Impact of oil spill on marine life

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At least 4 million gallons of oil have so far leaked into the Gulf of Mexcio from the damaged Deepwater Horizon well, and the efforts to protect the Gulf coast's ecosystem from the slick continue. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Vernon Asper (pictured), a marine science researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi who is aboard a ship in the Gulf where he's part of a team of researchers who are analyzing in real time the impact of the oil spill on marine organisms.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Oil giant BP is trying everything it can think of to stem the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But so far, the oil keeps leaking into the Gulf. Already four million gallons of the stuff are in the ocean and threatening to come ashore between Louisiana and Florida. Many of the fishermen along the Gulf coast whose livelihood is being affected are Vietnamese American. We'll hear about them in a few minutes. But first we're going to the Gulf of Mexico itself to speak to someone who is onboard a research vessel that's monitoring the spill. Vernon Asper is on the RV Pelican. He's an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi and he's also part of a research team sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Professor Asper, where exactly in the Gulf of Mexico are you?

PROFESSOR VERNON ASPER: Well I am currently 14 miles almost due west of ground zero, which is what we're calling the area where the well is leaking.

WERMAN: Tell us what you see, just superficially on top of the water from where you are.

ASPER: We're far enough away right now that we're in uncontaminated water. It looks totally normal. No sheen, no floating globules, nothing at all. Now if you go directly to the east, as you approach the site you'll first see sheen on the water. Just where it looks like somebody just spilled a little oil or gasoline on the water. It just kind of makes it silvery or golden occasionally. The further in you go, the more you'll start to see globules of emulsified oil. This is what happens when the oil and the water mix and then the wave action turns them into these globs that float on the surface and often get actually taken down below the surface. The best description I can give you is it looks like somebody took cotton candy and pulled it out into long strings. Further in, you'll see the raw oil, which is black on the surface. We were in there last night sampling some of that. We have scientists all over the world, really, who are asking for samples of it.

WERMAN: What are you specifically at now? What are you researching?

ASPER: What we're doing is looking at the oil under the surface. One of the most interesting things we've found in the last few days is we have found what appears to be oil at substantial depths down to at least 1,300 meters, which is very close to the depth of the well. We're thinking that this oil is probably some fraction of the oil that's not reaching the surface but instead is sort of spreading out and then the currents are taking it wherever the currents are going.

WERMAN: Now I understand that in normal times when there isn't this giant submarine gusher that we've got now in the Gulf of Mexico, that oil generally seeps out of the sea floor and there are organisms down there that eat that oil. What kind of organisms are we talking about?

ASPER: Well it starts off with bacteria. If you were fortunate enough to go to the bottom of the ocean in a submarine, you would be driving along and you would see nothing but mud and all of a sudden you would start seeing clam shells everywhere and then a little bit closer to the sea floor you start seeing things like tube worms and little crabs and various things like that. And especially you would see colorful bacteria spread around on the bottom of the ocean. The bacteria actually decomposed the oil and all of the other life forms either eat the bacteria directly or they use it for their own metabolism like the worms do, they have it growing inside of them. Or else they eat something that at the worms or ate the bacteria. So there are entire communities living on the bottom of the ocean here in the Gulf and other places, of course that are actually dependent on leaking oil. That's really good news because what it means is that if this oil reaches the sea floor, there will be microbes down there that will decompose it eventually. Now here are a couple of unknowns. First of all, we don't know how long it will take them to decompose this oil. And the second big unknown is we don't know what affect the dispersants might have. They are spreading these both on the surface and we understand they're injecting them deep under water. We just don't know what affect that is going to have.

WERMAN: And is this volume of oil right now just too big for these organisms to kind of gobble up?

ASPER: They cannot grow and metabolize rapidly enough to consume the oil as it's coming out. They're going to have to catch up. That's one of the things that we want to study is how long it takes them to catch up and what happens to the oil once it's on the sea floor. How rapidly can the microbes respond? That's one of the things that we're measuring.

WERMAN: Professor Asper thanks so much and good luck with your research.

ASPER: Alright, thank you very much.

WERMAN: Vernon Asper an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi speaking with us there from a research vessel there in the Gulf of Mexico.