Dr. José Leal (Director of The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum)

Dr. Jose Leal

We’re interested in learning about your perspective on the oil spill and its effects on marine life.
Dr. Leal: There is no question that this accident turned out to be a major threat to biodiversity in the Gulf of Mexico, a menace that we are not prepared to understand, because we do not fully know how many species are out there in the deep-sea to begin with, and how the oil could affect the way the organisms interact in the food web. Anyway you look at it, it is not pretty.

The west coast of Florida currently appears to be safe from the oil spill. Could it still enter the area?
Dr. Leal: The continental shelf in southwest Florida is relatively wide. The Loop Current, which flows from the northern Gulf in a clockwise direction to the south and out west of the Florida Keys, tends to stay away from the shallow shelf. This is what we believe will happen, preserving most of the coast of southwest Florida from the contaminated water. But elsewhere in the Gulf, the problem is very serious.

What concerns are there with the marine life, specifically the animals you study?
Dr. Leal: If you move away geographically from the areas where the animals are simply being smothered by crude oil, there remains the problem of bioaccumulation, which happens when animals or plants are capable of storing substances in their tissues, substances in this case that are detrimental to other organisms in the food web. Some bivalves such as clams, mussels, and oysters are capable of doing that, amplifying in their tissues the concentration of toxic compounds present in contaminated seawater. That is passed down the food web to anyone ingesting those bivalves, including humans.

Can you tell me a little more about the red tide and how it negatively impacts an area?
Dr. Leal: Red tides are caused by large blooms of a marine microorganism called Karenia brevis. Those single-celled organisms release a toxic gas that causes the death of marine invertebrates and vertebrates such as fish and dolphins. Sometimes, during prolonged periods of red tide, the levels of oxygen dissolved in seawater severely decrease, as a result of the deaths of millions and millions of animals in the area.

How might the oil affect the existing threats to the Florida coastal areas and their marine life?
Dr. Leal: Current oceanographic models locate the flow of oil-contaminated water away from the coastal areas of Southwest Florida (where the Shell Museum is located). However, there is a chance that water could reach the Florida Keys and the coast of South Florida. Again, the effects of the oil would be contingent on the amount and “thickness” of the oil fraction affecting these areas. The effects on the coast of West Florida (e.g., Pensacola and adjacent areas) are serious and one can expect molluscan populations to be affected as discussed above. Given the distance from Deep Horizon, it is unlikely that large amounts would be involved in the southernmost part of the state. In Southwest Florida, we suffer from releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee via the Caloosahatchee River, an abnormal set of circumstances that, if combined with oil, could result in local environmental disaster. But now we realize that Southwest Florida should be safe from a “direct hit” by the oil spill.

What does the oil spill mean for the work you do? How has your work been impacted?
Dr. Leal: As a marine biologist and director of an educational institution based on biodiversity (mollusks being the second most diverse group of organisms in the planet), I worry immensely about the effects of the oil spill. My work is impacted to the extent that I seek, as part of my job, to learn more and get involved with the issues surrounding the spill. And, although the beaches in Southwest Florida are totally clean, there is the wrong perception elsewhere that our part of the coast has been impacted, which results in a momentary decrease in numbers of visitors to the Shell Museum and its general area.

From your experience, what marine mollusks do you think are at the greatest risk?
Dr. Leal: Mollusks in the deep sea are “invisible” to mostly everyone, but may represent the most affected by this huge volume of oil. In the deep sea, many mollusks and other marine invertebrates feed on organic remains and detritus that accumulate close to the bottom. If this layer is affected by oil, they will gobble up oil instead. I mentioned bioaccumulation earlier, a phenomenon more likely to occur far away from the immediate spill area. The heavy stuff stays near the spill, but the fine, light fraction – the more liquid part – is far-reaching. I don’t think anything can survive for a mile around that spill. We may also be losing species that we don’t even know about, even before we knew of them. And, again, marine food webs are very complex. If there is one element affected, that specific impact could affect many or all elements of the food web.

What are the most popular marine life attractions on and near Sanibel Island?
Dr. Leal: Mote Marine Lab, in Sarasota, for instance, and evidently all the attractions and research organizations in the Florida Keys.

Some of these creatures are edible and are commercially harvested. How severely has the oil impacted the industries that rely on these creatures?
Dr. Leal: From what I understand, I think they have been severely impacted. The oyster industry in the Florida Panhandle is most likely suffering from the spill. Oysters cannot run away from the oil. And, again, we face the issue of bioaccumulation. Some of the components of crude oil, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are very powerful carcinogens and there is the possibility these animals could have been affected by them.

You mentioned the oil missing the southwest coast of Florida. What are some of the other predictions?
Dr. Leal: I’m not one to make any formal predictions, but I think that just common sense dictates that one has to be attentive for monitoring seafood that could be affected by the lighter fraction of oil. This lighter fraction, mixed in seawater, could be transported for long distances.  

What about the dispersants? How are they affecting things?
Dr. Leal: Supposedly the dispersants could be as bad as the oil itself to sealife. I am sure scientists are analyzing the effects of the dispersants compared to the effects of oil itself.

For more information on Dr. José Leal and The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, visit http://shellmuseum.org/director.cfm