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National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Mussel Watch Contaminant Monitoring

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Deepwater Horizon Incident, Office of Response and Restoration

National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Tracking Contamination Following the Deepwater Horizon Incident

testing oysters

A Mussel Watch scientist, brings up a trawl full of oysters for testing.

When a disaster like an oil spill occurs, one of NOAA’s important jobs is to measure and assess the impact on coastal and marine ecosystems so that measures can be taken to attempt to restore them to pre-spill conditions and to provide information for natural resource damage assessment. NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) plays a central role in this process by tracking contamination and its effects on the animals and plants that live in the Gulf of Mexico that may be impacted by the Deepwater Horizon incident.

NCCOS tracks contamination in two ways. First, scientists collect and maintain long-term monitoring data (over 25 years’ worth) on contamination for all U.S. coasts and the Great Lakes. Each year, NCCOS researchers test sediments and shellfish for 120 different contaminants, including oil-related compounds. Shellfish are good indicators of water quality because they concentrate pollutants from the water in their tissues as they feed. When the BP spill occurred, NCCOS collected sediments and shellfish from the Gulf coast before the oil hit the shore. Scientists will be collecting again if oil reaches the shore. The difference between these two measurements will indicate how much contamination can be attributed to the spill. Scientists have also collected water samples to “fingerprint” the oil coming from the Deepwater Horizon, allowing them to distinguish that oil from contamination coming from other sources.

sampling sediments

Scientists use a Van Veen grab (a lightweight sampler designed to take large samples in soft bottoms) to collect sediments for analysis.

NCCOS scientists are also trying to pinpoint which areas may have been most affected by the oil spill. They are doing this by looking at the creatures that live in the sediment and analyzing whether or not the sediment has become toxic to these organisms. This kind of “bioeffects” research helps scientists understand how contamination is affecting the food chain.

In order to ensure the scientific integrity of the work completed, NCCOS is coordinating a study to compare chemistry results from different laboratories handling the samples. Through this process, scientists will be able to identify and correct any errors in measurement that may occur.

Scientists from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, in partnership with local, state, and federal entities, are conducting sampling and drawing on existing data to help assess both the short-term and long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. NCCOS will continue to provide the science needed to restore and recover the valuable natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico.