BP OIL SPILL DISASTER RESPONSE – OPERATION TOXIC GULF FIELD REPORT 2013

Ocean Alliance in the GulfThe following is a summary of goals and accomplishments for the 2013 collaborative research expedition Operation Toxic Gulf carried out by Sea Shepherd Global and Ocean Alliance in the Gulf of Mexico (USA) aboard the Research Vessel Odyssey. While we continue to work closely with our scientific partner the Wise Laboratory at the University of Southern Maine, this year our campaign partner was Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Global.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig erupted resulting in an uncontrolled release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Estimates indicate that more than 150 million gallons of oil were flooded into the Gulf ecosystem—at least 15 times what was released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster. Superimposed on this threat is the approximately two million gallons of toxic, chemical dispersants that BP released into the Gulf in an effort to break up, or disperse, the oil. These chemicals were used in untested ways and in unprecedented amounts.

When an event of this magnitude happens many people look to the immediate post-event species mortality to judge the effect on wildlife. But there is good evidence to show that it is the chronic (long term) effects over time that pose the greatest threat to populations. For example, in the year following the Exxon Valdez disaster, nine members were lost from the intensively studied orca pod that lives in Prince William Sound (the bay the Exxon Valdez polluted), 20 years later no calves have been born to this pod. Clearly the initial data misses the fact that it is the chronic effects,  not the post-event effects, that doomed this population to extinction.

Documenting the long-term effects of the Gulf disaster on whale populations is what challenges and drives us.  Our primary focus is on the use of and effects of dispersants. While we may not be able to stop the next spill we might be able to stop the unilateral use of an environmental toxicant to clean it up. The whale’s position at the top of ocean food chains, and the fact that that they are mammals that have known serious responses to stress and contaminants suggest that they are excellent bio-indicators for the health of the Gulf ecosystem (since the BP spill over 1,000 dolphins have washed up dead or dying on the Florida coast).

OTG crew climbing to crows nestThe 2013 expedition was our first formal collaboration with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. This partnership saw the science of Ocean Alliance combined with the direct-action and public engagement of Sea Shepherd. Our two organizations share the same goal: the conservation of ocean life, but we have different approaches and skill sets.  We think that we successfully demonstrated with Operation Toxic Gulf that our two organizations can work well together to pursue mutually beneficial objectives.

 Odyssey Gulf of Mexico Expedition goals:

  • Observe any chronic effects of the oil crisis on whales and the ecosystem
  • Collect biological samples from whales to determine a baseline of exposure to petroleum products, chemical dispersants and metals
  • Develop cell lines to determine impact of oil, chemical dispersants, mixed dispersant and oil, and metals on whale DNA
  • Put Gulf sperm whales in global toxicological context with previous Voyage of the Odyssey data
  • Tell the untold story behind the forgotten wildlife disaster that is still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico

Over our last four Gulf campaigns, we have collected a total of 286 biopsies from 4 species of whales and have experienced surprising wildlife interactions while collecting data from four species of whales and other Gulf wildlife.

Operation Toxic GulfWith the help of an aggressive Sea Shepherd media drive, we reached an unprecedented global audience in 2013. We produced 11 crew video blogs, which have received to date over 75,000 YouTube and Vimeo hits.  Sea Shepherd created the campaign specific Operation Toxic Gulf website as a media hub for campaign updates and activities.

Publications and presentations are listed below. Of special note:

2013 Odyssey Gulf Expedition Effort Summary:

  • Sailed aboard the Odyssey, Ocean Alliance’s 93-foot ketch and a state-of-the-art scientific research vessel
  • Launched 22nd of June, 2013 from Key West Florida,ended 12th August, 2013 Key West Florida
  • 52 days total
  • 3 ports visited (Key West, Fl; St. Petersburg, Fl; Pensacola, Fl)
  • Range of expedition in the Gulf extended from Key West (Fl) to the offshore equivalent of the Mississippi delta
  • Focused primarily on waters 3,000 feet or deeper
  • Stopped directly over the Deepwater Horizon epicentre
  • Funded by Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Global. We are bound by no restrictions on the data and results, which means that we can publish our data when where and how we see fit.
  • More than 500 whales sighted (including dolphins)
  • Two “super-pods” (+100 individuals) of rarely seen melon-headed whales sighted and recorded
  • Sperm whale with white patches of unknown causeFirst beaked whale sighting in four years (unidentified, most likely Blainville’s beaked whale)
  • First time unusual white patches have been documented on sperm whales by Ocean Alliance-never seen before by any Ocean Alliance crew in +40 years of research
  • First time a sperm whale “social melee” observed and filmed in the Gulf of Mexico in four years of Ocean Alliance expeditions

Whale samples collected in 2013:

  • 48 Sperm Whale biopsies collected
    • 48 DNA samples;
    • 48 skin samples for metal analysis
    • 48 blubber samples

In previous years we have also successfully grown a total of 184 whale cell lines at sea, from 2 whale species.

