The problem of oil spills

12 July 2010

To launch this brand new podcast series, Naked Oceans ventures beneath the waves to investigate the impacts of oil spills on the marine environment. We hunt down the hidden world of microbes in Louisiana wetlands, trace the fingerprint of oil in the open oceans, and discuss the likely fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And 14 years on, we meet some of the survivors of the Sea Empress Oil Spill in the Welsh coast. And we invite Carl Safina to choose our first Critter of the Month.

In this episode

02:48 - Sharks with superbugs

Drug-resistant superbugs have been found inside sharks and fish showing that our flushed medicines are making their way into the marine food chain.

Sharks with superbugs

The problems of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics in human medicine are well known, but now researchers have discovered bacteria living inside sharks that have also developed drug resistance.

Lemon sharkThis worrying discovery reveals that our medicines are making their way into the marine environment - probably because some people flush unused drugs down the toilet and some drugs pass undigested through our bodies and into sewage water that eventually ends up out at sea.

Jason Blackburn, from the University of Florida, led a large team of researchers who collected samples of bacteria living inside seven shark species, including bull sharks, lemon sharks, and nurse sharks, as well as one bony fish, called redfish. 

Back in the lab they tested the bacterial cultures for resistance to a range of human antibiotics, including penicillin, chloramphenicol, and doxycycline which is widely used as an anti-malaria drug.

In each study site, including Belize, Florida, and Massachusetts in the US, the team found that fish contained bacteria that were resistant to at least one of these drugs, and in some cases the bugs survived multiple antibiotics.

As well as being bad news for the sharks - which could face nasty infections from virulent strains of bacteria - this could also pose a health risk to people too. 

Around the world, sharks are arriving in increasing numbers into our dinner plates, although we don't always realise it, because they are given other names like huss, greyfish, and Italy in Vitello di Mare ('Veal of the Sea'). And that's not to mention many of the other fish that sharks themselves feed on, which might also be harbouring drug-resistant bacteria.

These findings suggest that we should pay more attention to what we flush away and how our sewage water is treated.

04:43 - Glowing corals lend a hand to microscopy

A protein that glows both red and green has been extracted from Lobophyllia coral offering a powerful new tool for high-resolution microscope studies.

Glowing corals lend a hand to microscopy

Scientists have reported in Nature Methods that a fluorescent protein called m-Iris-FP - originally isolated from the reef-building coral Lobophyllia - is ideal for high-resolution microscopy.

Lobophyllia hemprichii

Fluorescent proteins like GFP, originally isolated from a jellyfish species called the crystal jelly, have been in use since the mid-1990s. They allowed a massive breakthrough in the study of how cells work. Unlike other microscopy stains, that are highly toxic, GFP and similar proteins like this new m-Iris-FP can safely be used in living cells.

The gene that codes for the fluorescent protein is inserted into the genome of the cell or organism to be studied. When a particular protein is produced by the cell, the fluorescent protein is expressed as well and acts like a tag to track the protein's position and movement in cells and whole animals e.g. the distribution of a particular protein in the brain during embryonic development.

What's exciting about this new fluorescent marker protein, m-Iris-FP, is that it can be 'photo switched' to emit either red or green light.

The lead author, Jochen Fuchs, and his team showed that the marker allowed them to track dynamic processes in living cells at high resolution.

Obviously there is a LOT of computing power involved in this sort of microscope work, and the researchers had to genetically modify the protein to give it the exact properties they wanted. But it's pretty cool that life in the oceans continues to throw up new surprises and new avenues of improving research.

06:37 - Cost effective coral restoration

Fixing storm-broken fragments of coral back onto reefs is a cheap and effective way of giving them a helping hand towards recovery.

Cost effective coral restoration

Coral restoration has been a hot topic in ocean conservation for many years, with various ways developed to give reefs a helping hand to recover from damage.

Staghorn coralIt's an approach to conservation that attracts its fair share of critics - some people think we shouldn't need to meddle with nature, and if we deal with the causes of reef disturbance, then the ecosystem should restore itself.

Whatever your viewpoint on these matters, there's an interesting new paper by Graham Forrester from the University of Rhode Island in the US, showing that there can be tangible benefits from collecting fragments of coral broken off by storms and reattaching them to reefs.

Collaborating with teams of students and local residents in the British Virgin Islands, the researchers worked on endangered Elkhorn coral, which is doing very badly across the Caribbean after it was nearly wiped out by a disease 20 years ago.

