Dr. Kumar Mahadevan (Executive Director and Senior Scientist of Mote Marine Laboratory & President of the Mote Marine Foundation)

Dr. Kumar Mahadevan

What marine life is at greatest risk in the Gulf from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?
Dr. Mahadevan: Well, obviously the greatest risk is for the primary producers in that area. Where the oil is there is a lot of phytoplankton. That loss of productivity is going to affect the other animals in the food chain. It starts at the base of the food chain. Other than that, the sea turtles because they migrate at this time, and they aren’t as adept to avoid the oil as the larger animals. There is also concern because the oil sheen will look like a jelly fish and the turtles sometimes eat that.

What marine invertebrates are at greatest risk?
Dr. Mahadevan: The greatest risk is at the location of the rig itself, because oil came from the bottom, there is a lot of impact on the invertebrates there because of the actual oil spilling is right there. The area becomes anoxic, because the oil pushes out the oxygen and the bacteria that eat the dead animals cause more oxygen loss.
In the shallow areas, especially the shorelines, there is a lot of oil coming through, and that is going to affect the shrimp larvae. The oil that gets into the marshes will affect the life there, too. The oyster beds in that region are some of the most productive in the world and those are being affected as well.
Anything that filter feeds, like oysters, they are in trouble. The oil and dispersants are going to enter the animal, affect them and will affect the animals that eat the oysters.
A bigger worry is the threat to the coral reefs of the [Florida] Keys. Many of them are filter feeders. If oil gets into the Loop Current and goes to the reef, we’re going to see some major impact.

Can the coral survive?
Dr. Mahadevan: Some will get hit so much and die. But some will get affected where maybe just their reproduction will be affected. It depends on the how severe the impact is.

There has been report of oil in the Loop Current. Do you think the current will send the oil toward the Keys?
Dr. Mahadevan: I think that [at] some point it will. At this point, there isn’t much in the [Loop] Current, so the concentration is low. But we are more interested in the long term. If they can stop the oil, then we might be okay.

What marine life is most threatened on the west coast of Florida?
Dr. Mahadevan: Well the way the Loop Current works, [the oil] is far from our coastline. The odds of us getting surface oil right now are pretty low. Scientists are having trouble determining how much is subsurface oil. I would be hesitant to say we are safe from that. The surface oil could become tar balls. NOAA is predicting one of the worst hurricane seasons this year, so it depends on nature, and how soon they close [the well] and clean [the oil] up.
The bottom line is that the impact is going to stay with us for decades. Areas from Louisiana to the panhandle, they are going to face impacts for years to come. There will be reducing fisheries and harvesting of oysters.

What does the oil spill mean for the work you do? How has your work been impacted?
Dr. Mahadevan: We are a research, visitation, and public outreach location. [At] the aquarium, which is public outreach, we are concerned about the oil reaching our marine aquarium systems because we take water from the sea and recycle it. From a research point of view, some of the long-term data we have collected is now all not worth as much because the conditions have changed. Now we need new baselines.
In a way it’s kind of good because people have taken the Gulf of Mexico for granted. And now with the spill, people start to realize how much these areas are worth. Whatever your career is, if you live in the Gulf you can see the impact. So that is good in a sense, I guess, because that will help people realize it. In all our education programs, we reach about 40,000 kids and now we have a heightened awareness with these kids. So those are maybe some of the positive things.

Are there plans underway for protecting the unaffected coastal sanctuaries from the oil?
Dr. Mahadevan: I think the plans vary along the coast depending on the counties, because, at least in Florida, all the emergency operations are organized county by county. The common denominator has been BP, the federal government, and state agencies working together. Some of that has been questioned on how that has been handled however. My worry is, are we relying on BP and the government too much? I think different counties will handle it differently.
But some counties are not just relying on the federal government. We are learning the lessons from Louisiana, those being that the booms are not really affective, and we are learning from that to see what else we can do. I’m optimistic and I see things are getting better.
A short answer is I think everyone has a plan. How well it’s going to work, we know in some cases it will, but not in all places. Beaches are easy to clean up. Oyster reefs, mangroves, and marshes are tough to clean. You can’t just clean them.