Other/Miscellaneous samples collected in 2013:

  • Samples from various oil slicks
  • Samples of tar/oil found on Pensacola beach
  • Samples from unidentified algal/biological matter
  • Sample of unidentified white substance
  • Audio recordings from:
    • Large ocean-going vessels (container ships/oil tankers etc.)
    • Seismic testing
    • 7 different cetacean species

Outcomes:

  • Scientific breakthroughs:
    • First-ever mammalian cell culture laboratory on a sailboat—and possibly first at sea – 4 years in a row
    • Became first laboratory to culture whale cells at sea (184 cell lines developed during 2010, 2011 & 2012 field season)
    • Became first laboratory to culture Bryde’s whale cells
  • Chronic toxicological exposure and impact evaluation initiated
  • Baseline exposure data samples collected
  • Baseline DNA damage assessment underway
  • Chemical dispersant, oil & metal toxicity testing begun
  • Ocean Alliance/USM/Sea Shepherd marine toxicological research program established in field
  • Presence established as unique research program in Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic
  • Gulf of Mexico established as long-term ongoing toxicological research site
  • The Odyssey optimized as unique deep-water marine research platform for engaged student learning opportunitiesRoger Payne on Odyssey

Media Output/Public Outreach program (driven by Sea Shepherd):

Online Media:

  • 11 crew blogs
  • 6 Meet The Crew videos
  • 2 Campaign Update videos
  • 3 audio recordings
  • Over 75,000 YouTube & Vimeo hits
  • 700GB of footage filmed
  • +6000 digital photographs taken
  • Entire website created and updated weekly
  • Tri-weekly Facebook posts for both Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd (engaging 20,000-60,000 users every week)
  • Live feed satellite tracking map on website

Public Outreach:

  • Press conference in Pensacola3 open-boat days on the Research Vessel Odyssey
  • 2 public talks in Pensacola featuring Ocean Alliance founder Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr and Sea Shepherd Australia Producer Eliza Muirhead
  • 1 press conference in Pensacola with local and national news agencies, held before final leg of expedition.

Next Steps – Analysis

 Sea Shepherd Global has provided funding for data analysis on samples collected during Operation Toxic Gulf 2013.  During the winter/spring of 2014:

  •  Drs. Kerr and Wise will attend the 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science Conference in Mobile Alabama .  They will present a poster on the toxicity of chemical dispersants in sperm whale cells.
  • We will perform a study of the cytotoxic and genotoxic (measured as chromosome damage) effects of Gulf oil and dispersed Gulf oil in sperm whale cells that will ultimately be submitted for publication.
  • We will send out some samples for PAH (Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbons) analysis.  Once this is done we will see if there is a link between (the above mentioned) cytotoxic & genotoxic effects to levels of absorbed PAH’s.  If this is the case then it will prove that dispersed oil causes a higher level of PAH’s to be absorbed by the animals as against oil alone.  This would mean that the dispersants would be making the oil more bio available and as a consequence more toxic.

Research Results: Dissemination and Outreach

Ocean Alliance has now run summer campaigns every year in the Gulf of Mexico since the BP disaster occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Ocean Alliance’s scientific partner during that time has been the Wise Laboratory at the University of Southern Maine. To complement and sustain the outcomes of the 2013 Operation Toxic Gulf, the Wise Laboratory and partner Ocean Alliance, presented scientific research papers, posters and lectures stemming from laboratory work conducted prior to our 2013 summer campaign.

