OCEAN SPRINGS, MS. (THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI) – Scientists from The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) have set begun a 12-day research expedition to collect samples of bluefin tuna larvae, one of the ocean's most threatened fish.
Funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), GCRL researchers Dr. Bruce Comyns, Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, Jim Franks and Dick Waller are in a race to harvest samples of larvae, which is the most vulnerable life-stage of bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna spawn in only two places in the western hemisphere — the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. This places them in a precarious situation due to the position and magnitude of the oil-affected waters following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
"We're concerned about the potential effects of the oil spill on this highly vulnerable species," said Jim Franks, fisheries biologist at GCRL's Center for Fisheries Research and Development.
Franks is an expert in offshore and inshore marine species and their habitats
The team of researchers will spend their voyage to the loop current aboard the R/V Tommy Munro which is operated by The University of Southern Mississippi. GCRL's bluefin tuna team, in partnership with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service (ROFFS), has been involved in the study of bluefin tuna larvae for the past decade. This trip is of critical to further understanding the biology and habitat of bluefin larvae, as well as assist NMFS with its assessments of the bluefin stock in the Gulf.
"There is still much to learn regarding all aspects of bluefin biology, behavioral patterns such as seasonal migrations, and the status of the stocks while in the Gulf of Mexico spawning grounds," explained Franks.
In recent years, bluefin tuna stocks have been over-fished to the point of severe depletion. It is one of the world's most highly sought and economically valuable fish.
Southern Miss President Martha Saunders has assembled an Oil Spill Response Team that is coordinating the university's response to the incident in the Gulf. Scientists, faculty, staff and students from GCRL, Stennis Space Center, plus the Gulf Park and Hattiesburg campuses are working with federal, state, and private agencies to monitor the spill and, to the extent possible, manage and mitigate its impacts on the Gulf Coast.
Southern Miss scientists are working with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the Northern Gulf Institute, the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a multi-pronged effort to examine the oil spill and its impacts.
For more information on the team's efforts, visit www.usm.edu/oilspill.