Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year 8-10 Research Grants (RFP-VI)

Project Overview

Coastal Waters Consortium III (CWC III): Oil Spills as Stressors in Coastal Marshes - The Legacy and the Future

Principal Investigator
Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON)
Member Institutions
Austin Peay State University, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Connecticut College, Florida Gulf Coast University, Louisiana State University, Louisiana State University AgCenter, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), Marine Biological Laboratory, Michigan Technological University, Rutgers University, SEA Consulting Group, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, University of Florida, University of Maryland, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Tennessee


We propose to build upon the previous Coastal Waters Consortium (CWC) grants with this final two-year grant. We are 13 co-Principal Investigators and 14 collaborators from 16 institutions. The following broad goals will be achieved in the next two years as we conclude the momentum started in the CWC-I and -II GoMRI-funded projects:

1) Finalize oil transport and fate models, assess their predictive skill, and provide model support for other CWC researchers;

2) Track the chemical evolution and biological degradation of the petroleum/dispersant components in marsh and mesocosms;

3) Finalize a seven-year baseline of oil contamination at the key sampling sites, and measure shoreline erosion, vegetation, and soil characteristics;

4) Conclude mesocosm experiments of oiling on multiple ecosystem components, including oil degradation, soil characteristics, vegetation, microbes, organisms, predator-prey responses, and biogeochemistry;

5) Complete a field and modeling study of the fluxes of water, sediment, nutrients, carbon and oil through Barataria Pass over an annual cycle and use it to evaluate the predictive skill of CWC models;

6) Conclude individual and population food webs models using a variety of isotopic, compound specific, and fatty acid tracers for birds and marsh rats, and overall food webs;

7) Focus specific sub-model attention on the effect of freshwater diversions on fish food webs;

8) Synthesize data, tools and perspectives through workshops that transcend individual component groups to include other researchers (phytoplankton and microphytobenthos, modeling, nutrients and oil, carbon flux); and

9) Prepare additional outreach activities, including a web-based interactive teaching/research project on a 2-dimensional Predictor Project, and a specific activity for transfer of research knowledge to practitioners.


CWC-II will address three themes identified in RFP VI of determining the physical distribution, dispersion and distribution of petroleum (theme 1), the chemical evolution and biological degradation and interactions with ecosystems (theme 2) and the environmental effects (theme 3) in the Gulf of Mexico within a broad context of improving fundamental understanding of the dynamics of such events and the associated environmental stresses. Our fundamental goal is to improve society’s ability to understand, respond to, and mitigate, the impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors of coastal ecosystems in the northern Gulf of Mexico region.


The CWC evolved in CWC-I and -II with our solid framework of research results and accomplishments which informed decisions about what to include in this proposal. It is clear that oil is only one stressor acting within the context of others, including sea level rise, climate, river diversions and wetland loss. Sampling design, data analysis and interpretation, therefore, must include a broader perspective than a singular event. We learned that: 1) some commonly used oil biomarkers are not as stable as expected, and that their usefulness should be re-evaluated. The degradation pathways are sometimes descriptively predictable, but need to be understood within the framework of the marsh’s soil variability. We will, therefore, conduct a detailed examination of controlled and in-situ degradation of oil biomarkers to create a stable intellectual baseline against which the decomposition trajectory of other analytes can be measured; 2) there were multiple re-distributions of oil residues throughout the estuary. We will, therefore, continue sampling for one more year and finalize a seven-year baseline of oil contamination at the key sampling sites, and measure shoreline erosion, vegetation and soil characteristics; 3) the high-resolution coupled hydrodynamic-biogeochemical-sediment-wave models provide valuable information on various drivers affecting oil transport and fate in these systems, including the effects of present and proposed Mississippi River diversions. We will, therefore, expand these models to assess oil transport and fate in the broader and morphologically complex deltaic estuarine environments. The Barataria Bay Flux Study experiment (BBFS) will specifically evaluate the predictive skill of these CWC models; 4) multiple oilings occurred within the context of many other stressors including sea level rise, climate, river diversions and wetland loss that introduces much variation. A mesocosm experiment will be continued for an additional year, therefore, to experimentally test specific hypotheses that are compared to field observations on vegetation, soil, biogeochemistry, microbes, oil degradation, organisms and predator-prey responses; 5) CWC researchers conducted some of the first biogeochemical measurements and concurrent microbial diversity and community analysis for oiled and unoiled marsh ecosystems in this region, and perhaps in the Gulf of Mexico. In the process, they documented some of the natural variability in marsh processes – a requirement for the construction of effective baselines. We will, therefore, synthesize these data with the biogeochemical and microbial genetics results by ourselves and others; 6) the complexity of these systems brings confounding factors, but there are signs of oil-spill related impacts offshore and onshore and from laboratory studies, but not a coupling (yet) with the rest of the food web. We will, therefore, add additional individual and population level elements to the developing food web models using a variety of isotopic, compound specific and fatty acid tracers for seaside sparrows and marsh rice rats, and overall food webs.


CWC scientists remain interested and willing to learn from and transfer science results to other scientists and practitioners. Three examples are: 1) we will conduct several complementary workshops (phytoplankton-micropytobenthos, modeling, nutrients and oil), to synthesize data, tools and perspectives that transcend individual component groups and engage other researchers; 2) we will prepare additional outreach activities, including a web-based interactive teaching/research project on a 2-dimensional Marsh Erosion Predictor Project, and a specific transfer of research knowledge to high school students, educators and practitioners; 3) we will organize a “Consortia Review of a Comparative Risk Assessment of Response Options for an Uncontrolled Subsea oil spill Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico with an Emphasis on Coastal Marshes” workshop that will involve participation from multiple GoMRI consortia to further distill and organize information about academic resources to share with the response community (practitioners).


The results of these inquiries are intended to yield scientific advances about these ecosystems, even when and where there are no oil impacts. We have found impacts, but the observations are framed within the idea that there are other stressors. Both are needed to be understood to adapt to future stressors. There is, therefore, an ecosystem-wide legacy of understanding with regard to not only the DWH oil spill, but also the ecosystem that extends beyond the GoMRI funding lifetime. This conclusion supports the goal to provide a better understanding of the fate and continued degradation of oil, its influence on food web structure, how the resulting shifts influence populations, individuals and ecosystem functions during the recovery phase, and the interaction of oiling impacts with the other ecosystem stressors.


A significant strength of the CWC education and outreach programs is the ability to utilize the very successful education programs of LUMCON. The easy access to the coastal areas around the DeFelice Marine Center in Cocodrie, LA, research vessels, living accommodations, and education laboratory spaces make the CWC educational program unique and well-suited to translate and disseminate the findings of the research through broad-based socio-ecological education programs. LUMCON has well-developed partnerships at the local, regional and national levels that include environmental K-12, teacher, university and public education programs. Examples include the LUMCON Bayouside Classroom field trips, LEAD Camp, Art and Science Camp, Field Marine Science Camp and teacher workshops. This arrangement has proven capabilities in the current program to reach over 5000 students and over 2000 educators annually.


CWC will continue to meet its contractual and financial obligations to the Consortium for Ocean Leadership (COL) for research and award reporting. The CWC will continue to be responsive to any reporting and data submission guidelines and meet all requirements in a timely fashion and with appropriate detail. The Coastal Waters Consortium will accede to all Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) instructions for data submission as required from their agreement developed with the Harte Research Institute for Data Management and Discovery. The data will be archived at LUMCON on an enterprise server with sufficient storage and room for expansion, and backed up daily to an RD1000 drive located safely elsewhere.

This research was made possible by a grant from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.