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Avian Influenza Outbreak in the U. S.: Auburn University Professor Answers Frequently Asked Questions
Avian Influenza has gained the public attention again as the U.S. deals with a widespread outbreak in the upper Midwest of the “Highly Pathogenic (HPAI) H5” form of the disease. Avian Influenza is a viral disease of birds, more specifically one caused by a Type A Orthomyxovirus, which has also infected other species, including birds, pigs, horses, seals, whales, and humans. The size of the current outbreak is quite large and unfortunately spreading into areas where commercial poultry (chickens and turkeys) are grown. The first case was identified in a backyard flock in Oregon on December 19, 2014. The disease then rapidly spread to Washington, eventually moving into turkey flocks in Minnesota and chickens in Iowa. As of 23 April, almost 7.5 million birds have been destroyed in an attempt to get ahead of the outbreak, with the hope of preventing it from spreading into the southeast U.S., where very large numbers of commercial poultry are produced.
Up-to-date details on the ongoing outbreak are available from USDA-APHIS.
Where did the disease come from? The general scientific consensus is that the virus originated in free ranging waterfowl, where the virus easily circulates without causing overt disease or large scale mortality. Waterfowl carrying the H5N8 form of the virus are thought to most likely have picked up the virus during migration out of Asia, carrying it into the Pacific flyway and eventually eastwardly into the upper Midwest. Other forms of the virus may also have been present, some mutating so that they became very pathogenic (i.e. deadly) to poultry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has subsequently identified other forms of the virus, including H5N2 and H5N1. Some strains of H5N1 Avian Influenza Viruses have caused human sickness and mortality in Asia. It is important to note that the strains of the virus found in North American waterfowl are not the same as those causing human illness and mortality in Asia. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has concluded that the human risk from the North American waterfowl viruses is very low. To date, the outbreak has been associated with the Pacific, Mississippi, and Central flyways, where weather conditions were cool and wet, so the disease was able to migrate out of ducks and geese and into hobbyist and eventually commercial poultry flocks. Many scientists feel that the spread of the disease will slow as weather conditions change to warmer, dryer air. This change, however, will not eliminate the virus in waterfowl populations, where it will continue to circulate and potentially cross once again into commercial poultry when fall and winter conditions return. If this scenario plays out as many scientists expect it will, the disease will become endemic (if it is not already) to the North American continent, likely resulting in an eventual adoption of a federal preventative vaccination approach.
What is the government doing to prevent the spread of the disease? The USDA is aggressively moving to contain the disease. Commercial poultry flocks are being monitored by both state and federal scientists and if identified as infected, these flocks are quickly euthanized and buried in approved sites. To date, the USDA has chosen not to vaccinate nearby flocks (a process called “ring vaccination”) because of the potential effect this might have on international trade and the unavailability of the vaccine in quantities necessary for the scope of the current outbreak. The USDA is, however, currently working on the development of a vaccine, and many expect that they will eventually allow its use if the disease continues to spread.
The USDA’s current approach to dealing with the problem occurs in five stages (see this link: www.aphis.gov/wps):
- Quarantine – restricting movement of poultry and poultry-moving equipment into and out of the control area
- Eradicate – humanely euthanizing the affected flock(s)
- Monitor region – testing wild and domestic birds in a broad area around the quarantine area
- Disinfect – killing the virus in the affected flock locations
- Test – confirming that the poultry farm is Avian Influenza virus-free.
Can I, or my family, be infected by Avian Influenza? Infection can occur with the virus, but it is highly unlikely because of the current genetic makeup of the virus. There does not appear at this time to be any significant risk in the U.S. of a widespread or epidemic outbreak of Avian Influenza in humans. This opinion is based on current epidemiological data, medical and veterinary diagnostic availability in the U.S., and societal norms and practices, which limit virus spread. The American public is widely separated from commercial food production and unlike Asia, where human disease has occurred, generally does not buy poultry from live markets (in such markets, inspection may not be as stringent as in commercial agriculture). Avian Influenza deaths have occurred in Asia and other places around the world, but these instances were unique and often the result of long-term exposure or consumption of sick or dead birds. The viruses found in the current U.S. poultry outbreak are not the same viruses that caused human sickness and death in Asia. The U.S. food supply is the safest in the world. Sick birds infected with Avian Influenza do not enter the food chain in the U.S. because of the very vigorous monitoring and inspection process, cooperatively led by the commercial poultry production companies as well as state and federal authorities. Full monetary compensation for infected flocks by the federal government, which is often not available in other countries, also encourages reporting, lessening the risk even further.
Is the USDA working with other agencies to ensure the disease does not cross into humans? Yes. The USDA-led efforts to contain and eradicate HPAI is part of a larger program that includes cooperative efforts with the CDC. The concept behind this and other joint animal health efforts is called “One Health.” The One Health program recognizes that the health of animals, people, and the environments in which they live are intricately linked. The USDA is working to contain and eradicate the disease in poultry. The agency also works with the CDC to ensure the disease has not jumped from the avian species to humans.
A detailed description of the One Health program is available from USDA-Veterinary Services and the CDC.
Additional information on Avian Influenza is available from the CDC.
Does USDA work with state agencies to monitor animal diseases like Avian Influenza? Yes. Animal health surveillance is a cooperative effort of federal, state, and agribusiness animal health professionals. The USDA has established the National Animal Health Surveillance System (NAHSS) to integrate animal health monitoring and surveillance at the state and federal level, creating a comprehensive and coordinated system.
Details of the NAHSS program are available from USDA.
The USDA also coordinates another program called the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), which conducts national studies on the health and health management of U.S. domestic livestock and poultry populations.
Details of the NAHMS program are available from USDA.
The USDA has also created the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN), which includes state animal health laboratories. When a large-scale animal outbreak occurs, like the current HPAI outbreak, tracking and diagnosis can severely overtax federal laboratory capacity. The collaborative state-level NAHLN then becomes an important partner in response. At the Federal level, the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) coordinates diagnostic efforts and serves as the reference and confirmatory laboratory. State and University veterinary diagnostic laboratories that are members of the NAHLN network perform routine diagnostic tests and targeted surveillance testing, including that which is occurring in this outbreak.
Details of the NAHLN are available from USDA-APHIS.
Are poultry products (meat and eggs) safe to consume? Yes! It bears repeating. The U.S. food supply is the safest and most abundant in the world. Poultry meat and eggs are inspected and never put into the food chain if originating from flocks infected with HPAI. Even so, like all raw meat products, due diligence in the kitchen should always be practiced to ensure safe handling and storage. Poultry meat and eggs are perishable products that can be cross-contaminated with bacteria or viruses, causing food safety problems. Poultry products should always be thoroughly cooked and never consumed raw—not because of the potential presence of the Avian Influenza virus but instead because other potential food-borne pathogens may be present.
Additional information on food safety practices is available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets
Is there anything I should do if I am a poultry hobbyist to protect my flock against Avian Influenza? Yes. Practicing effective biosecurity is essential when dealing with hobby poultry flocks. Hobby flocks should not be allowed to comingle with wild birds or waterfowl or range in areas where these may be present. Water supplies should also not come from lakes or ponds where waterfowl are present. Wild birds should also be excluded from pens or feeding areas. When handling birds, the USDA recommends the following:
Do not pick up deceased or obviously sick birds. Contact your state, tribal, or federal natural resources agency if you find sick or dead birds. Other safe practices include: (Link: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/biosecurity/wildbirds.htm)
- Wear rubber gloves when cleaning your bird feeders
- Wash hands with soap and water immediately after cleaning feeders
- Do not eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning bird feeders
What does a sick bird with Avian Influenza look like? The signs for sick birds can be very subtle or quite distinct depending on the type of Avian Influenza virus involved and the stage of the disease. The USDA lists the following signs, which may be singly present or in combination: (Link:http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/AI/)
- Sudden death without other clinical signs
- Lack of energy and appetite
- Decreased egg production; soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
- Swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles, and hocks
- Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs
- Nasal discharge
- Coughing and/or sneezing
- Lack of coordination
Domestic turkeys infected by HPAI may show similar signs to chickens, shown here, including swollen head and eyelids.
Training materials for recognizing Avian Influenza Symptoms is available from USDA-FSIS Link: http://www.fsis..gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/inspection/workforce-training/regional-on-site-training/avian-influenza-training
Additional downloadable biosecurity resources for the poultry hobbyist are available from the following USDA Websites.
Instructions for obtaining hard copies of the materials are available at: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/how_to_order_publications.pdf
Do pet bird owners need to practice similar biosecurity measures? Yes. Avian influenza has on occasion infected other avian species beyond ducks, geese, and turkeys. Birds are very popular pets and sometimes originate in other parts of the world that may be experiencing HPAI outbreaks. Unfortunately, many of the most exotic birds are highly prized, often endangered, and therefore very expensive and frequently smuggled. The USDA quarantines and tests live birds legally imported into the U.S. Exotic bird owners should not patronize bird smuggling operations—not only because it is a federal offense but also because it endangers the very birds they may already possess. USDA recommends the following standards of practice: (Link: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/biosecurity/petbirds.htm)
- When buying a pet bird, request certification from the seller that the birds was legally imported or came from U.S. stock and was healthy prior to shipment.
- It is a good idea to have your new bird examined by a veterinarian.
- Isolate new birds from your other birds for at least 30 days.
- Restrict access to your birds, especially from people who own birds that are housed outside.
- Keep your birds away from other birds.
- Clean and disinfect your clothing and shoes if you have been near other birds, such as at a bird club meeting or bird fair or at a venue with live poultry.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap, water, and disinfectant before and after handling your birds.
- Keep cages, food, and water clean on a daily basis.
- Remove feed from bags; place it in clean, sealed containers; and throw bags away.
- Do not borrow or share bird supplies. If you must, clean and disinfect the items before bringing them home.
Is there anything that hunters should do to protect themselves and their families? Again, yes. Diligent biosecurity is essential. If practiced effectively, it costs very little. Commercial poultry farmers should refrain from waterfowl or turkey hunting since the risk of carrying back the virus is too great. Many commercial poultry companies actually contractually prohibit their growers from conducting practices outside a set of very strict guidelines, including hunting waterfowl. It obviously is in the best interest of the growers to adhere to the guidelines since compensation for infected flocks comes to the owner of the flocks (In the U.S., these owners are generally the poultry production companies) and not the grower. The USDA recommends the following:
Follow routine precautions when handling wild birds.
- Do not handle or consume game animals that are obviously sick or found dead.
- Do not eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning game.
- Wear rubber gloves when cleaning game.
- Wash hands with soap and water, or alcohol wipes, immediately after handling game.
- Wash tools and working surfaces with soap and water and then disinfect.
- Keep uncooked game in a separate container, away from cooked or ready-to-eat foods.
- Cook game meat thoroughly. Poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill disease organisms and parasites .
- To report unusual signs in birds you have seen in the wild, call 1-866-4-USDA-WS. To learn more about how you can help, visit usda.gov/birdflu.
A downloadable safe biosecurity practices wallet card for hunters is available at: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/downloads/USDA_HntrCd_Hi.pdf
Will the disease continue to spread and if so, what will be the effect on consumers? Prediction of how or where the disease might spread is difficult, if not impossible, at this time. Many scientists feel the problem will persist, but again that is an opinion, the accuracy of which has not yet been proven. Every step of containment and eradication, short of vaccination, is being conducted by poultry experts, including corporate, state, and federal officials. Exports of poultry meat, eggs, and egg products from the areas associated with the current outbreaks have been negatively affected. A substantial number of poultry have also been eradicated, causing regional decreases in supplies. Combined, these two, in some ways competing, elements have yet to cause any substantial increase in overall U.S. poultry prices. This trending or neutral effect on U.S. poultry prices is likely not to be maintained, should the outbreak continue to spread in the upper Midwest and euthanized bird numbers increase dramatically. If the disease spreads to the Southeast, the consumer economic effect is likely to remain unavoidable, and prices of poultry meat and eggs will probably increase, perhaps dramatically. However, the situation will remain complex and largely dependent on the consumer response. Some consumers will likely turn from poultry consumption either from unwarranted fear or from price increases that may occur. Such responses ease pressures on prices and with time can cause price increases to moderate.It is important to note, however, that the medium to long-term economic effect predictions are made more difficult to predict because Avian Influenza is occurring in other countries around the world, in some places even becoming endemic (meaning persistent in the local bird population). These countries might export to the U.S. as substitute suppliers. If this worldwide trend continues, the overall availability of poultry meat, eggs, and egg products will likely decrease, thereby causing an overall increase in poultry prices.
If HPAI crosses the continent and enters into the Southeast commercial poultry flock, as some speculate it will in the fall of this year when cool moist weather returns, the economic effect could be severe and prolonged, particularly if breeder flocks (the birds that provide the eggs that become the broilers we consume and the layers, which give us the eggs we eat) become sick from the virus. Should the breeder flock be affected on anything approaching a large scale, we are looking at a potentially unprecedented negative economic effect to the U.S. economy. American citizens expect a readily available and economical food supply. If HPAI continues to spread at the current rate or is proven endemic on the North American continent, implementation of additional strategies, including vaccination, are highly likely. The alternative, at least for poultry and poultry products, is to surrender the assurance that ready availability at reasonable prices is be possible.
