Scientist Optimistic About Marine Life In Gulf It has been 40 days since the undersea oil well exploded, and scientists are still discovering new plumes of oil beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Host Guy Raz checks back in with Vernon Asper, a professor of marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi, who has been out in the Gulf collecting data on the plumes.
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Scientist Optimistic About Marine Life In Gulf

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Scientist Optimistic About Marine Life In Gulf

Scientist Optimistic About Marine Life In Gulf

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now to the potential environmental consequences. Teams of scientists have been testing the waters around the source of the spill for the past month.

Vernon Asper is one of them. He's a professor of marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi. And he joins me on the line from Biloxi.


Dr. VERNON ASPER (Professor of Marine Sciences, University of Southern Mississippi): Thank you.

RAZ: The last time we spoke, your team had found three massive oil plumes 10 miles by 3 miles wide. Now the plumes, are they moving or are they sort of staying in place?

Dr. ASPER: Well, they're doing some of both. They're staying in place in that it appears that they're still emanating from the well. And if that's the case, then it's sort of like a river. It's staying in the same place that every time you look at it, it's slightly (unintelligible) material what you're looking at.

RAZ: And if you were to describe the plumes, if you were to swim through them, would it be, you know, millions of droplets of oil or would it sort of be one thick kind of mass of oil?

Dr. ASPER: Well, that's what we haven't actually done yet. We have a camera system on board and we're hoping to put that in the water, either tonight or maybe tomorrow night.

The hypothesis is that as this material is being ejected from the well, it's coming out under high pressure and it's coming out sort of in a mist of very, very small droplets. And we expect that the images that we get will sort of look like an underwater cloud.

RAZ: What kind of impact could it have on marine life? I mean, what kind of oxygen levels are you finding in those areas, for example?

Dr. ASPER: The oxygen levels are crazy low, they're reduced. But in these depths, which is fairly deep, the shallowest layers that we're seeing now around 700 meters, maybe a little bit deeper than that. If you go a little higher in the water column, down around 200 meters, the oxygen levels are considerably lower. But that's totally natural. That's caused by the decomposition of organic matter that falls out of the surface.

So were these layers of presumably oil, where they are is not particularly low oxygen.

RAZ: You sound somewhat optimistic, am I reading that correctly?

Dr. ASPER: Well, you know, people tell me that. I guess so. The thing that I see in this is that when you look at the damage the oil does on the surface when it gets into the marshes and into the sensitive nursery areas and the estuaries, the damage is pretty obvious. And it can be fairly severe.

But out on the open ocean, especially down at these steps, there are microbes down there that are basically designed to handle this. That's what they eat for a normal meal. So, they are actually getting a lot more probably than they're used to eating. But on the other hand, it's normal food for them. It's not a foreign substance.

The dispersants, of course, that's a different story. The drilling mud, that's a different story as well. But in terms of the raw hydrocarbons coming out of the ocean, it's not that foreign to them.

RAZ: Can we assume that marine life continues to swim through these plumes?

Dr. ASPER: In the deep sea, yes. I think you can pretty safely assume that it's swimming through it. And actually up on the surface, one of the things that's kind of remarkable is that we see lots of fish when we stop at night to put our sampling package into the water, we see quite a few rather large fish and they seem to be oblivious to it.

We've seen dolphins, of course. We've seen all kinds of things. We saw (unintelligible) out there and some of them are kind of oiled up. But we've seen crabs around there, very few dead things on the surface, which is kind of surprising. We have seen dead jellyfish and a few things like that. But all in all, the impact out there seems to be less conspicuous.

RAZ: You're getting ready to ship off again. What are you going to be looking at on your next trip?

Dr. ASPER: Well, we've been looking more or less on the western side of the spill, because that's where we saw our plume the last time. And on this cruise that is coming up these next few days, we'll probably look in other directions, especially to the northeast, which is where the scientists from the University of South Florida saw a plume.

We're also going to make a complete circumnavigation of the well at fairly close range, maybe three miles in radius, and make a circle just to see what we can find in terms of connections to other plumes.

RAZ: That's Vernon Asper. He is a professor of marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi. We reached him in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Vernon Asper, thank you.

Dr. ASPER: Okay. Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

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