Tag Archives: deepwater horizon oil spill

Featured song: “Crystal Gulf Waters”

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Today we feature a song by Hot Tamale, “Crystal Gulf Waters.”  In lamenting what we may lose if oil inundates our coast, Craig Reeder and Adrian Fogelin evoke some of the areas in which we are interested.  And while the song tackles a heavy topic, it does manage to end on a hopeful note.  The video was created by Craig:

The following is a short essay by Craig where he explains a little about why he was compelled to write “Crystal Gulf Waters”.

Craig Reeder Singer/ Songwriter

When the oil spill occurred, I wanted to write a song that would give voice to the feelings and emotions of everyone affected.  And even though the song is about the Gulf of Mexico, it took me back to memories of sailing Biscayne Bay when I was a teenager in a tiny little boat.  The water was so crystalline, I could see every plant and creature on the bottom, and I’ll always remember the beauty of the gently swaying grasses growing by the edge of the salt marshes.  As the waves rolled by, they swayed with an almost musical rhythm, a rhythm I still feel in my dreams and memories.

Now we are all learning how critical those salt marshes are to the entire ecology of the Gulf,  and it is sad to think how the damage will spread from one ecological niche  to another, eventually affecting nearly all the life of the Gulf, including not only the creatures like oysters, pelicans and crabs, but extending also to the human beings that depend on the fishing industry, people who are likewise a piece of the fabric of the Gulf.  When I think back to visiting places along the Gulf like Alligator Harbor and St. Joe Bay, places of pristine nature and crystal clear water, I feel like we are now saying a farewell to all these scenes as we once knew them.

I thought people’s feelings of helplessness needed someplace to go, and I know music is a powerful, cathartic vehicle.  The melody came to me quickly, probably an echo of early folk songs from people like Woody Guthrie and Stan Rogers, songs that delivered simple human emotions and  socially conscious messages.  When the first draft was complete, I turned it over to my singing partner, Adrian Fogelin, who happens to be an award-winning author, and she completely transformed the song by bringing it home on a soaring note of optimism for the future.  That’s the kind of hope we all need now.

If you are a musician living in our general area and you’re interested in having us use your music on our video posts, or any kind of artist with works inspired by Florida Gulf environments interested in sharing with us, contact us at outloud@wfsu.org.  To  submit materials (like CDs), you can write to:
Rob Diaz de Villegas
1600 Red Barber Plaza
Tallahassee, FL 32310
And, as always, we encourage your comments or questions:

The unsung heroes of the muck

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

photo by John Spohrer

Let’s talk about the little guys.

Think a little smaller than this pelican here.  Obviously, pelicans are a symbol of our coastal areas, flying in those long rows as they do while we’re driving down Highway 98.  Pelicans covered in oil have become the poster-species of the environmental toll of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  It’s horrifying to think of animals as evolved as dolphins washing up on the shores, and people of course are always concerned about sea turtles.  As they should be.  They are all important parts of the Gulf ecosystem.

But they are not the only important parts.  There are other creatures that probably won’t make it on to that oil spill tragedy poster because, let’s face it, they already live in muck.  Those are the species that we’ve been most concerned with on this site.  They are worth worrying about, and I’ve come to find them cute in their way.  I keep thinking I need to try to get Disney to make a movie based in a salt marsh or oyster reef, where mud crabs and periwinkle snails sing and hide from predatory blue crabs (who, like those sharks in Finding Nemo, might be sympathetic characters themselves).  When kids are carrying plush fiddler crab dolls, maybe the little guys would get some consideration.  As it turns out, however, I have no pull at Disney.  So I’ll just talk about them right here on this blog.

Like the fiddlers.  They eat sand.  They shovel it in their mouths with their smaller claws, while they do the mating dance for which they’re better known with their larger “fiddle” claws.  I see thousands of them at a time in a salt marsh, always scurrying away and making that sound, a little bit like trickling water and a little bit like tiny bubble wrap being popped.  Of what importance are these silly little guys?

