Marine Scientists Seek Standards For Spill Research

Much of the scientific effort that has followed the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has focused on how much oil escaped and where it's gone. But biologists want to know how that oil might affect marine life over the long term, and many say they're puzzled by the lack of an organized research effort to measure the damage.

A leatherback turtle in a recovery tank at Mote Marine Laboratory.

Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., took in many animals that were displaced or oiled by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Above, a Kemp's ridley turtle recovers in a tank at Mote. Christopher Joyce/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Joyce/NPR

Take, for example, the scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. After the BP well blew up and jettisoned some 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, Mote became a refuge for endangered sea turtles. The Unified Command team in the Gulf — an organization of federal departments and BP — rescued turtles and cleaned them up. They then sent them to Mote to recuperate, and biologists there wanted to know if and how the oil might have affected the turtles.

John Reynolds, the director of marine mammal and sea turtle research, was one of those scientists. "Tissue samples can be acquired," he said several weeks ago, "but Unified Command governs how those tissue samples are used, by whom, and then [they] apparently own all the data and all the information. And that ownership may last decades."

Frustrating?

"Of course it's frustrating," says Reynolds.

That was in August. Since then, other marine scientists are reporting the same frustration. They know that some scientific data on the effects of the spill may become evidence in court, and they're not sure how to proceed.

The government is now conducting a "Natural Resource Damage Assessment," which will pave the way for recovering damages from BP in court. The assessment comes with rules on how to conduct research, but many scientists say they don't know the rules or who's in charge.

"I am a little mystified that there hasn't been a broader scientific discussion led by the federal government to try to scope out where there is good strong knowledge and where there is need for more information," says Christopher D'Elia, dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University.

Last week federal agencies convened meetings across the Gulf with scientists to focus on tracking the remaining oil.  But D'Elia says the government is behind the curve on long-term biological effects.

"It's like four months after the murder has occurred," he says. "You know, the body has decayed and the dogs have walked off with the bones, so it's really hard to solve the mystery under those circumstances. Science planning has not been good at all."

Comparing Apples With Apples

Assessing the damage to the Gulf will be an expensive undertaking.

So far, the National Science Foundation has spent over $17 million to get biologists out into the Gulf, and BP has provided about $30 million to universities and research institutes.

This is a start, scientists say, but it's not nearly enough. Good research takes more than money, though.

William Hogarth, dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, says scientists need to agree on what they're measuring and how they measure it "so that what's done off of Louisiana waters will be compatible to what we do in Florida waters so there won't be comparing apples and oranges. We want to compare apples to apples," Hogarth explains.

Apples, in this case, are things like chemical or physical signs of oil in water or genetic damage to fish or oil's effects on coral reproduction. If scientists measure effects in different ways, the results might not be compatible.

Steven Murawski, the scientist organizing research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says following the rules for the damage assessment takes time. He acknowledges the government hasn't communicated as much as many scientists would like.

"We're trying to balance the need for the public's desire for almost complete transparency at time scales that are almost unrealistic with our fiduciary responsibility to recover natural resource damages for the country," Murawski says.

He says NOAA is moving toward a study that will examine the effects on the entire ecosystem of marine life in the Gulf. In the meantime, he says scientists funded by the government can discuss and publish their results. But if they take BP money for that research, they will not be asked to testify in court on behalf of the government.

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