GALVESTON, April 1, 2014 — Texas A&M University at Galveston scientists, along with colleagues from the main Texas A&M campus in College Station, have assisted in coping with the oil spill that temporarily shut down the Houston Ship Channel and affected a large additional area—and their work in some instances will go on indefinitely.
TAMUG researchers are studying the winds and currents to determine the path for the oil slick as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico. Other researchers are studying the damage that occurred to sea life and the ecosystem of Galveston Bay, its tributaries and wetlands.
Dr. Antonietta Quigg, a marine biologist and expert on the Galveston Bay ecosystem, is examining the water and sediment samples her team collected.
“It is too early to determine the results, it will take weeks to months,” she noted. “Once the findings are available, we will compare them to baseline data as we have been studying this bay for many years and we have the background data to determine the effects of this spill.”
Dr. Bernd Würsig, a marine biologist and one of the world’s foremost authorities on marine mammals, was not surprised to see that the area’s dolphins—seen almost daily in the waters off the university’s waterfront—left the oil zone for about four days.
“They are very smart and know to stay out of an oil slick; however this kind of oil forms globs that dolphins do not often see and that can pose a danger to them,” said Würsig.
Nevertheless, during one of his trips he noticed a pod socializing and feeding in the area.
“While it may be good that they are returning to the bay and commencing with regular activities, it could be dangerous for some if they ingest oil-tainted food or otherwise become compromised due to the disruption to the bay ecosystem,” Würsig said.
Dr. Tom Litton, a specialist on currents and waves, is working with data based on NASA’s satellite imagery.
“Indications are that the main slick should be moving down the coast and may affect fragile wildlife sanctuaries,” he said.
A team from the state has moved into those same areas to rescue wildlife and clean any oil globs from the beaches.
All agreed that it will take months to determine the true effects of this spill. Meanwhile, Texas A&M University at Galveston’s scientists are doing their part to help authorities get the bay and the wildlife back to normal.
Rear Admiral Robert Smith, CEO of Texas A&M at Galveston and a vice president of the university, said the Texas A&M branch campus was not directly affected by the oil spill.
He noted that, in addition to those faculty members who are actively engaged in projects related to the oil spill, several other Texas A&M faculty members were contacted by various media for expert comment and by the Coast Guard for the long-range effects and related matters.
A member of the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Jill Heatley, was dispatched to the Galveston area to treat oil-soaked animals as part of the emergency response team of the Wildlife Center of Texas.
The spill near the Houston Ship Channel, which has dumped as much as 168,000 gallons of oil, has affected numerous birds, and Wildlife Center officials are expecting more to be brought in needing immediate care.
The situation is especially tricky because thousands of birds are currently passing through the area of the Texas coast as part of their annual northern migration pattern. Many of the birds eventually land in the area’s thousands of acres of marshes, and cleanup crews are focused on preventing the marshlands from becoming soaked with oil.
Heatley says removing oil from birds can be a tedious process.
“First of all, we often have to go out and capture the bird and bring it back to shore because if the bird is soaked, it is really struggling,” she explained.
“We examine the bird to see if it is injured in any way, and if not, then we begin the cleaning process. It involves wiping the oil off the bird, then soaking it in a mixture of mild detergents and water.
“Many times, these steps have to be repeated over and over if there is a lot of oil present,” she added. “That’s why it can take a while for each bird to get fully cleaned. It can be a time-consuming process but it is absolutely necessary.”
Heatley said she and other veterinarians from across Texas could be at their posts for several days, perhaps longer. “We stay as long as we’re needed,” she noted.