Fiddler on marsh 2

Fiddler crabs are crucial to the survival of a salt marsh

Other than being food for blue crabs, their importance has to do with the muck in which they live.  They live in the sediment collected by the cordgrass root system; you can see the holes they call home throughout the marsh.  As Dr. Hughes explained in this video, these burrows provide oxygen to the soil in which the cordgrass grows.  So their presence helps the cordgrass grow, just as the cordgrass provides them shelter.

So maybe the fiddler crab hasn’t found himself at the center of any teary oil spill montage.  But he’s an animal, and a fairly popular pet.  Spartina alterniflora– aka smooth cordgrass- may never gain a foothold in the popular imagination proportionate to its ecological importance.  It is the foundation species of a Gulf salt marsh.  These marshes act as a filter for pollutants flowing into the ocean, protecting important estuaries such as those at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.  Marshes provide shelter to a number of commercially important species (shrimp, mullet, and blue crab, for instance).  And marshes also help absorb storm surges and prevent erosion.

Those are just a couple of examples.  There are, of course, more.  Tasty, tasty oysters filter water and prevent algal blooms lethal to other species.  Toadfish have faces even other toadfish may not love, but they eat animals that would decimate oyster reefs if left unchecked.  Those oyster predators are interesting as well.  Mud crabs might get as large as 4 cm and have these thick little claws which tear through oyster shells.  Oyster drills are small snails whose tongues (radula) are covered with thousands of small razor-like teeth.

As we move forward with this project, we’ll see more and more of all of these coastal denizens.  So far oil has not reached the areas Dr. Hughes and Dr. Kimbro are studying, and so there is always hope that they may be spared.  If oil does arrive, many of these species could be severely affected.  And while some of them may not look like much, the harm that would come to them would have repercussions felt beyond their own habitats.


This snail lives on an oyster reef

Interested in seeing a fiddler crab plush toy as a WFSU-TV pledge premium?  Well, that isn’t likely to happen. But we will take comments and questions, as usual.

Nuts and Bolts

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Why is Dr. Kimbro selecting smaller reefs to study?  How big is a mature oyster?  Watch and find out.

IGOR chip- biogeographic 150In my previous post, I outlined my original reasons for being out on the reef. Although I’m still pursuing those goals, my lab is currently busying itself on the reefs with some newly formed research goals. Anticipating the arrival of oil, we’ve scrambled a lot over the last few weeks to come up with questions and methods that will allow us to understand how the oil affects oysters as well as the assemblage of other important species that it supports.


Using kayaks, David and his crew moved more easily about Alligator Harbor

Step number one in gearing up to study the impacts of oil and to launch our original project involved figuring out a better way to transport a lot of people and gear out to the reefs during low tide, where shallow water prevents boating and deep mud prevents walking. My lab now uses a fleet of kayaks to zip around all the oyster reefs within Alligator Harbor, which sure beats sitting in highway traffic.

Now, once you see our study reefs (patchy, small and next to marsh), if you are a local, you must be thinking that we’re crazy for sampling these puny little things instead of the massive mudflat reefs that are more isolated from the marsh. And I wholeheartedly agree. However, my other colleagues studying oysters in VA, NC, SC, and GA don’t have big massive reefs like these anymore thanks to a much longer and more destructive history of harvesting, dredging and disease. So, to complete our original research goals and to compare things among many different estuaries, we are using the lowest-common-denominator reefs among all of our estuaries: hence the small and patchy little reefs we selected.

Ok, now we’ve figured out how to access our sites and we’ve selected our reefs. Although the latter sounds simple, it’s actually been pretty messy: kind of like my first trying to walk out to the oyster reefs in Alligator Harbor! Using global positioning system (GPS) and Google maps, my colleagues and I have been remotely weighing in on which reefs to use based on whether particular reefs are too large, too small, too close to the ocean, too far from the ocean, exposed to too much harvesting pressure, or exposed to too much pollution. Again, in order to learn how similar food webs operate and affect oyster reefs differently over long distances, we need to make sure that we are comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges or young oyster reefs (nothing but small oysters) to old oyster reefs (nothing but large oysters) or polluted oyster reefs to pristine oyster reefs.

