Four teams of scientists are sharing $15.5 million in BP oil spill money to study the sustainability of fish, other sea life, and birds in regard to the Gulf of Mexico.
Two of the teams are from Florida, including the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which will receive the largest grant, about $6 million. Lead researcher Luiz Barbieri says the money’s coming through NOAA -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“[NOAA] has a RESTORE science program that was established specifically to develop research projects like this one to address restoration of Gulf of Mexico ecosystems post-Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” said Barbieri.
The groups will combine habitat and water quality information with three reef fish surveys into a comprehensive database to improve stock assessments. Among other things, they plan to look at year-to-year trends from 1992 to 2024.
“They’re going to looking at what species are in different areas, and collecting other information that will give us a better idea of how those species relate to the ecosystem,” Barbieri said. “And whether they’re in good functioning order.”
The other Florida team is based at Nova Southeastern University; joining them are the University of South Alabama and Mississippi State University. The study also involves 20 institutions in all five Gulf States and beyond – such as universities, federal and state agencies and non-governmental organizations.
Barbieri says this is a long-term project -- at least five years.
“With the possibility of us getting an additional five years if we have good performance in bringing the results that are expected,” said Barbieri. “We should be able to receive the additional five years -- that will give us a total of 10 years -- for understanding Gulf ecosystems.”
Prior to this, Barbieri said FWC had conducted a number of similar projects, ever since the funding has been available.
“We had some grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; we had some grants from other funding agencies,” said Barbieri. “We’ll be looking at different aspects of the ecosystem and fish populations. But this one is the most comprehensive of all, and also has the longest duration.”
Mississippi State will look into how three species of birds at risk of becoming endangered or threatened respond to different methods of fire management; South Alabama will study how to improve management of oyster, blue crab and spotted seatrout, and Nova Southeastern will identify long-term trends in sea life in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep open waters.
Barbieri is hoping to develop a database to give researchers a good idea of the baseline for the fish communities in the Gulf and their numbers.
“It’s going to give us an idea to see how do these populations – for example, grouper or snapper – fluctuate over time as we manage these fisheries,” said Barbieri.
As fish species are endangered in the wild through over-fishing, Luiz Barbieri at FWC believes fisheries are becoming more vital to the future of the seafood industry.
“With the right management measures in place, we can have long-term sustainability of these fishery stocks,” Barbieri said. “And they’ll be able to provide us with the seafood and the protein products that we need as a society.”
The four projects are among 68 proposals to the RESTORE Science Program. The RESTORE Act authorizes the use of fines from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to restore and protect ecosystems, fisheries, marine and wildlife habitats, beaches, coastal wetlands and the economy of the Gulf Coast region.