Gulf Oil Spill Symposium: Work Groups Begin Design of Early Warning System for Gulf Wildlife and Habitats

NOTE: this is the second post from the Gulf Oil Spill Symposium. Also see part I, Symposium Looks to Alert Policy Makers to Impacts from Gulf Oil Disaster

One glaring fact jumped out at me after listening to 40 scientists discuss ways to assess the health of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil disaster: this body of water, under which lie some 4,000 oil and gas wells, is woefully under-studied.

During the afternoon work group sessions on Nov. 9 at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., scientists began to create a framework for what Dr. Bruce Stein of NWF called “an early warning system.” Using trophic cascades as a foundation, the system would provide information to alert commercial and recreational fisherman and fisheries management agencies to impending problems with one or a group of fisheries.

NWF's Dr. Bruce Stein

These sessions took place during a two-day symposium, co-sponsored by National Wildlife Federation, Mote, and the University of South Florida.

Trophic cascades describe changes in a food chain. For example, a little fish feeds on plankton. A big fish eats the little fish. Suppose the abundance of the big fish is severely depleted, maybe by over fishing or a sudden change in its environment (a lengthy cold spell, for instance). The population of little fish would increase and the amount of plankton in waters frequented by the little fish would decline.

But before scientists can find the answers, they have to find the questions:

  • They need to know what’s become of the oil and what the oil has become.
  • They need to know the size, structure and location of key species at various times in their life cycles.
  • They need to know the responses of these species to biological, chemical and environmental changes.
  • They need to know the toxicity of oil and its residual compounds, and of dispersed oil, on a large variety of species.
  • They need to know if any of these compounds accumulate in any of the wildlife. They need to know how the oil and chemicals impact wildlife reproduction.
  • They need to know the thresholds that once crossed alert us to danger ahead – the loss or severe depletion of a fishery.

Mostly, they have to count everything and look for changes. Piece of cake.

Except that for an ecosystem as large and important as the Gulf of Mexico, the existing counts are surprisingly insufficient.
There are a few good ones, of course, that offer reasonably reliable baselines from which to measure change. But there’s no ecosystem-wide synthesis of the data into models that might help scientists predict impacts from the Gulf oil disaster, or any oil spill, gas leak, broken pipe, barge accident or hurricane. And there are gaping holes in the data (as in, non-existent).

Worse, there’s not a lot of field-collected data because a major piece of equipment has been disappearing from the scene: a boat. Research vessels cost a lot of money to buy, outfit and maintain – money that has also been disappearing from the scene for the last 10 or so years.

Work group session at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota

So it’s okay to stick 4,000 oil and gas wells into the Gulf of Mexico—granted the oil companies employ a lot of people and no one really wants the price of gasoline, jet fuel or heating oil to quadruple—with no clue as to what’s going to happen to the place and its inhabitants when an oil flow misses the tank and ends up in the water.

It’s often a challenge for science to point its metaphorical finger at causation, in this case to say “this was caused by the oil spill” – but it can be done. This group plans on having its recommendations for a new research initiative in the hands of our new Congress on opening day, January 2011.

BP is potentially on the hook for billions of dollars in fines and penalties. But time is actually on their side. The more time passes, the more difficult it will be for science to assign causation to this BP spill. And that’s just fine with BP.

Stay tuned for further updates from the Symposium.