Over the past week, we’ve not only selected oyster reefs within Alligator Harbor to be part of our original oyster study, but we also set up additional oyster reefs to study the impacts of the oil spill. This involves permanently establishing areas within reefs that are censused for the number of dead and living oysters before the oil hits. Then, when the oil hits, we determine if the number of dead oysters increased.

But, even if we see more dead oysters than live oysters in the future, how do we know whether the oil (rather than some other factor) was the cause?


Well, we are also taking water, sediment, and oyster samples to be processed for stable isotopes. In short, chemical elements (e.g., Carbon, Nitrogen) exist in different forms (i.e., isotopes) and oil hydrocarbons have a Carbon isotope that can be used like a fingerprint.

So, we are also sampling the environment (water and sediment) and the whole food web centered on oyster reefs to determine background levels of oil. Then, when the oil hits we should see a tremendous increase in a new oil signature (that from the Deepwater Horizon spill) that coincides with negative impacts on oysters.

But, in addition to oysters themselves, we are also interested in the predators and prey that it supports. Because we do not yet have a lot of data describing when and how many predators and prey are around and because there is no way to get that data in time before the oil arrives, we are using other stable isotopes to quickly describe how predators and prey are organized within the oyster food web: who is eating whom. The isotopes of Nitrogen are good for this because the form of Nitrogen changes as it passes up the food web from things like oysters to things like big crabs and fishes. So, our second new question is… who has been eating what and how does this organization, which took a long time to develop, change immediately and a few years after the oil spill? Pursuing this new goal has involved some pretty fun hunting of all sorts of critters that make up the oyster food web such as amphipods, polychaetes (worms), clams, mussels, mud crabs, snails, blue crabs, stone crabs, and fishes. We just finished sampling Alligator Harbor and are now off to do the same things in Cedar Key, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville.

Because these four sites in Florida will likely experience much different levels of oil, we will be able to learn how much oil is required to negatively impact oyster reefs and the community of animals that they support.

David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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How long will oil effects last?

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150I heard an interesting conversation on the radio Friday, with someone posing the question of how long will recovery from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill take. Months? Years? The answer, though unsatisfying, is largely that it depends. It depends how much oil ultimately is added to the Gulf. It depends what habitat you’re talking about (sandy beach, open water, salt marsh). And it depends how effective clean-up efforts are.

Fiddler crab in St. Joseph Bay.

Fiddler crab on St. Joseph Bay

(Meet the species of a Forgotten Coast salt marsh)

Unfortunately, previous research suggests that in salt marshes, at least, we’re probably talking decades. For instance, studies of a 1969 spill in Massachusetts (three studies: 123) find that oil can stick around in the marsh sediments for at least 40 years and continue to have negative impacts on marsh residents like fiddler crabs and mussels long after things appear to be “back to normal”. Lower abundances of these important plant associates may contribute to the lower biomass of cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) in oiled vs. un-oiled areas, even after decades.

Salt marshes provide habitat for lots of animal species in addition to crabs and mussels, and many of these animals are of interest to us because we like to catch and/or eat them. For example, blue crabs, mullet, seatrout, and red drum all spend at least part of their life amongst the grasses of the salt marsh. Lots of snails and bugs also call the marsh home. Some of these critters benefit the marsh, such as the fiddler crabs whose burrows aerate the soil and the mussels that add nutrients to the soil, whereas others like snails and grasshoppers can have negative effects on marsh plants. All will undoubtedly be impacted at least to some degree by the infiltration of oil into their home.

