The Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem

A tale of two Gulf spills: A research consortium of 19 institutions from 5 countries studying the impacts of oil spills on the Gulf of Mexico.

Task 4 Items

Task 4 Items (9)

AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and is an international non-profit organization “dedication to advancing science for the benefit of all people.”

According to AAAS, “These individuals have been elevated to this rank because of their efforts toward advancing science applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished.” The gold and blue rosette pin awarded each new Fellow. Courtesy American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Fellows from USF are:

Professor Kendra L. Daly, Ph.D., College of Marine Science;

Dean and Professor Jacqueline Eaby Dixon, Ph.D., College of Marine Science;

Professor Steven A. Murawski, Ph.D., College of Marine Science.

Daly: “For distinguished contributions to the field of ocean science, particularly for advancing knowledge of Antarctic marine food webs and ecosystem dynamics in ice covered seas.”

Jacqueline E. Dixon: “For distinguished contributions to the fields of marine science and geology.”

Murawski: “For distinguished contributions to the fields of fisheries and marine ecosystem science, particularly for theoretical and empirical contributions to understanding the dynamics of exploited ecosystems.”

AAAS will present its official certificate and a gold and blue rosette pin, representing science and engineering, in February at its annual AAAS Fellows Forum during the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The formal announcement appears in the AAAS News & Notes section of the Nov. 25 issue of “Science” magazine.

For the full AAAS press release, click here.

Preparing for the set

C-IMAGE researchers on the Weatherbird II get ready for setting the longline for fish collection


With thirteen scientists aboard, the R/V Weatherbird fired up its engines earlier this month at the USF College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, FL, for its straight shot across the Gulf of Mexico into Mexican waters.  Their science mission is to begin the first ever Gulf-wide fish health survey establishing much needed baseline information about some dominant Gulf fish like red snapper, golden tilefish, king snake eel and Atlantic sharpnose sharks.


Steven Murawski, Chief Scientist for the expedition and Director for the Center of the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE) is leading a team of researchers on a 22-day sampling expedition through the southern Gulf of Mexico. C-IMAGE – a Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI)-funded consortium of 19 institutions from six countries – is committed to understanding the complex chemical and biological interactions related to marine oil blowouts of the Gulf of Mexico.  Murawski’s team of technicians, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers began studying the impacts of oil exposure on fish just after the Deepwater Horizon (DwH) blowout.


Their attention now turns to the southern Gulf of Mexico.  In 1979, the Ixtoc-I exploratory well suffered an oil blowout followed by 10 months and 3.5 million barrels of spilled oil into the southern Gulf of Mexico.  Shortly after, PEMEX, the Mexican state-operated oil company, established an exclusion zone around the Ixtoc-I site.  Only vessel traffic directly related to platform operations is allowed in the 4,000 km2 exclusion region, until now. Our researchers gained special access through the Mexican government to conduct scientific fishing within the exclusion zone.

Figure 2 Fishing sites for the southern Gulf of Mexico survey (Sep 9-Oct 1)


After arriving and being processed at the intake Port of Progresso on September 17, 2015 the RV Weatherbird II made its way north, then gradually southwest along the Yucatan Shelf.  The research team sampled from sunrise to past sunset, often averaging 14-hour days at transects 32, 33, and 34 in the northwest Yucatan (Figure 2).



Dr. Shannon O’Leary is a genomics researcher from Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi who is aboard the vessel for the three week trip.  “We were all very curious to see what we would get on our first set [in the exclusion zone]. Theory is that if nobody has fished here for so long, we should have more fish, bigger fish and a greater diversity of fish. On the other hand, there is quite a bit of pollution from the well heads and the associated activities of building and maintaining the platforms.”


Time told the story, large numbers of fish, mostly Gafftopsail catfish (Figure 3) were caught there.  These catfish have been studied for PAH exposure (a toxic derivative in oil) around the exclusion zone, so having samples within the Ixtoc-I vicinity offers an interesting historical perspective, especially since they are found on the bottom and in contact with possibly oiled sediments.


