National Aquarium Initiates Damage Assessment for Sarasota Bay

The National Aquarium, in collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory and Johns Hopkins University, is conducting a comprehensive study designed to ensure that pre- and post- Deepwater Horizon oil spill impact status of Sarasota Bay is documented as rigorously as possible.

This will enable scientists to demonstrate causality between the release of oil and injured resources and/or lost human use of those resources and services. The first phase of this research will provide information needed to evaluate the status of this aquatic environment before potential contamination by the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The National Aquarium, which provided seed funding for this research in Sarasota Bay, developed an approach in conjunction with its partners that could be used in other Gulf coast regions to ensure a consistent data set for all threatened areas.

“It’s critical to gather robust, baseline information about the current state of any aquatic ecosystem that may ultimately be impacted by this oil disaster. Sarasota Bay certainly falls in this category,” stated marine biologist Erik Rifkin, Ph.D., interim executive director of the National Aquarium Conservation Center. “Our ecosystem-based approach, which includes the deployment of sophisticated petroleum contaminant samplers, will help to ensure that important long-term natural resource damages can be properly evaluated. Without a well thought-out experimental design, findings may have an unacceptably high level of uncertainty."

Research scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory are collecting and analyzing samples from approximately 50 locations throughout Sarasota Bay. Sampling to obtain baseline information began on June 28 and will continue for several months. Analysis of these samples will begin in a few weeks and a schedule for obtaining additional data will depend on the likelihood of oil entering this ecosystem. Sediment, water found in sediment (called porewater) and the overlying water are being analyzed using integrative water quality samplers called semi-permeable membrane devices (SPMDs) to mimic the bioaccumulation of organic contaminants found in oil over time. These devices will provide quantitative and qualitative oil contamination levels.

Mote is also collecting bottom-dwelling organisms (e.g., clams) and taking blood and tissue samples from spotted eagle rays and bottlenose dolphins. All of these samples will be analyzed for levels of petroleum before the spill and, if necessary, after the oil impacts the Bay. This all-inclusive effort is necessary since the consequences to Sarasota Bay could include substantial long-term damage to beaches, inlets, estuaries, salt marshes and the organisms residing there.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate and Remediation will use this empirical evidence to develop mathematical bioaccumulation models. These models will demonstrate how contaminants in oil move through the food chain and accumulate in marine plant and animal tissues.

“This independent study will complement and support existing NRDAs being conducted by other organizations. This kind of in-depth, site-specific research should probably be considered for other Gulf coast areas which have been, or are likely to be, impacted by the BP spill," Rifkin added.

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