Scientists continue taking samples to measure oil spill's impact

Leigh Colemanmcclatchy Newspapers

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. -- Scientists from Gulf Coast Research Laboratory involved in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil-spill incident continue to conduct tests, including sampling of water, sharks, fish, shellfish and habitats along the barrier islands and into the Gulf of Mexico. Research teams have been busy since last week gathering samples to provide a baseline measurement to compare against any changes the oil may bring to local waters. By late Wednesday, researchers estimated the ecological changes caused by the oil spill have not affected the local marine ecosystem.

"But that could change if our coastline and barrier islands experience any oil intrusion at all," said Jim Franks, senior research scientist and biologist at GCRL.

The University of Southern Mississippi's new Presidential Oil Response Team coordinated a baseline sampling trip for researchers Wednesday.

Samples were collected 11 miles out in the Gulf, south of Horn Island, around the barrier islands and along the shoreline.

With oil still pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, researchers said they are responding quickly because there is no way to predict the extent of the damage.

"We are working as fast as we can but we are also in a holding pattern," Franks said. "We just do not know what to expect from day to day, but our team is doing everything possible to collect marine evidence now so we can detect even the smallest change out here."

Scientists said the spill's damage could be magnified by its awful timing.

Franks said this is the time for hatching and rearing for many species in our waters.

Species as diverse as pelicans, shrimp, sharks and alligators are reproducing.

"The Mississippi Sound is a nursery for many species. This timing could bring sensitive young animals in contact with toxic oil or cause their parents to plunge into oily waters looking for food."

Dr. Joe Griffitt, an aquatic toxicologist at the lab, said case studies show what will happen to marine life if it comes in contact with oil.

"But with the increasing hypoxic, or low oxygen, areas in the Gulf, we do not know what the effects will be if the oil reaches us," he said. "The increase in flow of agricultural operations has caused more hypoxic areas in the Gulf."

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Marine Resources will also use the results of the lab's baseline research.

The facility has four decades of historical data for comparison.

The data collected on Wednesday, as well as that collected as the spill comes ashore, will add to that data.

By Leigh ColemanMcClatchy Newspapers