Fisheries and Oceans Canada Provides Expertise to Assess the Impacts of Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

A team of scientists, including Dr. Kenneth Lee of the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research - have embarked on a collaborative study by the U.S. National Academies to assess the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The study, which began in 2011, will explore how the spill has affected the resources and processes provided by natural ecosystems, known as ecosystem services.

A team of scientists, including Dr. Kenneth Lee of the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research - have embarked on a collaborative study by the U.S. National Academies to assess the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The study, which began in 2011, will explore how the spill has affected the resources and processes provided by natural ecosystems, known as ecosystem services.

Dr. Kenneth Lee, Executive Director of the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER) - a Fisheries and Oceans Canada centre of expertise - is serving on a committee under the U.S. National Academies that is conducting an environmental study to explore the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, the research will investigate the impacts of the spill on ecosystem services, which are the resources and processes provided by natural ecosystems that are of value to individuals or society.

COOGER coordinates research to assess the potential environmental impacts associated with offshore oil, gas and renewable ocean energy activities. This role has included research into the effects of accidental oil spills, and the development of mitigation technologies and methodologies to monitor habitat recovery. Its international collaboration on this project is benefitting Canada by providing valuable insight into how to fully assess the extent of damage in the event of an oil spill.

The 30-month study began in the summer of 2011, draws on the expertise of a multi-disciplinary scientific committee of experts from academia, industry and government. Dr. Lee is one of the leading experts in the world on the effects of spill response technologies, including chemical dispersants, which break down the oil into smaller droplets that can be more easily consumed by microbes. His knowledge will aid the committee in assessing the impact of the 1.8 million gallons of dispersants that were applied to the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ecosystem services

"Ecosystem services" refers to the relationship between natural systems and the value that humans place on them. They are byproducts of the functioning of ecosystems, including the interactions of plants, animals and microbes with the environment.

Ecosystem services include:

  • provisioning services or material goods such as food, feed, fuel and fiber;
  • regulating services such as climate regulation, flood control and water purification;
  • cultural services (recreational, spiritual, aesthetic); and
  • supporting services such as nutrient cycling, primary production and soil formation.

"These services underpin our use of the land and sea and ultimately the well-being of all people," says the U.S. National Academics committee's interim recently released report. "When events occur that can interrupt, or interfere with, the functioning of ecosystems, the ecosystem services may be impacted, causing both short- and long-term harm to the ecosystem and those depending on it."

A rich and diverse ecosystem

The Gulf of Mexico has some of the most highly productive coastal waters in the world, including tidal flats, wetlands and marshes, oyster reefs, seagrass meadows and other ecologically important habitats. About 95 percent of all commercially important species in the Gulf depend on these estuarine and coastal habitats at some stage in their life cycle, highlighting the value of these habitats to the ecosystem as a whole. The biodiversity of this area - including thousands of invertebrates, more than 1,500 species of fishes, five species of sea turtles, nearly 400 species of birds, and 30 species of marine mammals - plays an important role in supporting ecosystem functions and services.

According to the interim study report, short-term losses in the Gulf included the closure to fishing of up to 80,000 square miles of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, resulting in loss of food, jobs and recreation. "Coastal tourism, beach-going, boating and other services were also heavily affected" by the oil spill. More information is required to assess the short- or long-term impacts on regulating and supporting services, which involves accounting for the effects on the ecosystem, its productivity and functioning.

As part of the impact assessment, researchers observe oil contamination along the Gulf of Mexico.

As part of the impact assessment, researchers observe oil contamination along the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists observe oil in wetlands along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico during a collaborative study into the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on ecosystem services in the region.

Scientists observe oil in wetlands along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico during a collaborative study into the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on ecosystem services in the region.

Impacts: the big picture

"We're exploring the big picture; expanding beyond the scope of traditional damage assessments primarily focused on specific species and/or areas of regional interest," says Dr. Lee. "The committee will assess the impacts of the spill on the services that the Gulf of Mexico provides to mankind, from socio-economic and human health impacts to things such as the effects on processes that regulate water quality, on medicinal plants used in traditional native medicines, and on the oyster fishery. And we'll investigate not only whether the clean-up methodologies are effective, but what their potential downsides might be."

The study will collect and analyze information on specific types of services, identify relationships among the lost ecosystem services and assess interdependencies. It will also consider the effects of other human activities on the balance of ecosystem services in the region.

Understanding and quantifying the nature of these impacts is complex but necessary to establish appropriate procedures for recovery, restoration and management of the ecosystem and, when appropriate, "for seeking compensation for damages caused" says the previously mentioned interim report. The committee's final report will provide a framework to assist federal agencies in assessing the effects of the oil spill on ecosystem services within the context of other human activities.

International collaborations benefit Canada

While it seems to be far away, there are concerns of potential impacts on Canada from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For example, while Bluefin Tuna are comfortable in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, many of them migrate to the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico each year to spawn. "The lessons learned from our collaborations with U.S. science-based agencies is of utmost importance to Canada," says Dr. Lee. "We have expanded our knowledge and network of expertise. This will improve the efficacy of our response operations and minimize damage to our marine environment and its living resources."

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