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Annual Report:
Coastal Response Research Center 2005 & 2006

Client: Coastal Response Research Center, UNH, 2005 & 2006

I produced three annual reports for this client, over three consecutive years. Each one involved 6–9 articles and profiles highlighting some of the oil spill response funded by the center. I interviewed researchers around the country for these projects and created accessible “stories that put faces on the research,” which is what the client was after. Read a testimonial here. Three articles from the 2005 and 2006 reports are included below.

DOWN UNDER

Tiny sediment-dwelling organisms offer big possibilities
for assessing chronic oil spill impact on estuaries around the world.

Tom Chandler’s lab at the University of South Carolina (USC) is the next best thing to a mudflat—at least for the 100,000 copepods dwelling here. While there’s no need to don rubber boots when crossing the threshold, this carefully controlled environment so closely mimics nature’s intertidal mudflats and salt marshes that the copepods—microscopic sediment-dwelling organisms—are able to live and reproduce here as if they were really at the ocean’s edge. Nowhere else in the world have these conditions been so successfully replicated.

A professor of environmental health sciences in the Arnold School of Public Health at USC, Chandler specializes in estuarine ecotoxicology and the use of small, bottom-dwelling organisms as potential biomonitors for toxic compounds. His Coastal Center-funded work focuses on oil specifically and its effects on the copepod Amphiascus tenuiremis. “Think of them as microscopic shrimp,” says Chandler of his research subjects. “They spend all day munching on sand grains and eating mud and algae.” Barely visible to the naked eye, copepods are often the first or second most abundant multi-celled organism in the ocean, and they are found just about everywhere around the globe—which makes them unique in their importance. “If you have pollution that knocks their population down,” says Chandler, “you have a situation where you’re directly affecting the base of the food chain.”

The question, stresses Chandler, isn’t what will kill them. The lethal effects of high-level oil exposure are clear. “What we don’t have a very good understanding of,” he says, “is the effects of continuous low-level exposure to toxic substances. With these little bugs, we have a unique capability to assess this issue.” The goal of Chandler’s year-long project was to determine the effect of the water soluble components of oil, many of which are toxic. Copepods have a number of characteristics that make them uniquely suited for study. Their microscopic size means that, in the lab, they can live in 4×6-inch plastic microplates at up to 96 copepods to a plate. Each organism lives in about a quarter of a milliliter of solution in its own tiny well, about the size of a depression made by your pinky finger. During the study, each copepod was checked every day and its vital information recorded: Is it still alive? What life stage is it in? Can it reproduce? How many offspring does it produce? “Each individual becomes a data point that can be used to predict future population growth and size,” says Chandler.

Chandler’s study also involved an innovative test method that would have been impossible to carry out with a larger organism. Instead of doing only a clean water control, he ran a second control using oil from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “So along with the clean water control,” says Chandler, “you can benchmark your findings against this crude NIST oil—the most well-characterized crude oil on the planet.” Using the NIST standard was a critical quality control step. “It’s a more statistically robust way of doing assessment of toxicity than using some uncharacterized crude oil,” Chandler says, noting that if he’d used bigger organisms for the bioassay—shrimp for example—he would have needed far more NIST oil to conduct his work. “And at $40 per milliliter—that’s $40,000 per liter—it’s a bit pricey.”

Because copepods have a short, 50-day life-cycle and rapid reproductive capacity, Chandler and his colleagues could gather a great deal of information in the relatively short one-year span of their project, enter it into a mathematical model, and make accurate predictions about what the population size would be over multiple generations. “If this crude oil reduces reproduction by 20 or 40 or 60 percent, for example, what would be the impact down the road on the population? That’s what we were after, and that’s the kind of information spill managers need,” says Chandler, “because it allows you to tell, over the longer term, whether you’re going to have an impact on the marine resource. But you can’t generate this information without lots of life cycle information.”

Among other things, Chandler’s findings showed that the South Louisiana crude oil he was testing was one-and-a half times more toxic than the NIST standard. He also found that toxicity was greatly enhanced if organisms are exposed to UV light (a component of sunlight), as they would be in their natural setting. “We get lots of sunshine here in the south,” says Chandler. “And when you throw solar UV into the mix, you get a much stronger toxic response.”

Chandler’s long-term goal is to examine a broad spectrum of crude oils and, ultimately, build a library of comparative toxicities. “This would make it possible for spill responders to pull up a data set and do a projection of what type of mortality rate and reproductive impact would lead to a meaningful depression in population size and how that might affect future generations of copepods—and thus the organisms who depend on them,” says Chandler, whose recent research is a first step toward this goal. In the end, his work provides another tool for keeping tabs on the health of the coastal environment in the face of potential oil spills—making Chandler’s lab one of the most important mudflats in the world.

