Marine & Environmental Sciences Faculty Articles


Deep-pelagic research in the Gulf of Mexico: An extraordinary oceanic ecosystem facing extraordinary challenges

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ECO Environment: Coastal and Offshore



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The Deepwater Horizon disaster illuminated a growing threat to large marine ecosystems worldwide – extractive industries have expanded well past the limit of scientific knowledge, particularly in the deep sea, and thus the environmental impacts of routine operations and accidental discharges are not quantifiable. In US waters, for example, this situation impairs the ability of federal and local agencies to conduct natural resource damage assessments after incidents such as marine oil spills. In the Gulf of Mexico specifically, oil extraction activity is progressing into deeper and deeper waters, with a concomitant increase in the likelihood of another oil spill with increasing depth.

Here we describe a pelagic research program that was developed to address a huge data gap. At the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster (DWH), there was little to no information available about life in the water column at the depths most affected by the oil, gas, and dispersants. 100 percent of spilled contaminants from DWH entered this “deep-pelagic zone” of the water column (which extended from around 200 meters to the wellhead on the seafloor at around 1,500 meters). The surface, seafloor, and coastal zones only received portions of the spilled oil (though these portions were substantial in volume), but impacts to these environments were highly publicized. The lack of information about life in the deep-pelagic zone paralleled the lack of public awareness about its existence


DEEPEND has been supported by the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, and the NOAA RESTORE Program. DEEPEND is grateful for the excellent seatime services of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), the University of Southern Mississippi and crew of the research vessel Point Sur, and Continental Shelf Associates.


0000-0002-5280-7071, 0000-0002-8296-4780