My lab and I are continuing to collect data on pre-spill abundances of marsh plants and animals in the FL Panhandle, and should oil arrive, we plan to examine the immediate and longer-term effects of oil on their abundance. Although we will make sure to learn as much as we can from the Deepwater Horizon spill, I want to emphasize that none of us are excited about the “opportunity” to study oil in our sites. We all view this situation as an absolute disaster.

The music in the video was performed by Sauce Boss.

Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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What we are doing on the reefs

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Oyster reef

Why are we on oyster reefs?

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150Well, I am broadly interested (and hope to make you interested) in how large predators can help protect important habitats like oyster reefs by preventing smaller animals from eating all the oysters.  I’m sure you can agree that we don’t need anything competing with people to eat oysters! It’s also important to keep enough oysters on the reef to filter water and provide habitat for lots of fishes and invertebrates, because these processes help keep estuaries healthy, and healthy estuaries support critical economic and recreational activities along our coastline.

Because 90% of the oyster reefs in the world were either eaten (they taste really good) or dredged away (they are a pain for boats to get around), we are specifically studying whether predator-prey interactions determine how the remaining 10% of our oyster reefs operate.  For example, it turns out that large predators such as fish and big crabs can protect oysters either by eating the smaller snails and crabs that consume the oysters or by scaring the snails and crabs enough to spoil their appetites for oysters.

Why should it matter whether the large predators eat or frighten the smaller predators, as long as the oysters don’t get eaten?  Since oysters are sessile, they can’t run away from their predators, but they can stop filtering water when predators are around in order to avoid producing a signal that can give away their location.  So if there are lots of oyster predators around, even if they are scared and not actually eating oysters, they may still keep oysters from filtering water.  And, the amount of water oysters filter matters, because filtration can remove excess nutrients from the water, helping to prevent algal blooms and low oxygen conditions in coastal waters (bad for fish and other animals).  This potential link between predators and nutrient cycling and whether it operates the same way in different places is why myself and researchers from the University of Georgia, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute are out studying reefs from Florida to Virginia.

gulf oyster reef food web

If we can understand why more oysters survive in certain locations and how these oysters affect nutrient cycling differently in different locations, then we can better target our restoration dollars when trying to recover the other 90% of our oyster reefs, thereby getting the biggest bang for our buck.

We’re just getting started.  And as you can see from the photos and videos, it’s a slow and ungraceful process at first!

David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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One month of production

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

A little more than a month ago, I had just finished a documentary. It’s one of those things where you put a lot of work in and then it’s just done, and you think you’ll have some time to tie up some loose ends.  I had been so busy finishing the program that I was only peripherally aware that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded and that possibly the greatest ecological disaster in our nation’s history was unfolding.  I didn’t know that my next project was already lining itself up, and that it would take up most of my working hours for months to come.

A month after I first stepped into a salt marsh (and got stuck in mud and fell onto my rear), oil is just starting to reach Florida.  Tarballs are as close as Grayton Beach, and you have to wonder how much longer it’ll be until the sites we’ve been visiting in St. Joe’s Bay and Alligator Harbor will be affected.  Oystermen in Apalachicola are scrambling to harvest as many oysters as possible, and those who can are canceling hotel and rental reservations across the panhandle.

We should be going back “in the grass” and “on the reef” this week.  Weather got in our way last week as Dr. Kimbro had to call off location scouting in Alligator Harbor, and it’s been stormy all weekend (Dr. Kimbro’s first post will come tomorrow, along with some video of the first day of his study).  Hopefully we can get some favorable conditions, I’d like to see these places as they are as much as I can, while I can.

NOAA nearshore projection 6-5

What we are doing “In the Grass”

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150As a marine ecologist at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, my everyday job is to try to understand the plant and animal communities along our coast and then communicate that knowledge to students, other scientists, and the public.  Much of my research focuses on understanding how the biodiversity, or the number of species or genetic individuals, of coastal communities such as salt marshes influences their productivity and ability to respond to disturbances.  Don’t let the terminology scare you – the basic idea is similar to having a diversified stock portfolio: by having a greater variety of species or ‘genotypes,’ aka more diversity, you increase the chances that one of them will grow really well, attract lots of critters, survive a disaster, etc.  Think of it as the spare tire theory of ecology!