As NPR reported in May 2014, this tweet (left) from the National Security Agency (NSA) is not full of typos. The message is supposed to look like gibberish, but it’s actually an encrypted code intended to attract would-be cryptographers to work for the NSA. When decoded, the tweet reads:
“want to know what it takes to work at nsa? check back each monday as we explore careers essential to protecting your nation.”
The tweet is part of an ongoing attempt by the NSA to attract talented employees who have a penchant for code making and breaking. In 2011, the NSA also developed an app that generates a weekly cryptology puzzle meant to engage and attract talented individuals to the agency. Encryption is vitally important in the cyber age, when hackers not only penetrate private and corporate networks but those related national security as well.
In his introduction for Auburn Speaks: On Cyber and Digital Domain, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, USN Commander, US Cyber Command; Director, National Security Agency; Chief, Central Security Service explores the vital role of cyber professionals in the pursuit of national security. He stresses that cyber attacks often occur for one of two reasons: cyber theft, such as hacking credit card numbers and other financial information, and political motivations, such as the recent attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment for releasing The Interview, a comedy film about North Korea’s political leadership.
As Admiral Rogers indicates, cyber threats are real and pose a growing concern because of our increasing dependence on cyber technologies. NSA’s cryptography recruitment strategy helps attract the best and brightest minds needed to counter cyber threats.
In the prologue for Auburn Speaks: On Cyber and the Digital Domain, Lt. General Ron Burgess, Jr. (U.S.A. retired), Senior Counsel for National Security Programs, Cyber Programs and Military Affairs describes the whole new class of cyber warriors and civilian cyber professionals that will be needed to meet growing demand:
To learn more visit: www.auburn.edu/auburnspeaks
To purchase your copy now, visit the Auburn Speaks Store.
In December 2012, diners at the Lakewood Country Club in Point Clear, Alabama, enjoyed a complimentary feast of oysters provided by researchers Dan Petrolia of Mississippi State University (MSU) and Bill Walton of Auburn University. The oysters came from all over the country—some wild, some farmed, some generic, some branded—with a wide range of price points. Diners were asked to indicate which oysters they would be most and least likely to purchase if they were in a restaurant considering these oysters at these prices. The goal of this ongoing Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant-funded study is to determine whether diners in the southeastern United States and around the country will pay a premium for branded high-quality Gulf oysters.
“Imagine you’re going to go buy a car,” Petrolia says. “You have your own personal top five things you’re going to look for—the color, the gas mileage, the whatever. We are trying to identify the top four or five things people look for in an oyster —hence, price, the name or brand, taste, what they look like.”
The Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, native to the Gulf and East coasts, tends to come from one of three sources. Natural oysters grow and reproduce in the wild with little to no human intervention and are harvested by commercial fishermen and lease holders that manage private grounds. The vast majority of natural oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. Lumped together as “Gulf oysters,” they bring the lowest price wholesale. In contrast, farmed oysters are cultivated in baskets in private waters and typically branded with a name that generates a premium price in restaurants around the country. Similarly, managed wild oysters can be harvested from a specific geographical area (and are often hand-selected), such as Galveston Bay in Texas or Apalachicola Bay in Florida, where the oysters are also branded for name recognition. They too fetch a higher price than generic Gulf oysters.
The question, however, is whether consumers, both regionally and in other parts of the country, are willing to pay for farmed and/or branded oysters from the Gulf. “One hypothesis is that people like a nice, pretty, uniform set of oysters in front of them,” Petrolia says. “The cultivated oysters tend to all be roughly the same size and shape, while the wild-caught can vary widely in appearance.”
Walton notes that there has been an “oyster renaissance” in the United States, and that oysters marketed along the Atlantic Coast sell under regional names such as Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), Blue Points (Long Island), Chincoteagues (Virginia), and Beausoleils (New Brunswick). Southern oysters, however, have generally been sold as generic oysters. Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, says this is “indicative of a region that pays less attention to the nuances of different raw oysters than to their culinary possibilities.”
