Two years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may seem a long time for some. This interval has provided partial healing of the environment and for the people whose livelihoods are dependent on the Gulf’s bounty.

But two years has not been long enough for a full scientific understanding of how this large marine ecosystem was impacted by the disaster. The Gulf of Mexico spans approximately 600,000 square miles and holds thousands of marine species. The spill’s effects on survival rates of sea turtle hatchlings and fisheries will take many years to realize.

After the spill, BP and government agencies poured millions of dollars into funding scientific studies on the effects of submerged oil and dispersants. This resulted in over 70 scientific publications and presentations from Florida researchers alone. Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center (OC) was one of several Florida institutions that used part of a $10 million BP block grant to conduct research on the spill’s impact.

As a scientist who is using that block grant, my research focuses on collaborating with other researchers to collect sponges near the Deepwater Horizon spill site to examine possible clues about how marine invertebrates and microbes cope with chemical pollutants. Studying sponges is very important because they act as messengers for what has occurred and what the future may hold. I am using modern molecular genetics methods to develop marine sponges as potential sentinels (bio-indicators) to detect environmental change. My study is applying sophisticated DNA sequencing and microbial analyses to better understand these marine organisms’ physiology and biology.

Scientists previously knew that large parts of the Gulf experienced periodic low oxygen levels (dead zones) due to planktonic blooms that sucked oxygen from the water, killing or driving away marine life. Recent studies have shown that certain microbes actually help fight oil spills by digesting oil. NSU research focuses on the symbiotic and sometimes beneficial roles of microbes living within reef sponges, which together may help gauge oil and dispersant toxicity. Scientific research also suggests that marine microbes, such as algae, may one day help alleviate energy shortages by producing sustainable biofuels that can replace fossil fuels and their risks.

The public should realize that researching various types of activities, such as symbiosis or microbial oil digestion, can benefit society and environmental health in the long run. Increasing scientific knowledge from oil spill research has economic and environmental implications. A degree in ecology is not necessary to appreciate how organisms such as microbes can provide beneficial functions, similar to how plants provide oxygen and coral reefs protect shorelines from erosion. Overall, these examples should teach us to be less destructive to our marine habitats.

The earth’s resources are finite. Consumption of oil, natural gas, and fracked shale oil has limits. This is why the creation of alternative, sustainable energy sources would be wise, posing less destruction to natural habitats and ultimately improving the quality of human life. This would represent good stewardship and a hard lesson learned from the BP oil spill.

These lessons are important not just to the Gulf, but also to our local Caribbean and Atlantic waters. That’s because oil drilling has begun off the northern Cuban coast, only 55 miles away from Florida.

A Cuban oil spill would likely be more catastrophic to Florida than the Deepwater Horizon spill, because oil could easily drift into the Gulfstream. This would carry oil along the Sunshine State’s southeast coast, possibly damaging marine habitats along the way. Marine life in mangroves and beaches would be jeopardized, and Florida’s reef track, which spans from the Dry Tortugas to Martin County, could be damaged. This track comprises 84 percent of all the coral reefs in the U.S. and helps pump $6 billion dollars annually into South Florida’s economy.

If we can constructively apply our scientific findings from the BP oil spill, than perhaps the quest for oil does not have to threaten our quality of life.

Photos: Jose Lopez