Scientists Try To Determine Oil's Impact On Sea Life The federal government says as much as half of the oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's well is still unaccounted for. Scientists are starting a giant search operation to try to figure out where the oil is and what its effects might be.
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Scientists Try To Determine Oil's Impact On Sea Life

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Scientists Try To Determine Oil's Impact On Sea Life

Scientists Try To Determine Oil's Impact On Sea Life

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The federal government says as much as half of the oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's well is still out there somewhere. Scientists are starting a giant search operation, trying to figure out where that oil is and what it might be doing to sea life.

NPR's Christopher Joyce is visiting some of those scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, and he joins us now, along with chemist Dana Wetzel, who studies the toxic effects on contaminants on marine life.

And, Chris, let's start with you. Why don't you tell us a bit about how tricky a task this is for the scientists there at the lab?

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Well, the cliche is the needle in the haystack and that's the situation now. As you said, there's a tremendous amount of oil that was never accounted for. It's been dispersed. Nobody seems to know where it is. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is taking water samples but that's a pretty hit-or-miss situation. Some scientists are using underwater robots like AUVs, they're called. And Mote's got some of those and has helped develop them.

And then they're also developing a device here, a kind of a virtual shellfish that measures contaminants, hopefully it will be used in the Gulf. That's something probably best left to Dr. Wetzel to describe, so why don't I hand it over to her.

BLOCK: Great. Dr. Wetzel, what exactly is that virtual shellfish that Chris mentioned?

Dr. DANA WETZEL (Chemist): Well, virtual shellfish is a semi-permeable membrane device. And this is just a passive accumulating device that will allow us to attract oil contaminants from the environment over a period of four weeks that will actually simulate what an organism like a fish or an oyster will be seeing as it lives in its environment.

BLOCK: And what would you expect to be able to tell about the effects on either plants or animals that might've been exposed during the spill?

Dr. WETZEL: Now, that's a tough question. What we're doing with these accumulating devices is trying to simulate what an organism might be seeing when it lives in an environment that's contaminated. So these devices will be deployed for four weeks before they're extracted and analyzed.

And what that's going to give us is a number. And that number will say over a period of time this animal is probably accumulating this much of a contaminant organic contaminant - in this case we're looking, of course, at oil. But that doesn't tell us what that number translates to in what we call an acute or a sub-lethal effect. And that sort of pathway of research is something that desperately needs to be done.

BLOCK: In other words, the long-term effects that may not be showing up right away, but could be over the long haul?

Dr. WETZEL: That's correct. We could count dead bodies and that certainly is useful but it doesn't tell us what's going to happen to the reproductive fitness of this organism. Will that organism, whether it's a clam, a tuna or a dolphin, is the exposure to this oil at that level going to affect whether or not that animal can reproduce? Or will it affect whether or not its offspring can reproduce? That's something we really don't know.

Another thing we don't know is how does this level of contamination affect the immune system? Does it make them less tolerant to diseases or parasites? There are so many questions about sub-lethal effects that we don't know that we very much need to invest time and effort into finding out.

BLOCK: Can you tell yet, based on what you've seen, at all what the effects have been? If people are asking you, you know, how bad is it down in the Gulf of Mexico - what do you tell them?

Dr. WETZEL: Well, what we tell them is that, you know, the focus on this Horizon spill has been to cap the well. And that's absolutely the correct way to have gone. But now that it looks like we have stopped or they have stopped the leakage, we need to move to the next phase, which is to assess both the acute damages and the long-term damages.

But herein lies my concern. Now that the well has been capped, interest is going to wane and perhaps the dedication that was there to do the science may not be there anymore.

BLOCK: And Chris Joyce, let's bring you back into the conversation. When Dr. Wetzel talks about interest waning, another concern there I suppose would be funding drying up for research like the kinds of things that she's doing.

JOYCE: This is a matter of great controversy at the moment and, in fact, the head of NOAA, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, was just down here in northwestern Florida to talk to scientists about this, scientists all over the Gulf. How is the money going to be spent? Who will distribute it? Who gets what? And, of course, there's the complication of litigation.

This is not just a scientific question to be resolved by scientists. The Justice Department is involved. They're going to be prosecuting BP, most likely. BP is going to be defending itself. So layered underneath all of the scientific research and where the money goes are questions about, can the science be published? Can it be discussed? All this makes it more than just money, but also a question of freedom of expression.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Christopher Joyce at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, along with marine chemist Dana Wetzel. She's program manager of aquatic toxicology there. Chris and Dana, thanks to you both.

JOYCE: Thank you very much.

Dr. WETZEL: Thank you, Melissa.

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