Conference Presentations:

Publication Details

Published papers

Published Abstracts and Presentations

  • Wise, Sr., J.P., Kerr, I, Wise, Jr., J.P., Wise, C.F., Wise, S.S., Wise, J., Gianios, Jr., C., Wallace, B., Huang, S., LaCerte, C. and Holmes, A.L. Voyage 2 of the Odyssey: The Impact of the Oil Crisis on Health Using Whales As An Indicator Species. Presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), January, 2013.
  • Kerr, I and Wise, Sr., J.P. The DeepWater Horizon Disaster. Toxicological Sciences, 126: 379, 2012
  • Wise, J., Wise, S.S., Xie, H., Griffitt, J., and Wise, Sr., J.P. Chemical Dispersants Used in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Crisis Response Are Cytotoxic to Human Skin Fibroblasts. Presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), November, 2012.
  • Wise, Jr., J.P., Wise, C., Keim, E., Wise, Sr., J.P. Comparison of Observed Nickel Levels and Nickel Toxicity in Whales. Presented at the annual meeting of the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine, May 2012.
  • Wise, C.F., Wise, S.S., and Wise, Sr., J.P. Chemical Dispersants Used in The Gulf of Mexico Are Cytotoxic to Sperm Whale Skin Fibroblasts. Presented at the annual meeting of the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine, May 2012.
  • Wise, C.F., Wise, S.S.  and Wise, Sr. J.P. Chemical Dispersants Used in the Gulf of Mexico Are Cytotoxic and Genotoxic to Sperm Whale Skin Fibroblasts. Presented at the 16th International Symposium on Pollutant Responses in Marine Organisms (PRIMO), May 2011.
  • Wise, Jr. J.P., Wise, S.S., Wise, Sr., J.P. The Use of Sperm Whale Karyotype to Assess the Potential Impacts of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill. Presented at the 16th International Symposium on Pollutant Responses in Marine Organisms (PRIMO), May 2011.
  • Wise, S.S., Kerr, I., Wise, Jr., J.P., Wise, C.F., Wise, J., Gianios Jr., C., Braun, M., Wallace, B., Walker, R., LaCerte, C., McKay, J.M., and Wise, Sr., J.P. The Impact of the Gulf Oil Crisis on Whales. Presented at the 16th International Symposium on Pollutant Responses in Marine Organisms (PRIMO), May 2011.
  • Wise, S.S., Wise, Jr., J.P., Braun, M., Wise, C.F., Wise, J., Gianios Jr, C., Huang, S., Wallace, B., Glass, I., Walker, R., LaCerte, C., McKay, J., Kerr, I., Payne, R., and Wise Sr, J.P. Assessing the Impact of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Whales. Program of the National Council for Science and the Environment’s (NCSE) 11th National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment, p.49, 2011.
  • Wise, J., Wise, S.S., Xie, H. and Wise, Sr., J.P. Chemical Dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico Are Cytotoxic and Genotoxic to Human Skin Fibroblasts. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Northeast Chapter of the Society of Toxicology, 16, October, 2010.
  • Kerr, I., Wise, Sr., J.P., Wise, Jr., J.P., Wise, C.F., Wise, J., Wise, S.S., Gianios, Jr., C., Braun, M., Martino, J., Chen, T., LaCerte, C., Duffy, R. and Joyce, K. The Impact of the Gulf Oil Crisis on Cetaceans: Establishing a Baseline of Toxicology Data for Sperm Whales and Bryde’s Whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Presented at the Collaborative Scientific Research in Relation to the Gulf Oil Spill, November, 2010.
  • Wise, Sr., J.P., Kerr, I., Wise, Jr., J.P., Wise, C.F., Wise, J., Wise, S.S., Gianios, Jr., C., Braun, M., Davenport, J., Chapman, G., Duffy, R., Leighton, R., Martino, J., Chen, T., LaCerte, C., Joyce, K. and Wray, G. The Impact of the Gulf Oil Crisis on Whales: Establishing a Baseline of Toxicology Data in the Gulf. Society of Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology (SETAC) Abstracts, p. 381, 2010.
  • Wise, Jr., J.P., Braun, M., Wise, C.F., Wise, J., Wise, S.S., Gianios, Jr., C., LaCerte, C., Chen, T., Huang, S., Martino, J., Holmes, A.L., McKay, J., Joyce, K. and Wise, Sr., J.P. Voyage II of the Odyssey: An expedition to study whales in the Gulf of Mexico in response to the Gulf oil crisis. Presented at the 2nd Annual Civic Matters Conference, November, 2010.