Marine scientists go deep in Gulf research

It has been six years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill dumped 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Plants and wildlife were harmed, ecosystems were destroyed and the revenue brought in by fisheries and tourism was cut.


FIU marine scientist Kevin Boswell uses sonar technology to study deep-sea organisms in the Gulf of Mexico.

As part of the DEEPEND Consortium, FIU marine scientists Heather Bracken-Grissom and Kevin Boswell are working alongside more than 60 researchers from 16 institutions to understand the Gulf of Mexico and the impacts of the oil spill on the Gulf.


“We are fortunate to have such a great selection of colleagues from several institutions and disciplines to tackle these deep sea science questions,” Boswell said. “Without leveraging the broad resources available with this consortium, such an endeavor would not be possible.”

Boswell, a fisheries ecologist, is using sonar technology to track the abundance and migration of a variety of marine animals, including deep-sea fish and their prey, as well as their relationships with other organisms living closer to the surface. Many deep-sea organisms serve as important prey resources for large predators such as sperm whales and tuna. They also play a critical role in energy flow in the ocean. By studying the ecological role of these deep-water organisms and energy pathways in the deep sea, researchers will be able to better understand system-wide changes in the Gulf as it recovers from the spill.

Bracken-Grissom is studying the genetic diversity of crustaceans, including crabs, lobsters and shrimp. The evolutionary biologist and her Ph.D. student Laura Timm have participated in a number of expeditions to the Gulf to conduct their research. By understanding the number of genetic characteristics of a species — indicators of how populations adapt to ecological changes and challenges — and how the characteristics are maintained throughout populations in a given environment, their work will allow scientists to diagnose the effects of the oil spill on a species and predict its potential to recover from it.


FIU marine scientist Heather Bracken-Grissom poses with a deep-sea shrimp aboard a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico.

The DEEPEND Consortium is part of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a 10-year initiative focused on increasing knowledge of the Gulf of Mexico, oil and oil dispersants; advancing technology and modeling; training future scientists; engaging and informing the public by making all data available online through an open-access repository; and creating an overall preparedness for future oil spills.

Oil spills will always be a threat to the region and to marine ecosystems throughout the world. Through research, including Bracken-Grissom’s and Boswell’s, scientists, first responders and policy makers will be better prepared to understand, respond to and mitigate damage from future spills.

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