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Sarasota Scientists Go to Alaska to Research Oil Spill Effects

Much of the study was prompted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989

A group of scientists from Sarasota is in Alaska to investigate the effect of spilled oil on marine life. And it may have implications for how scientists respond to spills closer to home.

The study is led by Dana Wetzel, a scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory. She's in Sitka, in the Alaska panhandle, to see how crude oil and chemical dispersants used to treat the spill affect coho salmon raised in hatcheries. She says they're not trying to replicate the Deepwater Horizon spill.

"This is a completely different oil, and these are fish that would never be there in the Gulf of Mexico," she says. "So, the interest is from people in Alaska, on what may happen if there's an oil spill here, under these conditions, these temperatures, these fish."

Still, Wetzel says the study could yield information on fish still being affected by the Gulf spill. She says they're looking at amounts of oil that don't kill marine life, but may affect their long-term health or ability to reproduce.

"Some people now refer to sublethal effects as a delayed mortality, simply because if you have impaired an animal's ability to carry on with its proper immune responses," she says, "maybe they're not dead today from the exposure, but maybe in six months from now they may be dead due to a disease they might have fought off."

In 2010, nearly 2 million gallons of the oil dispersant Corexit were injected at the site of the broken BP well-head, about 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf. Much of it then sank to the Gulf bottom or was suspended in the water column. One study from Georgia Tech reported that Corexit used during the BP spill increased the toxicity of the oil by up to 52 times.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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