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National Aquarium Initiates Natural Resource Damage Assessment for Sarasota Bay Ecosystem


Independent, comprehensive study will provide data essential for the assessment of potential short-term and chronic environmental impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This approach could be implemented in other aquatic ecosystems along the Gulf coast.

The National Aquarium, in collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory and Johns Hopkins University, is conducting a comprehensive study designed to ensure that pre- and post- Deepwater Horizon oil spill impact status of Sarasota Bay is documented as rigorously as possible. This will enable scientists to demonstrate causality between the release of oil and injured resources and/or lost human use of those resources and services. The first phase of this research will provide vital information needed to evaluate the status of this sensitive aquatic environment before potential contamination by the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster has spread significantly from the ruptured well-head and impacted numerous coastal communities in four different states so far with further significant damage expected. The National Aquarium, which provided seed funding for this research in Sarasota Bay, developed an approach in conjunction with its partners which could be used in other Gulf coast regions to ensure a consistent data set for all threatened areas.

“It’s critical to gather robust, baseline information about the current state of any aquatic ecosystem that may ultimately be impacted by this oil disaster. Sarasota Bay certainly falls in this category,” states marine biologist Erik Rifkin, PhD, interim executive director of the National Aquarium Conservation Center. “Our ecosystem-based approach, which includes the deployment of sophisticated petroleum contaminant samplers, will help to ensure that important long-term natural resource damages can be properly evaluated. Without a well thought-out experimental design, findings may have an unacceptably high level of uncertainty.”

Implementation of this study’s experimental design will make it possible to reduce the level of uncertainty and, therefore, increase the ability to predict the magnitude and extent of impacts to the Sarasota Bay habitat and biota. Research scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory are collecting and analyzing samples from approximately 50 locations throughout Sarasota Bay. Sampling to obtain baseline information began on June 28, 2010 and will continue for a number of months. Analysis of these samples will begin in a few weeks and a schedule for obtaining additional data will depend on the likelihood of oil entering this ecosystem. Sediment, water found in sediment (called porewater) and the overlying water are being analyzed using integrative water quality samplers called semi-permeable membrane devices (SPMDs) to mimic the bioaccumulation of organic contaminants found in oil over time. These devices will provide quantitative and qualitative oil contamination levels.

Mote is also collecting bottom dwelling organisms (e.g., clams) and taking blood and tissue samples from spotted eagle rays and bottlenose dolphins. All of these samples will be analyzed for levels of petroleum before the spill and, if necessary, after the oil impacts the Bay. This all-inclusive effort is necessary since the consequences to Sarasota Bay could include substantial long-term damage to beaches, inlets, estuaries, salt marshes and the organisms residing there.

“This work is crucial to understanding long- and short-term impacts from oil. We are developing a model that can be transferred to other areas that may be impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” says Dana Wetzel, Ph.D., manager of Mote’s Aquatic Toxicology Research Program.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate and Remediation will use this empirical evidence to develop mathematical bioaccumulation models. These models will demonstrate how contaminants in oil move through the food chain and accumulate in marine plant and animal tissues. Understanding the relationship between levels of organic contaminants in water and in fish and dolphins will give government agencies a powerful tool to quantify natural resource damages. These models will also provide insights into how humans will be impacted if exposed to contaminated seafood.

Scientists from the National Aquarium Conservation Center have been instrumental in developing the experimental design for this research and will be part of the team involved with the interpretation, characterization and communication of the study’s findings. Says Dr. Rifkin, “This independent study will complement and support existing NRDAs being conducted by other organizations. This kind of in-depth, site-specific research should probably be considered for other Gulf coast areas which have been, or are likely to be, impacted by the BP spill.”

About Mote Marine Laboratory
Founded in 1955, Mote Marine Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit marine research organization based in Sarasota, FL, with field stations in eastern Sarasota County, Charlotte Harbor and the Florida Keys. Mote is dedicated to advancing the science of the sea through the study of marine and estuarine ecosystems, through the public Mote Aquarium and through unique education programs for all ages. Mote has seven centers for scientific research focusing on sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals, coral reefs, the study of toxins in the environment and their effect on human health, aquaculture, coastal ecology and fisheries enhancement. Showcasing this research is Mote Aquarium.

Mote scientists have been involved with understanding not only the levels of contaminants in the environment, but also the sub-lethal, long-term effects on marine organisms exposed to organic toxins. Previous work has involved long-term research from the Arctic to the Caribbean and into Western Europe, working on oil contamination issues and effects of chemical dispersants.

About JHU’s Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate, and Remediation
The Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate, and Remediation (CTFR) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD aims to provide scientific understanding on contaminant behavior that contributes to environmental management decisions. The scientific knowledge being developed by the CTFR helps determine ways to prevent exposure to contaminants and/or control pertinent contamination. Researchers within the CTFR employ a multimedia and multidisciplinary approach to risk assessment and risk management issues pertinent to environmental problems. Ongoing projects include studies of the movement and fate of chromium, arsenic, and mercury in contaminated sediments, the water column, and biota. The collaboration to study the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a new initiative. The information gained from the CTFR’s activities provides technical expertise for all stakeholders.