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

Impacts of the Deep Horizon Oil Spill on Ecosystem Structure and Function in Alabama's Marine Waters

Principal Investigator
Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL)
University Programs
Member Institutions
Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL), The University of Alabama, University of Mississippi, University of North Florida, University of South Alabama


We propose to take a deliberate next step in our evaluation of the impacts of the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon oil leak on the health of key ecosystem attributes in Alabama's waters using a hypothesis-driven sampling design known by its acronym BACI (Before, After, Control, Impacts). Following this philosophical construct, scientists at DISL proactively collected baseline data on the state of a number of key determinants of ecosystem structure when it became apparent that the uncontrolled release of oil from the accident sites would continue for the foreseeable future. 

Now that oil is fully inundating Alabama s coastal waters, we propose seven tasks that will evaluate the initial (acute) impacts of this unprecedented environmental catastrophe on the same ecologically and economicaly important components of our coastal ecosystem that were sampled before oiling occurred.  Emphasis will be placed on ecologically and economically important organisms living in our coastal waters where oil sheen and tar have been documented to occur.  We will focus our efforts on documenting oil impacts, assuming they exist, on planktonic organisms, economically and ecologically important fishes (both reef-associated and demersal), trophic pathways, key biogeochemical processes driven by microbial communities, finfish and shellfish nursery habitats, and representative federally listed species in our area (e.g., the West Indian manatee).  In addition, we will seek to identify changes in the habitat utilization patterns of organisms living within the vegetated habitats (seagrass and salt marsh habitats) in the north central Gulf of Mexico. Finally, we will begin to determine the extent to which the net flow of oil can intrude further into the northernmost reaches of Mobile Bay via the main ship channel which wil help determine if we need to increase the spatial scope of our ongoing investigations.

Objectives for this project require the following tasks:

  1. Document the impacts of oil intrusion on economically and ecologically important fishes in Alabama s nearshore and coastal waters
  2. Document the impacts of oil intrusion on keystone sentinels in Mobile Bay waters
  3. Document the impacts of oil intrusion on the health of critical nursery habitats and habitat utilization patterns of the young of economically important fishes
  4. Evaluate the impacts of oil, methane and dispersant on pelagic food web structure and organic matter cycling along the Alabama coast
  5. Evaluate the extent to which sedimentary biogeochemical cycles and specifically the nitrogen cycle have been changed by inundation of coastal waters by oil
  6. Quantifying the effects of oil on the microbial community structure and processes in Alabama coastal's waters
  7. Evaluate the potential for along-estuary transport of oil-derived substances in surface and subsurface waters of the ship channel of the Mobile Bay Estuary

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