Newswise — FORT LAUDERDALE/DAVIE, Fla. – Despite names that are easily recognizable – Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon – the records show that the number and volume of oil spills has been declining for years. Nonetheless, there is a large number of oil spill preparedness and response professionals in government and the oil and response industries that are responsible for protecting the environment in the event of a spill.
In a marine oil spill, a high priority for responders is the protection of corals and coral reefs, which, for a myriad of other reasons, are under stress throughout the world. To accomplish this, responders need the best possible scientific information on the effects oil has on corals. To that end, researchers at Nova Southeastern University's (NSU) Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography have been studying the effect hydrocarbons have on these unique marine creatures.
The challenge: no one really knows, at what levels, which hydrocarbons kill off corals. What people may not realize is that there is natural oil "seepage" from the ocean floor. And given those can be near coral reefs, there is a certain level of "tolerance" that corals may have to exposure at that level. It's when massive amounts of oil is suddenly dropped onto a reef that is the concern – how do they handle that and how much is too much for corals to deal with.
To determine at what levels corals are adversely affected, and to ultimately assist response decision-makers in choosing response tools, such as dispersants, researchers have been studying various hydrocarbons at different concentrations to create a "baseline" of data that can then be used worldwide when responding to the next oil spill. The research is designed to provide new information on the sensitivity of shallow-water corals to oil and dispersed oil, linking field studies with controlled laboratory experiments that examine a range of possible hydrocarbon exposures.
"Coral reefs typically exist in coastal environments, often near areas of dense human population, which provides the opportunity for negative impacts like oil spills to occur," said Abigail Renegar, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the new NSU research. "What we find is that the data are limited and there are few reports from past oil spills that refer specifically to corals – previous research tends to be general and sometimes contradictory."
So Dr. Renegar and her colleagues at NSU and Texas A&M University set about to create a study that would provide consistency when it came to how hydrocarbons impact corals. The results of the first part of the study have been published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (June 2016).
The research team is made up of Dr. Renegar, Nicholas Turner, Bernhard Riegl, Ph.D. and Richard Dodge, Ph.D. from NSU; Anthony Knap, Ph.D. from Texas A&M University; and Paul Schuler, from Clean Caribbean and Americas, who is funding this study. Additionally, more than 15 collaborators from government and industry, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several oil companies are participating in the study.
According to Dr. Renegar, the team is working to develop a standardized toxicity testing protocol for adult corals, which could then be applicable to other coral species. The study has generated new hydrocarbon toxicity data for shallow-water corals, showing significant lethal and sub-lethal impacts of the hydrocarbon 1-methyInaphthalene. Now, she said, further experimentation with this testing protocol and other hydrocarbons using the current coral species and others will contribute to a more complete picture of toxicity to scleractinian corals.
While that all sounds pretty technical and very scientific, Dr. Renegar said there's an easy way to understand why they are studying what they are studying.
"The goal is to understand how corals respond to various hydrocarbons and then share the data with those in decision-making positions should another oil spill occur near coral reefs," she said. "An improved understanding of how corals are impacted can help us make better decisions on how to deal with the next oil spill. The information derived from the study is already being integrated into NOAA's toxicity models and is expanding the body of knowledge on the subject."
You can read the newly published study HERE.
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About Nova Southeastern University (NSU): Located in beautiful Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Nova Southeastern University (NSU) is a dynamic research institution dedicated to providing high-quality educational programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and first-professional degree levels. A private, not-for-profit institution with more than 26,000 students, NSU has campuses in Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Miami, Miramar, Orlando, Palm Beach, and Tampa, Florida, as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico, while maintaining a presence online globally. For more than 50 years, NSU has been awarding degrees in a wide range of fields, while fostering groundbreaking research and an impactful commitment to community. Classified as a research university with "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, NSU is 1 of only 50 universities nationwide to also be awarded Carnegie’s Community Engagement Classification, and is also the largest private, not-for-profit institution in the United States that meets the U.S. Department of Education's criteria as a Hispanic-serving Institution. Please visit www.nova.edu for more information about NSU and realizingpotential.nova.edu for more information on the largest fundraising campaign in NSU history.
About NSU's Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography: The college provides high-quality undergraduate (bachelor's degree) and graduate (master's and doctoral degrees and certificates) education programs in a broad range of disciplines, including marine sciences, mathematics, biophysics, and chemistry. Researchers carry out innovative basic and applied research programs in coral reef biology, ecology, and geology; fish biology, ecology, and conservation; shark and billfish ecology; fisheries science; deep-sea organismal biology and ecology; invertebrate and vertebrate genomics, genetics, molecular ecology, and evolution; microbiology; biodiversity; observation and modeling of large-scale ocean circulation, coastal dynamics, and ocean atmosphere coupling; benthic habitat mapping; biodiversity; histology; and calcification. The college's newest building is the state-of-the-art Guy Harvey Oceanographic Center, an 86,000-square-foot structure filled with laboratories; offices; seminar rooms; an auditorium; and indoor and outdoor running sea water facilities. Please visit cnso.nova.edu for more information.