Research published last year from C-IMAGE found evidence of a marine snow event associated with the DwH spill creating a mechanism for oiled particles to reach the seafloor.  Initial sediment work around the Ixtoc-I site from C-IMAGE collaborations with members of the Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnología at Universidad National Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and USF indicate a similar event may have occurred in the southern Gulf. This finding may have cascading effects on burrowing fish and other benthic marine life.


Researchers are collecting fish muscle, bile, blood, liver, heart, otoliths, eyeballs and fin clip samples for genomic studies, stock health assessment, PAH compound concentrations, and any sublethal symptoms that may be related to long term low levels of hydrocarbon exposure through habitat or diet. They continue to survey the commercially relevant red snapper and other fish of interest like golden tilefish, and king snake eel.  


After visiting the exclusion zone, researchers from UNAM, TAMU-CC, USF, and Florida State University continued to sample southwest then northwest along Veracruz. This region is the expected resting place for a majority of oil following the 1979 Ixtoc-I disaster. In these shallowest stations, researchers caught 15 tilefish and large numbers of Gulf hake.  “The significance of this catch cannot be overemphasized”, Murawski said. “We now can compare tilefish in the Southeast Campeche region near the oil producing area with a similar catch from earlier in the expedition (perhaps non-polluted).  This species is predominant and highly polluted in the northern Gulf.  We can now answer the question, are tilefish equally heavily polluted by PAHs in the entire Gulf or just in the vicinity of the DwH?”


Figure 3 Dr. Joel Ortega-Ortiz unhooks a Gafftopsail catfish.


Dr. Adolfo Gracia is the UNAM science lead for C-IMAGE and a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences.  He has been studying shrimp fisheries in the southwest Gulf of Mexico and impacts of environmental contamination for over 30 years. “The fish cruise was extremely successful, we can hardly wait to see the  findings and compare them with existing data of sediment oil and biological analyses recorded by UNAM and our C-IMAGE partners in the Ixtoc-I area. This will give important hints for understanding long term fish communities and ecosystem responses to oil megablowouts.”  His team returns to Mexico City with hundreds of biological samples that will be analyzed over the next year.

The research team will exit Mexico at Tuxpan and begin their five day journey home along the longest axis of the Gulf, west to east.  While underway, the science will continue.  Researchers will measure basic oceanographic variables and collect water to gain information about the vertical and horizontal distributions of plankton, fish eggs and larval distributions across the Gulf.  They will also take water samples to assess microplastic concentrations across the Gulf.


While on board, researchers populated blogs summarizing their experiences and photo-documented the trip.  Please visit our website and check back often for updates.



The full science party (from left to right): Balbina Suárez Achával, Itzel Michel López Durán, Juan Antonio Frausto Castillo, David Portnoy, Brittany Verbeke, Joel Ortega-Ortiz, Amy Wallace, Erin Pulster, Shannon O’Leary, Susan Snyder, Kristina Deak, Lt. Paola Moreno, Gustavo Enciso Sánchez, Steven Murawski, Daniel Gasca Flores, José Martín Ramírez Gutiérrez


C-IMAGE scientists will return to the southern and western Gulf next year to continue the fish survey and to establish baseline fish health metrics.


When a crew of oil spill researchers embarked on a 15-day expedition into the northern Gulf of Mexico, a routine voyage to study impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was expected. These cruise exceeded topped these expectations with findings of a rare Arrowhead Dogfish and a record-sized Yellowedge Grouper.

Researchers from the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE) collected these rare finds during their annual ‘Mud & Blood’ Expedition studying the gradual recovery of the benthic ecosystem and fishes following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

C-IMAGE scientists and students are interested in several “target species” including Red Snapper, Golden Tilefish, King Snake Eels, Groupers, and pelagics (Tuna or Amberjack). Samples of blood, tissue and bile are collected from each species caught to study impacts and recovery of fishes post-Deepwater Horizon.

“The questions we ask not only contribute to issues seen in Deepwater Horizon, but what we anticipate to repeat in future oil blowouts,” said Dr. Steve Murawski, Chief Principal Investigator of C-IMAGE and University of South Florida-College of Marine Science Professor. “As much as we love finding the fish we’re looking for (Red Snapper, Golden Tilefish, etc.), these rare finds send a unique energy through the ship,” Murawski continued.

Wednesday, August 26th was one of these unique days.