I work with undergraduate and graduate students, research assistants, and volunteers to study the marshes and seagrass beds of the FL Panhandle and Big Bend regions.

IMG_0038Because large portions of the Gulf of Mexico are currently threatened by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this work suddenly has an increased urgency for me, personally, as well as for many other citizens who are concerned about what this oil may do to the waters, coasts, plants, and animals that we love.  In this blog, I’ll give you an overview of what we’re doing in regards to the oil spill, as well as on a daily basis in the absence of major disasters, to highlight the ups and downs and funny moments associated with being a scientist.

As awareness of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has increased, my lab and I have focused our efforts on documenting the current state of salt marshes in our area.  This work includes identifying and counting the dominant plant species in the marsh, as well as the many marine critters (crabs or snails, such as the marsh periwinkle, below) and bugs (spiders, grasshoppers, and other insects) that live here.  Bug collecting is perhaps the most attention-grabbing (as you’ll see in the video below), involving the use of a gas-powered vacuum to suck the insects into mesh bags so that we can then preserve and identify them in the lab.


Because plant genetic diversity can be very important for the ability of these plants to respond to disturbance, we’re also collecting small pieces of plant tissue that can be analyzed in the lab using DNA markers to determine how many different genetic individuals are present.  Finally, we’re collecting samples of dirt to document the amount of hydrocarbons (a signature of oil exposure) in the marsh sediment.  Although we still fervently hope that none of the oil reaches these marshes, such “pre-spill” data will allow us to document as completely as possible the impacts of this spill on our coast, inform the recovery of these areas, and work to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Special thanks to Bill Wharton, who provided music for the video piece.
Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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Welcome to “In the Grass, On the Reef”

Rob Diaz de Villegas Producer/ Editor WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- employment 150

When a lot of us think about science, we think about the laboratory. The lab: a sterile, controlled environment in which men and women in clean white lab coats toil with beakers and bunsen burners.  The word science has a cleanliness to it.  It sounds like tidy explanations, an orderly universe.

But, much like the universe is not always a tidy place, scientific knowledge isn’t always gained in a tidy manner.  The studies that we will feature in this blog are conducted mostly in wet, muddy places.  Dr. Randall Hughes studies salt marshes located in and around St. Joseph Bay.  Getting to some of these places requires walking through water, and mud that you can sink in up to your knee and possibly lose your shoe in.  Some of her sites are only accessible by kayak.

Read more about Randall’s research

The oyster reefs being studied by Dr. David Kimbro are in similar locations, right alongside salt marshes.  But whereas Randall is a year into her study, and knows her sites and how to get to them, David is just starting to identify his sites and their challenges.  We were able to go out with David on the first day of his study.  He was just getting to know this one site on Alligator Harbor.  Getting to the reefs involved walking from salt marsh island to salt marsh island in waist high water and deep, soft mud.  The reefs themselves are of course covered in sharp shells, so you don’t necessarily want to fall down there like I did in the mud.  It was a slow approach to the sites, and when we saw lightning not too far off, we had to make a fast getaway.  Back at the lab later on, David decided that perhaps that site was best approached by boat.

Read more about David’s study

We’ll have video of that first day with David up by next week.  First we’ll have a video on Randall’s study.  We’ll try to have at least one video a week, and the researchers will contribute posts.  It will be a unique way to glimpse scientific study in action.  And if what we’ve all been fearing happens, it will also serve as a record of how these habitats will survive crude oil washing up on to them.  Both David and Randall have been collecting data on these healthy habitats in preparation for what may come.

But while we’ll be keeping an eye on that blob in the Gulf, we don’t really know what will happen.  Until then, I’ll just enjoy my time in the mud and the water and try to post some informative videos, and try not to ruin too many socks.

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