SARASOTA — Scientists on Monday installed a few more of what eventually will be 300 devices in Sarasota Bay designed to record oil contamination levels, and mimic the way a fish, or other marine organism, would concentrate oil in its tissues over time.
The devices, which scientists plan to install at 50 locations on the shallow floor of the bay, will remain there four weeks.
When they are removed, the information they have accumulated will be used to help develop “baseline data” about the health of the bay, and some of its inhabitants, such as clams and spotted eagle rays, in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, scientists said at Mote Marine Lab.
“They’re like virtual fish,” explained Erik Rifkin, Ph.D., a marine biologist involved in the project, about the devices.
The research is part of a new study to document the bay’s ecosystem, according to those representing Mote and The National Aquarium Conservation Center, an arm of The National Aquarium. The center, based in Baltimore, provided $200,000 in seed money to launch the initial stages of the project.
Using a “semi-permeable membrane device,” scientists plan to look at levels of petroleum that could affect bay water, sediment and the marine food chain.
“We’ll be looking at clams, spotted eagle rays, we’ll be looking at fish and sea grasses, and bottle-nosed dolphins,” said Rifkin, the center’s interim executive director.
“This type of work that we are planning on doing, which is ongoing right now, is a rather sophisticated effort to develop a national resource damage assessment.
“There are other groups currently doing national resource damage assessments, but our effort perhaps is different, in part because of the experimental design, and in part because it’s an independent effort,” he said.
Any information gathered will be available to anyone, including BP, he said.
The British company’s damaged Deepwater Horizon well leaked up to 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf before its flow was recently halted, according to reports from McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.
The coastline of Manatee and Sarasota counties, where the study is taking place, so far is pristine, but scientists could give no assurance that debris from the huge spill would remain hundreds of miles away indefinitely.
In June, they began installing the little sampling devices, which will span an area from Sarasota’s Big Pass to Manatee’s Sister Keys, said Mote’s Capt. Greg Byrd.
The devices will provide a better picture over time of how contaminants affect marine organisms, said Mote’s Dana Wetzel, Ph.D., an organic chemist and senior scientist specializing in aquatic toxicology.
“Clams are a really good sentinel species because they filter feed, they will be picking up particulate in the environment, and that particulate will have petroleum associated with it,” she said. “Then, higher up on the food chain, we’re looking at spotted eagle rays ... they actually will be feeding on the clams we’re collecting.”
She said Johns Hopkins University scientists would use data collected to try to predict how oil might affect the food chain.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.