BILOXI, MS (WDAM) - Fresh off a 12-day excursion in the Gulf of Mexico, USM scientists Bruce Comyns and Jim Franks are now ready for the next step.
"This is a very critical time we think," said Franks.
The men are part of a team of scientists with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast research laboratory where the mission was to collect larvae samples of one of the worlds most commercially valuable, yet threatened, species of fish - the bluefin tuna.
Now it is facing a new threat - oil.
"We're trying to get a look at these young fish and their abundance and their distributions before they may become impacted by the spilled oil," said Franks.
"A lot of people, rightly so, are extremely concerned with shore lines, but added to that is the impact offshore," said Comyns.
The species only spawns in two places in the Western hemisphere; one is the Mediterranean sea, the other, the Gulf of Mexico, right along the loop current.
"Where we found bluefin tuna larvae, those waters would ultimately have carried the young fish up into an area that was most likely impacted by the oil," said Franks.
As the oil continues to spread through the Gulf waters, unsuspecting marine life, like the bluefin tuna larvae, become sitting ducks.
"Based on the magnitude and the location of the spilled oil, we think they are in a very precarious situation," said Franks.
"It's just depressing," said Comyns. "You don't have to be a researcher, you can be just someone who has an interest in the environment. We're not just talking about the surface being affected, we talking about the entire water column being affected."
Although their trip was planned well before oil began spewing from the Gulf floor, their research and findings, which could take months, could prove significant.
"This information can all be used to help model the distribution and abundance of the bluefin tuna larva. Where are they spawning, what kind of environmental conditions do you collect larva in," said Comyns.
The effects could be devastating.