and experiments in relation to the oil spill. For instance, geologists are using a lunar-looking device to collect sediments to find out if oil has settled to the bottom of the Gulf floor. And chemists are searching for signs of trace metals and oil droplets in the water.
The scientists say it's too early to tell how the disaster has affected sea life, their habitats, and their population.
"Whether they're capable of reproducing at normal levels to replenish what we capture through normal fisheries, or whether it makes them more susceptible to diseases. There are a lot of question marks," said Milroy.
Those are questions that could take years or even decades to answer. Southern Miss has received 29 grants from various sources, including BP, totaling close to $6 million. Three other Mississippi universities have also received BP funding for research.