Northern Gulf Institute Awards $500,000 to FSUCML, COAPS, and the Departments of Biological Science and Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science to conduct research on the oil spill

The study, Impact of crude oil on coastal and ocean environments of the West Florida Shelf and Big Bend Region from the shoreline to the continental Shelf Edge, represents an integrated, rapid-response study of the impact of oil on coastal and ocean marine ecosystems of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, including the northern West Florida Shelf from the Big Bend Region west to Louisiana, that can be completed in its entirety within 5 months. The physical modeling and ecological teams assembled here are uniquely disposed to address this issue because of the coordinated efforts already underway since the inception of the NGI both within and external to NGI member institutions, and the long-term baseline datasets developed by a number of FSU researchers (to read more about this among FSUCML researchers, click here:

The objectives of this proposal are:

  1. To improve the modeling and tuning of the physical parameters that influence the distribution and persistence of oil (COAPS, Center for Ocean Atmosphere Prediction Studies)
  2. To examine the effects of oil deposition on coastal habitats, including:
    • beach sediment biogeochemistry and the ecology of resident meiofauna (EOAS, Earth, Ocean, & Atmospheric Science)
    • direct and indirect effects on beach-dune-swale plant complexes (Biological Science)
    • the effects of species diversity, consumer pressure, and bioremediation on salt marsh habitat (FSUCML)
  3. To examine the impact on fisheries, including:
    • the impact on shallow-water reefs that act as secondary nursery habitat (FSUCML)
    • the impact on shelf-edge spawning habitat (FSUCML and EOAS)
    • the impact on marine food webs that support fishery production (FSUCML and EOAS)

Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro are responsible for the research on salt marsh habitat, investigating the independent and interactive effects of plant species diversity, consumer presence, and bioremediation (nutrient addition) on the recovery of salt marsh systems from oil / hydrocarbon exposure. Specifically, they will (1) quantify relationships between plant species diversity, community structure, and response to oil exposure in natural salt marshes ranging from St. Joe Bay to Cedar Key, FL, and (2) experimentally test the relative importance of plant species diversity, consumer presence, and bioremediation via nutrient additions on the recovery of salt marshes across this same geographic region.

Dr. Christopher Stallings, Dr. Christopher Koenig, and Dr. Felicia Coleman and graduate students Bob Ellis, Jennifer Schellinger, and Kelly Kingon, will examine the effects of oil contamination on shallow coral/sponge-dominated reefs. In this component, the researchers will conduct video surveys that emphasize biological community parameters (distribution/abundance patterns, species richness and composition, size structure, etc.) so that communities and individual sessile organisms can be tracked through time. They will be able to link geologic, geographic and biological habitat features with depth and degree of oil contamination.

Dr. Christopher Koenig, Dr. Markus Huettel (EOAS), and Dr. Felicia Coleman will examine the potential for crude oil pollutants to concentrate in shelf-edge habitat engineered by fishery species. Coleman and Koenig's research reveals the importance of red grouper in enhancing and maintaining biologically-diverse communities across the continental shelf to the shelf edge. They, together with Dr. Huettel, suspect that the habitat manipulated by these fish may accumulate crude oil particles (and perhaps dispersants) that settle out from the water column or are transported by currents along the sea bed. The carbonate sand is sufficiently porous to act as a sponge, soaking up crude oil droplets that result from dispersant application. This enrichment, exacerbated by grouper digging activity, could change the physical and biogeochemical characteristics of the sand.

Dr. Kevin Craig and Dr. Jeff Chanton (EOAS) will trace the intrusion of the oil spill in GOM marine food webs with radiocarbon and stable isotopes. In this component of the study, the overall goal is to determine the impact of the oil/dispersant on the food web of the Gulf Coast using 14C and stable isotope (13C, 15N & 34S) analysis. Does carbon from the oil/dispersant enter the food web via microbial consumption and biomass production from oil/dispersant substrates and subsequent incorporation into the food web (e.g., the microbial loop)? Or through more direct means, perhaps entering via filter and deposit feeding organisms? Our long term objective is to determine the 14C and stable isotopic (C, N, S) content of biomass, particulate organic carbon (POC), and sedimentary organic matter, prior to, during, and following the full impact of petroleum residues across this region. The pre-impact values will then be compared to post impact values across this spatial gradient to determine the route and magnitude of oil effects on coastal food webs and fisheries.