Oceana launches expedition to assess long-term effects of Gulf of Mexico disaster

Oceana team will identify possible oil spreading moves, carry out tests to detect unnoticed contamination, and tag migrating sharks and turtles

Press Release Date: July 20, 2010

Location: Madrid


Oceana Web | email: webadmin@oceana.org | tel.: 202.000.0000

Oceanographers Xavier Pastor and Mike Hirshfield will lead a team of scientists supported by a high-definition underwater robot (ROV) and specialised divers.

Oceana announces the launch of its 2010 Gulf of Mexico Expedition that will include a team of scientists from both sides of the Atlantic with experience in the most serious oil spills of recent decades. The objective is to go beyond the work done by other organisations, by assessing the long-term impact of the BP spill. Possible oil spreading moves will be identified in order to study the effect on sensitive habitats and migratory species tagging will be conducted to survey their capacity to avoid contaminated areas.

Oceana is one of the few international organisations dedicated exclusively to marine conservation. For this campaign, Oceana will charter the Latitude, a 51-metre long expedition ship capable of sailing in both shallow and deep waters, and adapted to serve as a diving platform. The research ship will set sail from Fort Lauderdale (Florida) in two weeks and will work intensely for two months in the Gulf of Mexico.

The crew will include professional divers who have worked with the organisation on other campaigns, as well as prestigious international photographers and videographers. The expedition will also use two underwater robots (ROV), one with the capacity to descend as far as 1,000 metres and film in high-definition. The ROVs will document the presence of the spill in the water column and coast, and analyse the impact on fauna and flora, including shallow and deep water corals off the western coast of Florida, amongst other important areas of the Gulf of Mexico.

The expedition will be lead by oceanographer Xavier Pastor, Executive Director of Oceana Europe, widely experienced in disaster response to previous oil slicks. Participation in the expedition from the U.S. includes Dr. Mike Hirshfield, Chief Science Director at Oceana, who will head the expedition’s scientific team; and Dr. Jeff Short,, one of the world’s leading experts on spills, who participated in the work to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill and continues to work on its current repercussions.

The expedition aims to assess the spill’s long-term impacts and detect contamination that remains unnoticed at the moment,” explains Xavier Pastor. “We will identify the ecosystems that have been affected and those that may be in danger if the oil is captured by sea currents and transported towards southern Florida, as well as those that may be seriously affected in the area if another accident like this one occurs in the future. All of this information will be made available to scientific and governmental institutions and will help endorse campaigns to pressure authorities to change the energy model in favour of clean energies.”

The project includes shark and sea turtle tagging in order to monitor their migrations and study their ability to avoid contaminated waters. In addition, samples of fish will be taken to analyse the degree of hydrocarbon contamination. The Gulf of Mexico is an important reproduction and feeding area for a variety of species, including endangered species like bluefin tuna. The affected area is the only place of the world, aside from the Mediterranean, where this species spawns.

The team of scientists will also take samples of sediments, larvae, plankton and water. Dredges and bongo-type nets will be used in collaboration with universities from the United States.

Oceana already documented the fragile ecosystems of the Bahamas during its 2005 Transoceanic Expedition on board the Oceana Ranger research catamaran. At that time, marine scientists and divers studied the decline of species like the Nassau grouper, and the difficult state of sharks, turtles and corals in those waters, compiling scientific data to justify the conservation proposals that the organisation continues to work on today.

Since the spill was acknowledged Oceana continues to urge Congress and the U.S. government to ban all new offshore drilling. In addition, reports on the spill’s impact on various species in the area are being drafted.

In the energy field, Oceana develops intense campaigns in favour of offshore wind energy and is one of the few non-governmental organisations concentrated on specific problems like the acidificationof marine waters due to increased emissions of CO2 and its impact on corals and marine organisms with calcareous skeletons. Oceana has also publicly opposed petroleum prospecting in the Mediterranean, especially in Spanish and Italian waters.