The only larger scale exception on the Gulf coast is Apalachicola oysters, which comprise the bulk of Florida’s oyster harvest. Although there is no clear evidence that they sell at a premium, it is evident that a market has developed for these branded oysters. Petrolia and Walton wanted to find out if there is a market for similarly branded oysters from other parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
At the Point Clear taste test, and a similar event in Houston in February 2013, participants were served different combinations of oysters in four rounds. The first two rounds were blind. They were given a price point, but nothing else. The generic Gulf oysters at a significantly lower cost fared very well in the blind test, getting 41 percent of the vote based on taste and price. In the final two rounds, tasters were told the brand or point of origin of the oysters. Here, voters showed a clear geographical preference: The four branded oysters from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida together received 45 percent of the vote, while voters shied away from the East Coast brands when they were aware of the oysters’ origin.
After the taste test portion of the event, diners were given a questionnaire regarding their feelings on issues such as price point, brand, and geographical origin. The ultimate goal is to develop an online questionnaire to survey a wide cross-section of national consumers regarding their preferences when selecting oysters at restaurants. Petrolia and Walton have contracted with a marketing company to recruit a representative sample of consumers of raw oysters from the five Gulf states, as well as from major metropolitan cities such as Chicago and New York, to determine the factors, including perceptions of risk, that go into oyster choice nationally. The two have created an advisory board of industry professionals to help design the survey with the intent of being able to hand the professionals helpful, real-world data when the project is complete.
“The results of the survey will help us tailor our production characteristics and marketing techniques to enable us the best chance of penetrating and competing in many high-value markets currently unavailable to Gulf oyster products,” notes Chris Nelson, vice president of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries. “An attribute as simple as ‘saltiness’ may be of much greater importance than we realize at this point, and ‘Gulf’ vs. ‘Pepper Grove’ may market completely differently.”
Walton, a fisheries specialist, has spent years studying the science of oyster aquaculture. He thinks that the Gulf Coast fisheries industry is missing out on a potential economic driver by not cultivating and branding oysters in addition to harvesting what’s already there. He believes a market exists for higher-price-point “boutique” Gulf oysters not only in the region but in larger cities around the nation. He speculates the oysters will do well in cities like Boston and Chicago, and plans to hold a similar restaurant event in Chicago to test his theory.
“We already know that there are consumers who are willing to pay a higher price for a premium oyster,” Walton says, adding that Gulf oysters have an advantage in the winter months because the oysters harvested out of the Northeast can be relatively “skinny” due to a lack of food in the water regionally. “The oysters out of the Gulf are fat, plump—you get a lot of oyster in the shell. That looks really good in comparison to some of the oysters coming out of the more northern climates. On a raw bar in the colder months, our product really stands out.”
Walton’s expertise, combined with that of Petrolia, an agricultural economist at MSU, will go toward defining the attributes that oyster consumers look for when purchasing in general, along with identifying specific regional and national interest in branded Gulf oysters. This information will be useful to everyone, from those who harvest wild oysters or cultivate their own to distributors to the restaurant industry itself, but particularly to industry professionals in the Gulf states who might be missing out on an economic opportunity.
By Bill Walton and Dan Petrolia
The stories behind the headlines, available in April 2015
“In recent years, technology has made a major impact on the way we think, how we work and the manner in which we share information, both professionally and privately. The immense ability to instantly transfer information, thoughts and ideas across a world stage has led to an unprecedented boon in information availability, research sharing and both social and industrial development.” –Eric O’Neill, founder of The Georgetown Group, LLC, former FBI operative, Auburn graduate and contributor to Auburn Speaks: On Cyber and the Digital Domain.
Cyber touches all our lives. Digitized information teaches us, entertains us, keeps track of our finances, monitors our health and our food supply, facilitates rapid and open communication, allows nearly instantaneous access to information and resides at the heart of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Enhanced with our new augmented reality app, TigerView, the latest edition of Auburn Speaks features stories of the Auburn men and women who are helping to not only navigate and secure the cyber frontier, but to explore the promise it offers.
To learn more about this award-winning series published by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Auburn University visit: http://www.auburn.edu/auburnspeaks
The results are in on Deepwater Horizon oil spill research conducted by an Auburn University postdoctoral researcher, and her study indicates microscopic animals at the base of the food web that were harmed during the 2010 oil spill have recovered.
The researcher, Pamela Brannock of the Department of Biological Sciences in Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, together with a team from Auburn Professor Kenneth Halanych’s lab and the University of Texas San Antonio, gathered and analyzed sediment samples taken before and after the oil reached Dauphin Island. The samples provided a basis for comparison to assess how the microscopic communities of marine invertebrates that live between the sand grains, or meiofauna, fared the oil spill.