BIRD WATCHING

A research team develops new ways to untangle natural events from the effects of spilled oil on wildlife.

Ian Nisbet is not your typical Cape Cod summer visitor. True, he returns every year to Bird Island, just off the coast. But he’s hardly relaxing. For more than four decades the environmental scientist has spent his days studying the terns that nest on these rocky shores. Garbed in rain gear and heavy canvas hat, Nisbet walks among the birds—more than 3,000 common and roseate terns—counting their eggs, noting their hatching success, and recording their foraging habits. He has watched the same individual birds return to the island again and again over the course of their quarter-century lifespan. Over the years he and his colleagues have banded and released thousands of birds.

One of the longest-running studies of sea birds in the world, Nisbet’s research and extensive database took on sudden new significance in the spring of 2003 following the Bouchard oil tanker spill. “All the terns in the bay—nearly 20,000 of them— were exposed in one way or another to the oil,” says Nisbet, noting that the birds had little drops of oil on their feathers in the days immediately following the spill. A week later, on many of the birds he examined, the oil was gone. “They’d preened it off and ingested it,” says Nisbet, who, along with colleagues Florina Tseng and Victor Apa- nius, spotted an unprecedented research opportunity.

For years, scientists have agreed that tallying numbers of dead wildlife following an oil spill is only part of the damage-assessment picture. “But very rarely do we have an opportunity to study the non-lethal effects of a spill,” says Nisbet. “Here we had a place we’d been study- ing for a very long time—and suddenly we had an oil spill there, which gave us a chance to study the effect of this low-level exposure on the birds.” Apanius, who started working with Nisbet in the mid-1990s, has pioneered the examination of the immune system of wild birds in their undisturbed native habitats. The physiological ecologist has been taking blood samples from the Bird Island terns since 1999. “What’s most important,” Apanius says, “is that we have pre-spill data, data from immediately after the spill, and data for the year after that, which makes a very good experimental design for examining the impact on the survivors.”

Florina Tseng, principal investigator on the project, has traveled to oil spill sites around the world during her years working for wildlife rehabilitation organizations and she has seen her share of oiled animals. “The acute effects of an oil spill have always been obvious,” says Tseng, now the assistant director of the Wildlife Clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, where she spends much of her time in the lab, conducting necropsies on dead seabirds. “But there are more subtle physiological changes that continue long term, and there haven’t been any ways except looking at population numbers to assess the effects of an oil spill—until now.”

The research team’s Coastal Center-funded, two-year project will bring together demographic and blood chemistry data to develop a new way to analyze the long-term effects of an oil spill. “Let’s say we find fewer numbers of eggs laid and at the same time we’re seeing lower total protein levels,” says Tseng. “Are these two things related? We know that this can happen under natural circumstances; the key question is whether the blood chemistry can distinguish between a natural downturn in environmental conditions and the pathological effects of oil.”

The project goal, in short, is to identify cause and effect, clarifying the distinction between natural variability and oil spill-related variability. “The big question,” says Nisbet, “is how do you decide what’s abnormal?” Given the variations that naturally occur in the environment—cold winters, poor food supply, disease—how do you accurately identify change caused by the oil itself? “Think of it like the stock market,” Nisbet suggests. “How do you define a recession? We are using exactly the same kinds of statistical techniques to analyze trends in seabird clutch size, productivity, and other data.”

Ultimately, researchers hope the study will provide a critical predictive tool for dealing with future spills—none of which will likely happen in a place that has the unusual benefit of many years’ worth of data collected prior to the spill. This study also will provide an accurate understanding of how “at risk” a population is, an important component in determining how a species should be protected and the level of attention they should receive during a spill. “Our research will help response decision-makers to understand that natural variation in populations makes it difficult to assess the impact of a spill and that hematology can provide new sources of information for assessment,” says Nisbet. “We’ll be able to say, ‘If you want more accuracy, here are the things you should be measuring internally in survivors.’” Adopting this approach, wildlife managers could be prepared for future spills in the same way prudent investors watch the stock market. Historically, up-turns and down-turns always happen, but in this case “insider information” from blood samples is allowed. Which is a good thing, because what’s at stake is the environment itself—and the lives of countless creatures whose survival depends on it.

