Oil Spill

By: Jacque Kochak – Village Editor

How the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf is affecting AU researchers, and how they hope to be able to help the area recover.

These oysters are being raised at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab on Dauphin Island, at the mouth of Mobile Bay. AU researchers are unsure of the impact of oil on their research, but they stand ready to help.

Drive through the bayou, and seafood delivery trucks are parked and not delivering. Oyster shuckers are not shucking, and packers are not packing. That’s the bleak picture painted by Dr. Bill Walton of the Auburn University Shellfish Lab, located on Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay.

Late last week, tar balls were washing ashore and the scent of oil hung heavy in the air. The forecast called for more oil to come ashore in the next few days.

“My heart goes out to the people who are out of work, so I’m not complaining,” Walton said.

Nevertheless, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that has gushed millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf since April has affected AU researchers–and given them more to research.

“A lot of people are looking at oyster mortality, how seafood will be contaminated, what dies. Those are immediate questions,” said Walton, who works largely with oyster, crab and shrimp fisheries.

“We’ll also be looking at next year’s crop,” he said. “It is a fairly straightforward measure when oysters are dying, so we want to measure the more subtle effects on growth. There will be a cascading effect on fisheries if it takes an additional year for oysters to get to marketable size.”

Walton said right now everyone is waiting to see just how bad the situation will be.

“Everybody is worried about the effects,” he said. “We’re still at the beginning stages. We had some folks down from Alaska talking about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and they said it is a sprint followed by a marathon. We’re in the sprint stage.”

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill spewed some 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s remote Prince William Sound. The Deepwater Horizon spill has far surpassed that disaster.

The Shellfish Lab hatchery currently has 10 to 15 million oyster larvae growing in giant tanks with ocean water pumped in from the Gulf. They feed on phytoplankton and are raised until they are a quarter to three-quarters on an inch in size before they are taken out of the tanks.

“When we started smelling oil, we decided to shut down the pumps,” Walton said. “Now we’re re-circulating water in the tanks. I don’t expect the larvae would survive if oil got in.”

He said he has a graduate student working on her master’s degree, and this year she is supposed to write her thesis.

“She is studying the different ways that are used to raise highly marketable oysters,” Walton said. “She’s going ahead with that plan, but we don’t know what will happen in July or August. What we don’t want is for her to invest a month or two and find out the oysters she was going to work with have died.”

The student’s Plan B, he said, is to study the effects of the oil spill on oyster growth and survival along the Alabama coast.

“She’s doing what she was planning to do, and setting up a full research study in case,” Walton said. “It’s valuable research, but there are only so many hours in the day.”

The Shellfish Lab and AU’s Marine Fish Lab located at the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in Fairhope both have research programs going on. The Fish Lab has been studying red snapper and other fish for more than 20 years, and over the years has

tagged and tracked fish, analyzed their diet and built artificial reefs to study them, among other activities.

“We believe our fisheries studies are by far the most appropriate of any research effort or group in the entire Northern Gulf for addressing the possible effects of this recent oil spill,” said LaDon Swann, director. “We have the personnel, training, vessels and equipment for extensive faunal surveys from coastal waters to the deeper waters at the location of the present oil spill.”

Swann is also director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. Besides being a land grant university, Auburn is a sea grant institution, one of 32 in the country. The consortium brought in the Exxon Valdez veterans from Alaska as well as organizing community forums in Mobile and Biloxi.

The Sea Grant Consortium worked with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), a national network that focuses on disaster resources, to sponsor the forums.

“At the moment, EDEN is kind of working in the background to help the regional extension and sea grant offices build resources,” said Virginia Morgan, an AU professor who is EDEN’s Alabama point of contact.

They are working to develop information that is useful to the people on the ground as well as the people in communities.

“It’s kind of a slow-moving boat,” she said. “There is a lot of anticipation, but figuring out the real needs and where we fit is a slow process. It’s not real obvious right up front.”

One effort is to develop content for a Web site crammed with information about dealing with the crisis.

“If I were in Mobile County and wanted to go to Bayou la Batre to work with residents, I could use the resources I find on that Web site,” Morgan said. “We’re working to provide information educators can use face to face, and also ways individuals can help.”

Walton agreed with Morgan that it is difficult to get a handle on the scope of the problem yet.

“It’s a really strange time,” Walton said. “We don’t know how bad it will be, so we have to prepare for the worst. But that doesn’t mean we stop doing things we said we were going to do.”

The Dauphin Island Shellfish Lab was established with industry input to conduct practical research to foster high-quality shellfish production and protect shellfish resources in the Gulf. That’s what the lab will continue to do, Walton said.

“Auburn University was here along the coast working with fisheries before the oil spill, and we will be afterwards,” he said. “Now, some of the things we’ll be looking at are, ‘How do you recover?’ and “How do we get people back to work?’”

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