Gulf oil spill updates: Oil on the sea floor and politics getting in the way of research

What appears to be the real issue is the limited scientific research being done on the oil spill and the monetary constraints. According to New York Times writer Shaila Dewan,

“There is plenty of science being done on the spill, but most of it is in the service of either the response effort, the federal Natural Damage Resource Assessment that will determine BP’s liability, or BP’s legal defense. Scientists who participate in those efforts may face restrictions on how they can use or publish their data. More important, they do not have a free hand in determining the scope of their studies.”

As more reports of oil trickle into the media’s grasp, many scientists find themselves in a financial bind to do anything more than report. So what can be done? The further research and development of the oil spill is acclaimed as highly urgent because of the daily changing ecosystem in the Gulf region. And right after the spill, many scientists exhausted their budget on voyages and further studies of the effects of the oil. But the government appears to be afraid to look like it is asking taxpayers to pay for the studies on the spill that was a result of BP’s mistakes, so there has been a standstill of further developments.

Many promises and funding have been made on BP’s side since the spill, but politics seem to ultimately get in the way. According to Dewan, BP has provided $30 million to research centers for “high-priority” studies.” However, the dividing of the money has proved hard to manage. Many institutes, like Florida’s, are in high demand of further funds.  But Florida only received $10 million of BP’s initial $30 million offer. Once divvied out to 3 other institutes -- Northern Gulf, Dauphin Island, and Louisiana State -- the National Institutes of Health was awarded the remaining $10 million to help manage how best the rest of the money would serve. Since then, governors and local politicians in many states have requested more funding from the National Institutes of Health. However, not all requests can be met. As a result, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance was created to join research and resource forces.

But many scientists and institutes alike are skeptical of the Gulf Alliance, saying it is controlled by agencies instead of universities. Ultimately, there is no guarantee that politics will ensure good scientific research through the allocation of funding.

On September 10th, Samantha Joye, a professor at the Marine Science Department at the University of Georgia, found thick layers of oil on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. The finding of freshly packed oil on top of typical sea floor mud, with recently dead shrimp and worms, suggests the Deepwater Horizon oil didn’t evaporate in the air, dissipate into the water, or linger on the waves, but in fact has sunken onto the ocean’s floor.

David Hollander, from the University of South Florida, agrees with the new notion of oil on the sea floor. Hollander also adds the significance of such findings that could be detrimental to the marine ecosystem:

"A lot of fish go down to the bottom and eat and then come back up, and if all their food sources are derived from the bottom, then indeed you could have this impact [of oil disrupting the ecosystem]."

Findings of fresh droplets of oil on blue crab larvae — taken along the Gulf of Mexico — coincide with the September 10th findings of oil on the seafloor. Ultimately, blue crabs meander on the seafloors searching for food and, therefore, can easily serve as added evidence that BP’s oil is in fact sinking.

Furthermore, along with findings of oil on the seafloor, sightings of black waves from the Mississippi River were reported on September 12th. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries confirmed the reports of beaches covered in thick, black oil and tar balls. Ryan Lambert, owner of Buras-based Cajun Fishing Adventures, was shocked to see miles of oil diluted beaches and fish carnage washed ashore. He claims, “Everyone thinks this is over, but it's not — not if we can still get soakings like this."

But the real update is not whether oil lingers on the sea floor or is rolling onshore via waves, the real issue is the slow trickle of research being done. Harriet M. Perry, the director of the fisheries program at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, has recently found something more conflicting than evidence supporting sunken oil: her budget. According to Dr. Perry, there isn’t any research money allowing further investigation into oil found on blue crab larvae or any other findings for that matter.

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