NWF Convenes Researchers to Discuss Gulf Oil Disaster [w/Video]

Symposium co-hosted with Mote Marine Laboratory and University of South Florida College of Marine Science looks at long-term effects from Gulf oil disaster

11-15-2010 // Aileo Weinmann


Researchers from across the nation recently gathered to craft a new long-term strategy for studying and managing major ecological shifts that could result from the Gulf oil disaster.

In a symposium convened by National Wildlife Federation, Mote Marine Laboratory , and the University of South Florida College of Marine Science , some 40 experts from fishery management councils, local, state and federal resource management agencies, industry, academic and independent marine research institutions, and environmental non-government organizations addressed four key questions:

  • Has the oil spill caused a significant migration of large pelagic (open-ocean dwelling) species to environments where they’re not typically found?
  • Will spatial redistribution of large pelagic species cause massive shifts in ecosystem dynamics, leading to negative ecological and socio-economic impacts?
  • Has the oil spill caused sub-lethal (negative effects that don’t kill an animal) and/or delayed population level responses in other keystone marine species —from plankton to vertebrates.
  • If any of these situations are occurring, what specific research, monitoring and resource management initiatives are needed to respond, minimize and recover from such impacts?

“What we’re trying to do is identify big-picture dominoes falling within this large ecosystem called the Gulf of Mexico,” said Dr. Michael Crosby, senior vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory.

John Hammond, Dr. Michael Crosby and Dr. William Hogarth

Participants used the symposium in Sarasota, Florida to share current knowledge about the Gulf oil disaster, discussing “lessons learned” from past ecological disasters and laying out strategies to inform post-spill research and resource management. They will later pool their recommendations in a formal report for government officials and the scientific community.

While many researchers have responded swiftly to the disaster’s immediate impacts, more studies and monitoring are needed to identify and address potential long-term repercussions stemming from the disaster.

“It’s really important for National Wildlife Federation to be mindful that the effects of the Gulf oil disaster are still unfolding,” said John Hammond, regional executive director for NWF. “This symposium is very important for us because we don’t believe the oil disaster is over. We do believe that there are some very specific scientific studies that need to be done to show us where the impact is and where the appropriate interventions ought to be, to understand how policy makers ought to respond, how judiciary bodies might react regarding penalties and how individual cases will be settled.”

The major recommendation from the symposium is for a unified research and monitoring effort that will be able to quickly detect the spill’s effects as they arise and give management agencies the information they need to implement changes to deal with effects as soon as they are detected. Such a unified system will require a much more detailed understanding of how the Gulf of Mexico lives and breathes, symposium participants said.

“Right now there is no agency that pulls together and coordinates all the information we need about the Gulf,” Crosby said. “Scientists at different institutions might be collecting different pieces of data — but if we don’t put those together, we could miss the big picture until populations crash.”

Effectively studying and managing Gulf ecosystems means linking many puzzle pieces together, participants said. These include life cycles of fish and numerous other organisms, natural ocean and weather patterns, patterns of oil movement, effects of oil on particular organisms and other human impacts the Gulf has absorbed over the years, among many other things.

“A key finding of this workshop is that we could see trophic cascades starting not just with large, open-ocean species, but also with a wide variety of species throughout the Gulf — so we need a risk-management effort throughout the Gulf,” Crosby said.

Which species could face long-term changes? The list is long: shrimp, menhaden, blue crabs, various types of plankton, coral reefs, sargassum algae, seabirds, top predators such as large sharks, tuna and dolphins, sea turtles, mackerel, tarpon, other key sport fish and many others.

Other recommendations from the symposium include the need to create:

  • Detailed, science-based models of how oil could affect the Gulf
  • Long-term research sites to monitor for future oil spill effects and other environmental problems
  • Key research programs such as tagging of shark, tuna, billfish, sea turtles and other large open-ocean species
  • Funding streams for crucial research and monitoring efforts


[Video: Hear more from symposium participants, including Bruce Stein, NWF; Aaron Adams, Mote Marine Laboratory; Eric Hoffmeyer, University of Southern Mississipp; Michelle Wood, NOAA; Dr. Steve Murawski, National Marine Fisheries Service; and Dr. Mitchel Roffer, Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service]

“The decisions made in managing this vital and fragile ecosystem must be lead by the most advanced and comprehensive scientific research our nation can muster if this great natural resource is to fully recover,” said Dr. William Hogarth, dean, College of Marine Science, University of South Florida .

Recommendations from the symposium will be put into a formal report for the public, government officials and the scientific community that will be distributed in January 2011.

For more details from the symposium, see the following blog posts:

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