Long-line fishing began early in the morning as it did the previous ten days. One of the first fish up was a shark with features unlike anything they had seen on previous cruises.

Arrowheaddogfish“We were fishing in deeper waters, about 200m (660ft), and pulled up the rare, Arrowhead Dogfish, a species that has only been reported 3 or 4 times with very little known in regards to its habitat and biology,” said Dr. Erin Pulster, ecotoxicology scientist with C-IMAGE. Pulster studies the impacts of oil and its metabolites on fish from levels measured in their tissues and bile. The 2015 Mud & Blood expedition was her fifth expedition into the northern Gulf.

“We bring up a lot of sharks while fishing, including Little Gulper Sharks, which are small, stout sharks (≤100cm) with colorations, fin locations and snout shape distinct from similar species and other sharks,” said Pulster.

According to Jose Castro’s book The Sharks of North America, only three specimens of the Arrowhead Dogfish (Deania profundorum) have been seen in the Gulf mostly off the Mississippi coast. The species have a depth range of 275-1,785m (900-5,900ft).

Following the catch of the rare Arrowhead Dogfish, and at the same sampling site, more excitement came aboard in the form of a record sized Yellowedge Grouper.

Among the King Snake Eels and Little Gulper Sharks was the 127cm (4 ft 2in), 24.7kg (54.5lbs) female Yellowedge which tops the International Game Fish Association record of 22.03 kg (48.6lbs).

Dr. Murawski holds up a record sized 24.7 kg Yellowedge Grouper caught in the northern Gulf of Mexico

Several other large Yellowedge Grouper were caught that Wednesday. “They kept getting larger, 10 kg, 11kg, 14kg. But as soon as we saw this one, we knew she was the big one,” said Murawski.

Recently, a C-IMAGE fishing expedition in the southern Gulf of Mexico, following Mud & Blood, reports catching two additional Arrowhead Dogfish along the deep slopes of the Campeche Bank.

The 'Mud & Blood' Expeditions began following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010; researchers aboard the R/V Weatherbird II initially assessed the impact of oil and dispersant on sediments, fishes, and water quality. These Mud & Blood studies have continued for six consecutive years since the spill, sampling the same sites and studying the same target species. Results have led to publications regarding the impacts of oil on demersal fish, and oiled-sediments in the deep ocean as part of the C-IMAGE project.

The main goal of C-IMAGE is to advance understanding of the processes, mechanisms, and environmental consequences of marine oil blowouts. C-IMAGE operates from the University of South Florida-College of Marine Science with 19 other consortia members collaborating in oil spill research.

C-IMAGE is a member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) which funds fifteen other research consortia studying oil spill impacts in the Gulf of Mexico. Funding is made possible by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. Contract #SA 12-10/GoMRI-007.

C-IMAGE Researchers caught several Yellowedge Groupers in recent fishing efforts studying the impacts of Deepwater Horizon.


The last field sampling expedition of C-IMAGE is now completed.  C-IMAGE PI Steven Murawski and Chief Science Officer David Hollander wrapped up their 3rd and final Mud and Blood Cruise on August 29, 2014.  They were joined on the RV Weatherbird by other C-IMAGE scientists from USF, Eckerd College, Pennsylvania State University, The University of West Florida and Mote Marine Laboratory. Deep-C consortium members from Florida State University and Georgia Tech were also along to collect water and sediment samples from The Gulf of Mexico.  In all, fish and sediment samples from over 30 sites were collected and prepared for analysis.

C-IMAGE welcomed Screenscope, Inc. aboard to film the science crew during a long-lining set. Hal and Marilyn Weiner along with other Screensope, Inc. staff enjoyed perfect weather on the Gulf while they filmed and interviewed our scientists.  They got quite the show; a deck full of red snapper and a few hammerhead sharks! Hopefully these critters won't make it to the editing floor.  C-IMAGE would like to thank the Screenscope team for their time and interest - it's not easy to film in 120 degree heat on a rocky boat. We look forward to seeing the finished product!

Mind Open Media reporter David Levin sits down with C-IMAGE post-doc Patrick Schwing from the University of South Florida.  Dr. Schwing studies benthic foraminifera from the Gulf of Mexico and uses these single-celled organisms to tell us something about the health of the seafloor.