THE BIG QUESTION

Developing a more informed conversation about the use of dispersants to clean up oil spills

On a summer afternoon, just south of San Diego, Dr. James Payne leans against the railing of the Response 2, a 34-foot oil spill response vessel, and records his observations. He’s got his eye on a bright green plume spreading through the water beneath him. Two thousand feet overhead in a small plane, Payne’s colleague Dr. Deborah French-McCay is taking photographs. The two scientists stay in touch by radio, coordinating with a dozen other members of the team working on this dispersion study, including Dr. Eric Terrillfrom the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Dr. Walter Nordhausen of the California  Department of Fish and Game Office of Spill Prevention and Response. The mood is tense. Time is short. The stakes are high. Just like a real oil spill.

And that’s precisely the point. Earlier in the day, these researchers and their colleagues released over 500 gallons of fluorescein dye, along with nine subsurface drifters, to address one of the most pressing questions facing the oil spill response community: What are the fate and effects of dispersed oil? Payne and his colleagues have been using the fluorescent green dye in a series of Center-sponsored experimental releases aimed at generating data needed to help piece together one answer in the complex discussion of dispersant use. Later in August, Drs. French-McCay and Nordhausen used these same techniques to participate in a NOAA-led Safe Seas emergency response exercise off the coast of San Francisco.

Here’s the issue: Suppose oil spills into ocean waters. Thousands of gallons are moving toward shore, headed toward nesting sites and popular beaches. But instead of washing ashore and oiling birds along its path, dispersant is applied, allowing the oil to mix down into the water, greatly reducing the damage to shorelines and wildlife. But what about the potential injury to fish and other ocean-dwelling creatures in the water column? How do you make the right call on where to send the oil?
“The use of dispersants is really a trade-off issue,” says French-McCay, a principal at Applied Science Associates, Narragansett, RI. “And it’s a real thicket. People have been arguing back and forth about it for years. The big uncertainty is how do we estimate the impact of dispersed oil in the water column?” The problem, she explains, is that when oil disperses it dilutes very quickly and it’s very hard to track. “No one has been able to adequately sample dispersed oil, because it all happens so quickly. It’s logistically almost impossible.”

French-McCay’s firm specializes in creating computer models of the transport and exposure of dispersed oil. “But people don’t trust models,” she says. She needs data to confirm what her models are showing. Which is why she found herself, early last summer, flying at 2,000 feet in a California Department of Fish and Game aircraft off the coast of southern California taking pictures of the spreading green dye designed to act like a dispersed oil plume. Down on the water, computers aboard two research vessels were collecting data to help answer a host of questions: How fast is the plume spreading? What direction is it going? GPS-equipped drifters and “drogues” measured the current speed at various depths. A series of fluorometers tracked the concentration of the dye in time and space.

And a high-frequency radar (CODAR: the Coastal Ocean Dynamic Applications Radar) provided real-time analysis of the speed and direction of the surface current. “Eventually, all these data are integrated together to compare the field observations with the model predictions,” says Payne, president of Payne Environmental Consultants, Inc., Encinitas, CA. “It’s a way of validating what the model states against the measured data.” It’s also a way of providing the public with critical information. “When you’re talking about killing birds versus possible damage to the local fishery,” notes Payne, “ruining beaches versus possible harm to the lobster habitat, these data are critical. They can be used when you have stakeholder meetings, so you can talk about oil spill response options and whether dispersants should be used.”

Getting answers to real questions is one of the Center’s primary goals. John Tarpley, the regional operations manager for NOAA’s Emergency Response Division (Hazmat) has reason to care about practical research—his job takes him into the field and face-to-face with the challenges of spilled oil. “The Coastal Response Research Center holds workshops and brings people together to find out what the latest, cutting-edge questions are,” says Tarpley. “Then they go out and fund the research that is going to help answer the questions real spill responders have, questions that will help to make decisions. It’s very applied and very practical.” The collaborative nature of Payne’s dispersant research, supported by funding from the Center and the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CA OSPR), is testament to its relevance, he points out. “This is a huge multi-disciplinary, multi-agency project where we have managed to leverage Center funds into a much larger program,” says Payne, reeling off the groups involved who have donated in-kind services: the U.S. Coast Guard, CA OSPR, and Marine Spill Response Corporation have each provided boats, aircraft, personnel, and instrumentation to support this effort. “Each one of these agencies views this program as an excellent opportunity to train personnel, giving them hands-on experience under carefully controlled conditions, as opposed to the chaos of a spill when everything is going 100 miles per hour.” “This research is changing the protocol for dispersed oil monitoring,” says Amy Merten, the Center’s NOAA Co-Director. “It’s a much more strategic way of making sure you can track the plume after a dispersant application.” And more information means more informed discussions about the fate and effects of dispersed oil.

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