Science Interviews


Wed, 7th Jul 2010

Tracing the effects of oil in the open ocean

Amy Hirons, NOVA Southeastern University

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Sarah -   Oil spills don't just affect the shorelines that they wash up on.  It can also cause important changes out at sea.  I spoke with Amy Hirons from Nova Southeastern University in Florida to find out about the effects of oil in the pelagic realm.

Amy -   Well I'm a Biological Oceanographer and my interests really stem with looking at how ocean production or food is transferred from the smallest organisms, the phytoplanktons, the plants, and the zooplankton, the animals, and how that's passed through the food web in the ocean all the way to apex predators - things like sharks and whales and dolphins.  The method that I used is utilizing stable isotope ratios.  A lot of people understand, or at least have heard of, radio isotopes which naturally decay over time, such as carbon-14 which can be used for dating.  Diatoms - a key Phytoplankton groupA stable isotope is somewhat similar except that it doesnít decay and so itís used as a natural tracer.  There are stable isotopes of many elements such as carbon and nitrogen.  So I can actually take a piece of tissue or bone or sediment and combust the sample.  I use a mass spectrometer then to look at the ratio of heavier and lighter isotopes such as carbon or nitrogen.  That allows me to look at how carbon and nitrogen, which are composed in our food, is then passed through a food web.  That provides this information on many different levels.  One, basically, [with nitrogen] whoís eating whom?  Carbon can actually give us information about geographic location.  If an organism is found in the near shore in the estuarine environment versus offshore in the pelagic, or whether itís pelagic in the open water versus benthic on the ocean floor.

Sarah -   So, by tracing the carbon isotopes, you're effectively tracing the impacts of oil spills through the food chain.

Amy -   Yes and by working with environmental chemists who can look at various fractions of the petroleum product itself and then comparing that to the same kind of components of cells of fish and invertebrates and plankton, we can determine if certain components of petroleum are truly being incorporated physiologically in an organism and then being passed on through the food web.  Then we can follow any kind of detrimental impact, certainly looking at an organism directly and at cellular structures, but also by looking at population numbers and community structures.  Previous work that I did after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, indicated that, for many different organisms, there were different impacts.  Certainly, there was the external: the direct impacts of reduced primary production because the phytoplankton wasn't able to stay in the water column and photosynthesise.  But then there were fish that developed ulcers and tumours.  There were decreased numbers of populations of various organisms such as steller sea lions and harbour seals that we began to be concerned that this carbon and other elements or other components of petroleum products were actually being incorporated and damaging the cells of these organisms.  Our major concern right now is that we don't have a lot of information about some of the detrimental impacts, particularly at the base of the food web, in the phytoplankton and the zooplankton.

Sarah -   And of course, itís not just the oil thatís having effects.  Itís how weíre dealing with the oil as well.  Is that right?

Amy -   Thatís correct. Many oil companies use a chemical dispersant to help break apart the oil, much like a dish detergent is added to a sink full of dirty dishes that may have oil deposits to help break apart the oil or the little globs.  So BP has been using their own chemical dispersant called Corexit and they've been releasing it at the source of the well from the Deepwater Horizon.  What most people don't know, as far as I am aware, is what impact that dispersant is actually going to have on the cellular level of different organisms.  So where weíve been talking about the potential impact of petroleum and how itís traced through the food web, we don't know about the chemical dispersant and that also could be having a detrimental effect to a degree that we just don't know.  One thing weíre trying to do right now is - there are many different researchers out in different platforms out in the Gulf of Mexico, all the way down into the Florida straits and in the areas of the Florida Keys, collecting water samples, collecting microscopic organisms, looking and doing counts of the larger fish and invertebrates, trying to determine: have their population numbers changed?  So, is there a detrimental impact that could be killing the organisms or damaging the organisms outright, or is it something that can also be perpetuated through the food web, through bioaccumulation in the tissues?  We don't know that and that has to be studied.

Larval fishSarah -   So what do you think, with the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, do you think weíre going to be seeing the impacts in the accumulation of the oil from that in seals, sea birds, that sort of thing in years to come?

Amy -   I absolutely believe that to be the case based on what weíve seen in other locations like Prince William Sound.  Another serious impact that the oil can have is not just on the phytoplankton and zooplankton, but juveniles Ė those organisms that have recently been hatched or spawned. The time of the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon was also similar timing to when many organisms actually spawn.  The water column is now full of developing ichthyoplankton or baby fish that may be impacted.  We may lose year classes of fish or invertebrates.  We just don't know at this point.  Itís just too early to tell.

Sarah -   I suppose you see on the news the impacts with sea birds and the large sized animals, but people don't necessarily think about the impact on the microscopic life out in the open ocean.

Amy -   Oftentimes, my concern is that people have this out-of-sight, out-of-mind feeling about oil or an oil spill.  People tend to not think about what they can't see.  Thatís human nature I believe.  ďOh, weíve cleaned it up.  Oh, we don't see tar balls anymore.  We don't see evidence of an oil slick.Ē  But the fact is, just because you can't see it with the naked eye doesnít mean itís not still in the environment, either the deep ocean, in the benthos, being incorporated and continually being reutilised.  And again, I've repeated it several times, they're at the base of the food web.  Without the phytoplankton and the zooplankton, you don't have anything else in the ocean and that's why itís critical for us to find out what the impact of petroleum products are having.


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Amy Hirons. Research Professor, Oceanographic Centre, NOVA Southeastern University  


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Nice one!

I do hope that the top dogs at BP are taking note of this research rather than trying to belittle the effects of what was essentially a disaster caused by human error. Mootle, Tue, 24th Aug 2010

Poor Tony HummmmMM How can you feel sorry for a multi millionaire
No body likes me, sob sob!
So what I have so much money, I can have a face reconstruction, a change of Identity and live somewhere I want and be served and serviced without any tax problems.
BP said that under the terms of his contract Hayward would receive a year's salary in lieu of notice, amounting to £1.045 million.

Bangkok Post: 'Demonized' BP boss Hayward resigns over Gulf oil spill Jul 27, 2010...
BP on Tuesday said it had made a record 16.9-billion-dollar loss in the second quarter,

... worth 1.045 million pounds (1.245 million euros, 1.620 million dollars).
He, (Anthony), also has a pension pot totaling 11 million pounds . ... company on thin ice with the American people for devastating the Gulf Coast ...
tommya300, Tue, 24th Aug 2010

If you examine this thread really carefully you will see that nobody mentioned the name of the company that was running the rig that actually spilled the oil.
Odd that, isn't it? Bored chemist, Wed, 25th Aug 2010

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