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USF Scientists Spend 40 Days At Sea Looking For Evidence Of Oil

Aug 23, 2016

A team of marine scientists, led by representatives of the University of South Florida, are about midway through a six-week expedition looking for evidence left over from the two largest accidental oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

USF College of Marine Science researchers and students, along with members of C-IMAGE and the Weatherbird II crew, with some of the samples of amberjacks and sailfish they collect from the Gulf.
Credit Elizabeth Herdter / USF College of Marine Science

During the “One Gulf Expedition,” researchers are collecting fish samples, particularly bottom-dwelling fish such as red snapper and golden tilefish, to see how much oil remains in their bodies.

The scientists also are taking sediment and water samples, as well as looking at coral and sediment, to see what long-term effects the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1979 Ixtoc oil spills are having on the Gulf.

The Deepwater Horizon blowout spilled 210 million gallons of crude into the Gulf, bypassing the previous record of 130 million gallons set by the Ixtoc I spill in the Bay of Campeche.

The USF College of Marine Science is the lead institution for the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE), an international research consortium that includes researchers from Texas A & M University, Georgia Tech and schools in Mexico and Canada.

USF College of Marine Science professor, Steve Murawski, is C-IMAGE's director, as well as the chief scientist on the 40-day expedition.

He spoke to WUSF almost halfway through the mission, via satellite phone from the bridge of the R/V Weatherbird II as it moved northwest through the Gulf, about 20 miles off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico.

Weatherbird II crewman and 'main fisherman' Chris Bailey looks at the Gulf.
Credit C-IMAGE

"If you're out on the Gulf, depending on where you are, if you're in deeper waters, it's an azure blue color, you really wouldn't know that there was a massive oil spill," Murawski said.

"On the other hand, if you journey to the bottom of the ocean, you can see the impacts of that oil spill, particularly around the (Deepwater Horizon) site itself, and also you can easily find that oil in the marshes of Louisiana and other places as well."

Dolphins play alongside the R/V Weatherbird II in the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit Elizabeth Herdter / USF College of Marine Science

"The fish populations are particularly what I'm interested in," Murawski said. "They're showing signs of declining levels, in general, of the toxic parts of the crude oil. And so we're seeing a partial return to normal after such a large event."

In addition to the crew working on the water, a second set of researchers is working on land, moving through the mangroves and coastlines in the Mexican states of Campeche, Tabasco and Veracruz.

The group, which has found tar and oil that they believe may be from the Ixtoc I spill, has collected sediment core samples as well as that tar, which they'll later conduct microbial analysis on.

“We hope to be able to fully characterize the oil residue still remaining along the Mexican coasts,” said Patrick Schwing, a geochemist at the USF College of Marine Science and team lead.

“We hope to identify the spatial extent, thickness, any lasting impacts, and study the products of natural weathering of this oil," Schwing added. "While the coastal settings (of Mexico) may not be exactly the same as in Louisiana, the researchers hope this expedition will help forecast what the impacted sites in the northern Gulf may look like in 30 years.”

Planned route of the Weatherbird II through the Deepwater Horizon and Ixtoc 1 oil spills.
Credit Elizabeth Herdter / USF College of Marine Science

The expedition is scheduled to return to St. Petersburg the weekend of September 10-11.

Hourly updates on the Weatherbird's location are available through a vessel tracker. There also are frequent updates and photos on the C-IMAGE Facebook and Twitter pages, along with an expedition blog that has a more in-depth look at the research findings. 

You can also hear an interview with Susan Snyder, a USF College of Marine Science PhD student who has been conducting research on Gulf fish populations for the past five years, by clicking play below.