When he's not looking at sediments, Patrick likes to retreat to his St. Pete oasis where he can be found home-brewing some great refreshments or laying down some beats.




Grad Student Frasier is Learning What Dolphins Can Tell Us

Kait Frasier listens to Gulf marine mammals to estimate how many there are and find out if their numbers are changing after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Kait sees dolphins as a good species to study because “everyone can see and understand them, not just scientists.”

Kait, a Ph.D. student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California – San Diego, is a GoMRI Scholar with C-IMAGE. She shares her journey, work, and hopes for the future.

Her Path

Kait’s journey into dolphin research came as a pleasant surprise. Despite initially wanting to study deep sea worms, she interned with Dr. John Hildebrand in the underwater bioacoustics lab, using sound to locate whales and dolphins. Being a Biology major, she felt “this was way over my head,” but needing a job, she stuck with it. She thought that working with dolphins would be “a touchy-feely sort of science.” However, Kait soon discovered that the science was surprisingly heavily rooted in physics, math, and computing; so, she took more classes and learned programming.

On NOAA's R/V Gordon Gunter, in the Gulf of Mexico, Kait Frasier dons a survival suit (referred to as a "Gumby Suit"). Researchers have to be able to get into it in under a minute, which takes some practice. (Photo provided by Frasier)

(Click to enlarge) On NOAA’s R/V Gordon Gunter, in the Gulf of Mexico, Kait Frasier dons a survival suit (referred to as a “Gumby Suit”). Researchers have to be able to get into it in under a minute, which takes some practice. (Photo provided by Frasier)

As her role evolved, Kait entered a Ph.D. program in marine mammal bioacoustics, something she “hadn’t even known was ‘a thing’ up until that point” and that “people only do in their dreams.” Not so bad. With this new focus, Kait said that “the combination of the insane beauty of the ocean and the challenges of the research” drew her into the field.

You can read Kait''s full interview here:

From the GoMRI Site:

The Smithsonian Ocean Portal posted a guest blog by Patrick Schwing about GoMRI-funded research. Schwing is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of South Florida, College of Marine Science, and member of the C-IMAGE and Deep-C consortia.

His blog explains the importance of forams – tiny single-cell organisms that live in environments with little oxygen – in understanding impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Schwing is using his research to learn about human impacts on coastal and marine sedimentary depositional environments.

The Smithsonian blog begins: “You are not alone if you don’t know what forams (short for foraminifera) are, so let’s start with the basics.” Read the entire Ocean Portal blog.

For background, read about C-IMAGE’s work that includes Schwing in Podcasts and Videos Share GoMRI Oil Spill Research with a Broader Audience. Schwing is shown collecting sediment cores in the overview story about GoMRI Advances Science Four Years after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Schwing served as a research mentor for student interns and was featured in the Deep-C Voices from the Sea blog and in the C-IMAGE Adventures at Sea blog.

Congratulations to Dr. Steve Murawski on his appointment to the National Academy of Sciences' Ocean Studies Board!! 

"I appreciate very much the opportunity to serve on the National Academy’s Ocean Studies Board. The Board is the premier independent evaluator of the quality and relevance of ocean science supported by federal, state and private agencies and entities. It provides expert evaluations and advice to the agencies and interacts with administrators and experts at the highest levels of government. The opportunity to work under Chairman Robert Duce (Texas A&M) and with its talented cadre of volunteer members and full-time staff to evaluate topical science priorities for the Gulf of Mexico and the nation is a unique professional opportunity. I hope to both learn more about the priorities for ocean research and monitoring and plans for the nation and to contribute in some way to their success”.

Three years after the BP oil well disaster, scientists are struggling to understand the effects on the Gulf ecosystem.  From Mind Open Media, David Levin reports on the oil's impact on the tiny creatures that form the base of the food chain.

Podcasts from The Loop

The Loop is a series of podcasts which take an in depth look at C-IMAGE research. Partnering with Mind Open Media reporters Ari Daniel Shapiro and David Levin, our researchers share the importance of their studies and how they help our understanding of oil spills. David and Ari have produced eight podcasts and have more in the queue. The podcasts are linked below. Plug in and learn about our research!

Listen to More Podcasts!