July 29, 2014  

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From Katrina to Oil Spill, Southern Miss Contributes

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Harriet Perry, director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development, samples marine life in the Mississippi Sound following the April Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

It’s being called a “rolling disaster” for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

That’s the status dubbed by Dr. David Butler, director and associate professor of the International Development doctoral program at The University of Southern Mississippi. It is his description for the one-two-punch of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster of 2010. While both events have had catastrophic effects, both have provided moments in which the Southern Miss community has overcome adversity

Within days of the oil rig explosion and spill, Southern Miss President Martha Saunders appointed an Oil Spill Response Team to coordinate the university efforts to, as much as possible, manage and mitigate the spill’s impact on the Gulf Coast. Scientists within the Department of Marine Science and at the Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL) have worked tirelessly since late April sampling, researching and analyzing Gulf of Mexico waters and marine life.

“The northern Gulf of Mexico is a vital body of water which has been inundated with oil, gasses and dispersants,” explained Dr. Steve Lohrenz, chair of marine sciences. “It is our responsibility as scientists to see if the water quality and its eco-system have been damaged and, if so, examine ways to restore it to a healthy status and then preserve that status.”

Southern Miss and its research scientists have drawn national and international news coverage of their work. Dr. Vernon Asper, professor of marine sciences, was the first researcher to discover the underwater plumes of oil in the Gulf within two weeks of the accident. Dr. Bruce Comyns and Jim Franks, both of GCRL, were the first researchers to venture into the loop current to see if oil had impacted larvae of the highly vulnerable bluefin tuna which spawn in only two locations on this planet – the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea.

Dr. Eric Hoffmayer and Harriet Perry, also of GCRL, have made significant contributions during this unprecedented oil spill. Hoffmayer has ventured into the deep waters of the Gulf in order to tag whale sharks. By placing sensors onto the sharks, he has been able to track these mighty creatures via satellite to learn if oil has affected the “vulnerable species.”

Perry has discovered what appear to be droplets of oil in the larvae of blue crabs, although she is still testing samples. Dr. Jay Grimes has been studying the natural microbes of the Gulf and their ability to literally “eat” the spilled oil, while Dr. Joe Griffitt has studied the possible toxic effects of oil and dispersants in the Gulf waters. Both Grimes and Griffitt are GCRL scientists.

Even Southern Miss alumnus Jimmy Buffett, singer-songwriter and member of the class of 1969, has participated in the university’s efforts. He donated a SWAT (shallow water attention terminal) boat which is used near marshes and shorelines. The boat needs just 8”-10” of water in which to maneuver.

“Southern Miss scientists, students, faculty, staff and alumni have been working non-stop on the research and restoration of the Gulf,” said President Saunders. We are committed to finding solutions.”