Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year One Block Grant - The Northern Gulf Institute

Project Overview

Impact of Crude Oil on Coastal and Ocean Environments of the West Florida Shelf and Big Bend Region from the Shoreline to the Continental Shelf Edge

Principal Investigator
Florida State University
Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS)
Member Institutions
Florida State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Northeastern University


The oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon accident is having significant effects on the ecology and economies of the Gulf of Mexico, impacting both ecological and human communities for decades to come.  The overall effect is difficult to predict for two reasons. 

First, critical baseline data are lacking to adequately distinguish effects of the oil from normal temporal and spatial variation in species abundances.  Long-term data especially are generally lacking; this is a common problem that has plagued evaluations of the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill (Guterman 2009). Separating natural patterns from dynamics caused by pollution from oil spills is particularly problematic for coastal communities in the Gulf of Mexico, where hurricanes can cause dramatic "natural" variation across ecosystems.  

Second, historical studies of oil spills have been relatively short-term; the post-spill studies of the Exxon Valdez are the exception. Generally a great deal of attention is given to the immediate effects on birds and other, often charismatic, wildlife and there is a significant concern about effects on fisheries.  However, much less attention is given to the ecology of coastal areas, where much of the un-reclaimed oil eventually resides and where effects  can be slow and long-lasting, and virtually none is given to shallow-water reefs, shelf edge, slope, or deepsea.  All of these habitats provide critical ecosystem services that will be impaired by the presence of oil.  Recovery times for these habitats will vary.  Thus, it is critical that we identify those factors contributing to recovery to ensure that there is intense focus on remediation and restoration efforts in affected areas to help restore ecological services and therefore economic wellbeing.  Any remediation following from the spill requires a quantitative assessment of the processes that control uptake, degradation and release of crude oil components. 

The project developed by Florida State University in response to this spill represents an integrated, rapid-response study of the impact of oil on coastal and ocean marine ecosystems of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico (NEGOM), including the northern West Florida Shelf (WFS) from the Big Bend Region (BBR) west to Louisiana, that can be completed in its entirety within 5 months.  The physical modeling and ecological teams assembled here are uniquely disposed to address this issue because of the coordinated efforts already underway since the inception of the NGI both within and external to NGI member institutions, and the long-term baseline datasets developed by a number of FSU researchers. 

The objectives of this proposal are to improve the modeling physical parameters that influence the distribution and persistence of oil; to examine the effects of oil deposition on biogeochemistry and the direct and indirect consequences to coastal habitats (including beach-dune-swale, saltmarsh, nearshore sponge-soft coral reef, and offshore reef fish spawning habitats) and marine foodwebs that support fishery production; and to determine the ecological considerations needed to inform rapid bioremediation.

This research was made possible by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.