You studied the effects of oil refinery effluents in the Persian Gulf. Have you found parallels to the Gulf oil spill?
Dr. Mahadevan: All my knowledge on the Persian Gulf is based on what I read. They have a lot of coral and beautiful water, and that was the biggest challenge they had.
When I studied the effluents, they were very small. Periodically they had spills that went into the Persian Gulf that caused problems. The products they put in were all volatile and evaporated quickly, so that helped. But they were more toxic, and could have caused problems.
The volatile components are toxic but are not the issue. The main issues are that the oil separates into different components, and they use dispersants, which are like soap, and they are emulations and we don’t know where these things are because much of it is underwater.
Scientist just don’t know how much there is or where it is. If you don’t know where it is, how will you suck it up or clean it?

What else about the Gulf oil spill is similar to your previous studies?
Dr. Mahadevan: The Ixtoc spill in the 1980s caused a lot of problems. They still go to coastlines and see tar balls and oil. For example, Exxon Valdez people can still go and turn rocks and find oil. It is very persistent for long periods of time. We are going to be dealing with this for a long time. At least a few decades.

Based on your prior experience, what effects do you think might happen in the Gulf as a result of the oil?
Dr. Mahadevan: The long-term effects are a reduction in fisheries. The Gulf is one of the most productive in the world, and we are going to have to import more seafood to offset our reduced production. I think that will be one effect that will be very obvious to these people. The fishers will feel the direct impact, but everyone else will be paying more for seafood and getting less.
Not much is cheerful, but if we can stop the spill, clean as much as we can, and work on long-term restoration and help, we could do well. Specifically, we have the technology now to help restore the areas and some of the fisheries in the Gulf. Scientists have come a long way where they can stock the fisheries and the environments. We have high hopes for restocking the fisheries. Those are a couple of things we can be proactive about, and hopefully the federal government will help take the lead.

Which clean-up efforts do you think are working? Which are not?
Dr. Mahadevan: I think the efforts are working when it comes to BP. It looks like they are staying up with what is happening. As we move forward now, we need to think about restoration and restocking. It’s going to be a long term commitment. I’m sure they are getting a lot of innovative ideas on how to clean up the oil from bacteria that eats oil and everything else. I’m hoping they are vetting these ideas for use.

How might the oil affect the existing threats to the Florida coastal areas and the wildlife?
Dr. Mahadevan: That’s a classic ecosystem question because ecosystems are like rubber bands. They can stretch to a point but after that point they break. These problems affect the ecosystems but they keep lumbering on. One of the worries we have is that the oil spill comes in and does the last stretch and breaks the ecosystem. The red tide we get here, the oil spill won’t relate to that per se. The oil spill will reduce productivity. It will be more severe because there will be less countering mechanisms, and scientists don’t understand all of these issues as they come together. Over time, we will get a feel for it. It’s going to be a long process though.

What is the greatest concern for the west coast of Florida if the oil enters that area? Do you think it will?
Dr. Mahadevan: The biggest concern obviously is our economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism, fishing, and boating, those activities. If oil gets here, it will really kill our economy. Whether people go fishing for a day offshore or they are lying on the beach, attracting tourism is the biggest challenge. The long-term concerns, like I said, are the fisheries and the sport fishing that will be affected.
We’re hoping oil never shows its face here. We haven’t had any oil, but our hotels here have had 30% cancelations. People are going elsewhere. It’s not even the oil that is the problem, it’s the perception. The media gives the sense that all the areas are affected.

What can be done to fix the media perception issue?
Dr. Mahadevan: The governors are trying to get BP to put money into marketing efforts to get people to come. We have a beach condition report on our [web]site. It was created to tell what beaches have red tide and which don’t. We have about 33 beaches and we want to make it available to all those beaches. Those informational things that we can get on a webpage give people the chance to learn the truth and will be very helpful.

For more information about Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, visit www.nmsfocean.org/about-us/person/dr-kumar-mahadevan