They found that around 40% of the transplanted corals were still alive 4 years later even though storms and coral bleaching events hit the area. By fixing the fragments in place using underwater cement and plastic cable ties, it prevented them from rolling around on the seabed and getting damaged and scraped.

The positive thing about this approach to reef restoration is that it is relatively simple and cheap, and it doesn't involve breaking fragments of healthy coral from intact reefs - a tactic that some restoration projects take. 

And while we will never be able to replant large areas of reef, this does at least offer some way for local reef enhancement, to give corals a better chance of standing up to the many problems that face the oceans today.

08:41 - Canadian marine reserve with a difference

Canada's landmark Gwaii Haarnas National Marine Reserve will protect not just the seabed but the mountains that tower above it.

Canadian marine reserve with a difference

The environmental and cultural protection group Parks Canada have made history by creating a Marine Conservation Area with a difference.

The difference is that it doesn't just cover the ocean, but also includes the mountains stretching 4000 feet above it.

Queen Charlotte Islands, CanadaThe Gwaii Haanas National Marine Reserve, off the coast of British Columbia in Western Canada, is a project that has been 25 years in the making. Now the 3500 km area will be protected, with only limited human use, like small-scale fishing, allowed.

Parks Canada's aim for the reserve is to 'balance protection and sustainable use' and to 'increase public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the marine heritage of the area'.

With a multitude of links between dry land and wet sea, such as nutrient and sediment runoff, the most forward-thinking conservation plans like the Gwaii Haanas reserve encompass both land and ocean habitats.

Currently only around 1% of the oceans are protected from damaging human activities, so this is another step in the right direction.

10:20 - Oil spills and wetlands

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill added to the long list of problems that already threaten the Louisiana wetlands. Robinson Fulweiler from Boston University tells us about the importance of...

Oil spills and wetlands
with Robinson Fulweiler, Boston University

 

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill added to the long list of problems that already threaten the Louisiana wetlands. Robinson Fulweiler from Boston University tells us about the importance of these ecosystems including the vital, hidden world of wetland microbes.

 

 

Roseate spoonbill

 

 

Find out more

 

 

 

 

 

Oil and oil spills: the Gulf of Mexico. Marine science review (papers from 30 years of oil spill studies). Sea Web (PDF)

Robinson Fulweiler. 

 

 

 

Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Boston University

17:49 - Catching up with the Sea Empress Oil spill

In 1996 the Sea Empress tanker ran aground spilling oil onto 120 miles of Welsh coastline. Helen visits West Angle Bay - one of the worse hit beaches - to meet Robin Crump and find out how...

Catching up with the Sea Empress Oil spill
with Robin Crump

In 1996 the Sea Empress tanker ran aground spilling oil onto 120 miles of Welsh coastline. Helen visits West Angle Bay - one of the worse hit beaches - to meet Robin Crump and find out how the spill affected the rocky shores. And we meet a rare starfish that was almost wiped out by the spi

Adult Asterina gibbosa and juvenile Asterina phylactica
Adult Asterina gibbosa & juvenile Asterina phylactica
Limpets
west%20angle%20bay%20smaller

 Find out more

Robin Crump et al (2003).
West Angle Bay: a case study. The fate of limpets. Field Studies. (PDF)

British Marine Life Study Society information about the Sea Empress oil spill

25:00 - Tracing the effects of oil in the open ocean

Oil spills not only cause problems for the shores they wash up on but also impact open ocean ecosystems. Amy Hirons invites us into the planktonic world and tells us about her studies...

Tracing the effects of oil in the open ocean
with Amy Hirons, NOVA Southeastern University

Oil spills not only cause problems for the shores they wash up on but also impact open ocean ecosystems. Amy Hirons invites us into the planktonic world and tells us about her studies tracing the fingerprint of oil throughout the marine food w

Larval fish

Find out more

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

32:01 - Critter of the Month - Bluefin Tuna

Blue Ocean Institute president, Carl Safina, chooses our first critter of the month.

Critter of the Month - Bluefin Tuna
with Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

Carl Safina, president of Blue Ocean Institute, chooses our first critter of the month.

Blue fin tuna in a cage

Find out more

Bluefin tuna (Thunnus Thynnus) info on Fishbase.

Blue Ocean Institute

Carl Safina's blog

Bluefin tuna in crisis. WWF

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