An initial study, conducted by Halanych and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, revealed an increased presence of fungus in meiofaunal communities. According to the study, a rise in fungus indicated organismal death, and COSAM researchers were concerned that oil, or perhaps dispersants used to clean up the spill, may have been responsible for irreversibly harming meiofaunal communities.
Brannock’s latest research results indicate the fungus that was present in large amounts in the sediment immediately after the oil spill is no longer there, which means the microscopic marine invertebrates are no longer dying at an alarming rate.
“For one year, people from the Halanych Lab intermittently collected sediment samples at five intertidal locations throughout Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay,” Brannock said. “We would freeze the sediment immediately on dry ice and then store it in the minus 80 degree freezer when we came back. Coming back into the lab we would do this process called ‘decanting,’ which is basically agitating the sediment in order to release the organisms. We would then isolate the meiofauna, or animals, on a sieve, and we would extract the DNA from that material. We would then send the DNA off to be sequenced, and we used computers and bioinformatics to determine which animals were present in the communities sampled.”
Researchers are relieved that the microscopic invertebrates seem to no longer be in danger of mass destruction. However, Brannock’s research also shows that while fungus is no longer present, there has been a significant shift in the composition of meiofaunal communities compared to pre-spill communities. The research was published in The Biological Bulletin at this link: http://www.biolbull.org/content/227/2/161.full.pdf+html.
“These communities of small organisms have recovered from the oil spill, but we are still trying to assess how much natural variation exists in these communities,” Halanych said. “These communities are important because they are at the base of the food web, and they are also critically involved in helping pass nutrients and chemicals back and forth from the sediment to the water column. Pamela has continued to look quite extensively at these small organisms to see how they are faring and whether their communities are changing.”
Halanych said this kind of research is critically important to assessing the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystem.
Auburn University researchers continue to investigate effects of the oil spill
“One of the things we have learned is that the effects from an environmental catastrophe like this can take a long time to be realized,” Halanych said. “One of the main reasons we should be concerned with or interested in studying the effects is, in all likelihood, another spill is going to occur. The Gulf Coast region has a huge number of rigs, about 4,000, and we keep going into deeper and deeper water to drill. As you move into deeper water, the engineering challenges become greater and greater and greater. The concern is another big blowout, like the Deepwater Horizon, may happen in the Gulf. The hope is we have collected enough information about the Deepwater Horizon spill that we can apply that knowledge to the next spill and be able to control the damage a little bit better.”
As a member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, Halanych has his finger on the pulse of oil-spill-related research in the Gulf. The 20 scientists that make up the board are tasked with distributing $500 million over a 10-year period for oil spill research. The board awards funds to investigators based on a highly competitive, peer-reviewed proposal process. BP provided the funding for the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, but the funding is now independent of the multinational oil-and-gas company.
“This work continues, and it has already made a huge difference for the Gulf Coast region,” Halanych said. “Unfortunately, in many ways the Gulf Coast is the forgotten coast in terms of national funding priorities. The west coast, especially southern California, and the northeast really have major marine and oceanographic efforts, and there is a lot of money that goes there. The Gulf Coast does have institutions but typically federal funding does not flow in the same way to these areas. This research initiative is helping with that – it is helping to stimulate scientific research, and one of the things we are hoping is we will be able to build much stronger capacity so in the future we can address societal concerns and national research priorities.”
Halanych’s group will continue to investigate effects of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. Brannock plans to continue her research into the composition of meiofaunal communities in the Gulf region and how they change over time so she can establish a baseline dataset for the next time an event like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurs. The Halanych Lab has also received soil samples from various NOAA cruises throughout the Gulf of Mexico taken right after the spill and a year after the spill. The lab is working to compare the meiofaunal communities in samples from sites located within or near the spill to communities present in samples from areas that were not impacted by the spill.
“As the spill was happening, a lot of people around the coast realized this was going to be a big deal, and people at Auburn, including researchers in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, started mobilizing because we knew there were going to be things that needed to be studied,” said Halanych. “COSAM researchers have stayed involved because we want to know the effects through time. We want to know how this will be a lasting problem or if this will be a lasting problem, and we want to be ready for the next oil spill.”
To learn more about Auburn’s research related to the oil spill, check out: Auburn Speaks: The Oil Spill of 2010.
by Candis Birchfield