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Finding that missing oil may be easier than understanding how toxic it could be to marine life. That job is just getting under way and its complexity is daunting.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, some of the damage that scientists fear cannot be seen right away.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Out of sight is not out of mind for marine chemist Dana Wetzel, who works at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.

Dr. DANA WETZEL (Program manager, Mote Marine Laboratory): You know, we want to say, yes, everything's all good, you know, the spill has been capped; but the fact is, we don't really know what it means in terms of long-term impacts - to birds, marine mammals, fish, shrimp, oysters.

(Soundbite of motorboat)

JOYCE: Today, Wetzel and two colleagues from the lab are motoring out into the pale-blue waters of Sarasota Bay to test a device designed to find whatever oil is meandering through the Gulf. Wetzel calls it a virtual shellfish. It's a membrane, sort of like a strip of plastic inside a metal housing the size of a cell phone. Water flows across the membrane, which collects contaminants like oil.

Dr. WETZEL: So we can see what contaminants are in the sediments, what's right above the sediments in the water column, what the clams are accumulating, and then, what the spotted eagle rays are accumulating from eating those clams.

JOYCE: Once the device tells scientists how much oil or dispersant is in the water or sediment, scientists can calculate how the contaminants work their way up the food chain, as big animals, like spotted eagle rays eat littler ones like clams. It's a joint project with Baltimore's National Aquarium and Johns Hopkins University. The plan is to offer the device to researchers in the rest of the Gulf.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

JOYCE: The team at Mote is doing the hands-on, or flippers-on, part of the research - diving into Sarasota Bay to plant and then retrieve these devices with their contamination fingerprints.

Ms. WETZEL: This is a much better approach in understanding the long-term impacts in an area, versus simply collecting a water sample or a sediment sample.

JOYCE: That's because it's a big, big ocean.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

JOYCE: And a sample here and a sample there is hit-or-miss. These devices are 30-day records of all the contamination that passes through an area.

The virtual shellfish is just a tiny part of what marine scientists say is an almost impossible job. Finding where the oil and dispersant have been and are going is hard enough, then scientists have to figure out what the contaminants may have done or will do. For example.

Mr. RICHARD PIERCE (Oceanographer, Mote): If a whale dies or if a porpoise dies, then you've got a dead body that you can see. But if larvae die, you have no idea what was there in the first place.

JOYCE: That's Richard Pierce, an oceanographer at Mote. When coral or giant tuna, for example, reproduce, they drop uncountable numbers of tiny larvae into the water. No one will know how many of them were or will be wiped out by the oil or dispersant. Some preliminary tests of the dispersant used to break up the oil show that it can kill coral larvae. And marine life that survives exposure could suffer long-term, subtle effects that are very hard to measure.

Mr. PIERCE: Once it impacts an organism and affects their genes or affects endocrine system, then the damage is done.

JOYCE: The endocrine system controls things like growth and reproduction by producing and regulating hormones. The damage may not be evident until the next generation of tuna and coral fails to show up in its usual numbers.

Mote shark expert Robert Hueter says researchers are going to have to dig harder and spend more money to search for long-term damage.

Mr. ROBERT HUETER (Shark Expert, Mote): We're going to have to look much deeper. We're going to be doing more looking inside the shark.

JOYCE: Even if biologists find something amiss, they'll then have to determine whether it was caused by the oil or the dispersant or something else. Kumar Mahadevan, the director at Mote, says it's not as if the Gulf was a terribly healthy place to start with.

Mr. KUMAR MAHADEVAN (Director, Mote): This Gulf has been insulted with a whole bunch of environmental issues over the years, from storm water runoff, the sewage runoff, the - everything under the sun you can think. We've got everything. Okay?

JOYCE: Mahadevan says there's still very little money available. Right now in Florida, over 200 scientific institutions are bidding for just $10 million that BP has offered the state.

Moreover, he says, with the Justice Department and BP preparing for litigation, scientists who take money from either side could be limited in what they can discuss or publish. And what scientists want to study - say the oil's effects on plankton - may not be what lawyers are looking for.

Mr. MAHADEVAN: The legal system and the scientific system have different standards, and how this is all going to shake out is very interesting to watch.

JOYCE: And it could be a very long watch - scientists say it will take years to assess the damage, and years of lawsuits to determine who pays for it.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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