Along the Oil-Stricken Gulf Coast, Research Labs Watch and Worry

By: Scott Carlson – The Chronicle of Higher Education

June 03, 2010


The west side of Dauphin Island, on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, has been slimed with oil. And Scott Rikard, a marine biologist and the manager of the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory, is grimly waiting for the oil to come around to the east side, where his research facility sits.

The other night, the laboratory shut down its pumping equipment, which provides seawater to its stocks of oyster larvae, because Mr. Rikard was afraid that the pipes and pumps, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, would be fouled by the approaching oil, which has been spewing for the past six weeks from a mangled well 150 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

“All indications are that we could expect it at any time,” Mr. Rikard says.

He is raising oyster larvae for researchers not only at Auburn, but also at Louisiana State University and Texas A&M University, and if he has to shut down the pipes for good, the animals will die when his three days’ worth of reserved water runs out.

“For lack of a better term, it’s sticky situation,” he says. “It’s real tragic. You can dwell on it or try to get through it.”

Mr. Rikard’s lab is one of a handful of university marine-research centers that will feel the impact of the nation’s worst oil spill in many ways. Their work—some of which has been under development for many years—is now threatened, as they cannot continue their experiments in the contaminated waters. Many of the research facilities have direct ties to the region’s fishing and shellfish industries, the future of which are in question.

“This will be the prominent issue that we deal with for several years to come,” says William E. Hawkins, director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, part of the University of Southern Mississippi. He says he has not yet been able to assess how the catastrophe might affect current research.

Opportunity Amid the Ooze

But looking beyond the black ooze of the present, researchers also see opportunity. The unprecedented oil spill will lead to new questions about the biological impact, new lines of research in mitigation and recovery, and new challenges in helping to re-establish a fishing industry in the region. Mr. Hawkins says his scientists are already thinking of research that will respond to the slick—one topic that he mentions is assessing the effect on whale sharks, which frequent the spill area.

A facility that might embody the transition is the Grand Isle bivalve hatchery that is part of Louisiana State University’s Sea Grant Program. The facility itself has not been hit by oil, although the island has. The state has opened up freshwater-diversion structures in an attempt to push the oil out to sea, but that has reduced the salinity of water in the hatchery area—not good for the small oysters.

John Supan, an associate professor of shellfish research and director of the hatchery, says the facility had to move the oysters to a wildlife refuge to the west, which he hopes will not get hit by oil. More than $700,000 in research and other programs, many in the development stage, are now at risk, with the prospects for future research uncertain. “Development is harder than research,” he says. ”Once you do the research and see some promise, the hard part is getting it to go.” The hatchery was just about to start a multiyear program to teach oystermen how to produce seed oysters.

“We have lost our teachable moment,” he says. “You can’t talk to an oysterman right now about that.”

Oil-Eating Bacteria

But the hatchery is also looking at new kinds of projects in the wake of the spill. Ralph J. Portier, a professor of environmental studies at Louisiana State, has developed a culture of a species of bacteria that eats oil. The hatchery may become a prime place to grow that bacteria, Mr. Supan says.

“Turns out this bacteria is a hell of a lot easier to grow than algae,” the oyster feedstock that his hatchery spends most of its time growing, he says. He and his colleagues have also revised recent grant applications to emphasize research in off-bottom oyster projects. Those projects may become more vital in the future, as the sea bottom will probably harbor oil toxins for years, he says.

Even researchers far from the spill are anticipating how their work will change. “For a while there, we were working under the complacency that the currents would not bring the oil into our waters,” says Leslie N. Sturmer, who studies clams as an extension agent for the University of Florida. She is now considering moving some of her projects from Cedar Key, about two hours north of Tampa, Fla., to the east coast of the state.

The major question for some of these researchers is the recovery time, both environmental and economic. Mr. Rikard, of the Auburn shellfish laboratory, is particularly worried about how the spill’s impact on the fishing industry will spiral out to other sectors— people who work in restaurants and tourism, or selling ice or gasoline to fisherman, and so on.

The fishermen and the research facilities have both weathered their share of disasters in the past, particularly hurricanes. “The thing about a hurricane is that you can get down here the next day and start recovering,” Mr. Rikard says. “With this, you don’t know when it’s going to hit or how long it’s going to take to recover.”

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