Auburn professor to study impact of oil spill with grant from National Science Foundation

AUBURN – Stephen “Ash” Bullard, assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture, recently received a $145,000 National Science Foundation for Rapid Response Research grant for work related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The 12-month study will be conducted by Bullard and Middle Tennessee State University biology professor George Benz. Beginning this month, the researchers will study parasites of fish as biosensors to learn how the toxic effects of the spill impact the marine and coastal environment of Alabama.

“Our focus is on the health of the aquatic environment in Alabama and adjacent states,” Bullard said. “We plan to use each parasite species as a natural biosensor to examine the impact of the spill on fish health and ecosystem functioning.”

A decline in the ecologically diverse community of fish parasites, including ectoparasites, which live on the surface of the fish, and endoparasites, which live within the fish, is known to be associated with marine pollution and indicates negative consequences for the marine food web and water quality of coastal and offshore fish.

The study of parasites can also help document the immediate and extended environmental “ripple effects” associated with the oil spill in the north-central Gulf of Mexico, as well as inform others about the use of parasites as bioindicators of oil pollution on a regional scale.

“People assume that a lot of parasites mean the water is dirty or contaminated, but it’s actually the opposite,” Bullard said. “Having a rich community infecting a fish indicates that it is healthy and intact.”

Parasites of fish are extremely diverse in both numbers of species and in numbers of individual parasites per fish, and even outnumber fish.

“The question that we’re asking is, ‘Are we going to see fewer parasites?’ and I think the answer will be yes,” Bullard said. “We expect fewer invertebrates and fewer mollusks. It’s a sad situation in the Gulf.”

Bullard performed his Ph.D. and postdoctoral research in the Gulf of Mexico where he collected 16 years worth of research on parasites. He has hopes of comparing his previous data to this study’s findings.

Partnerships of scientists and fisheries biologists have been established for the regional study, and include the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Florida Marine Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab.

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(Written by Sarah Phillips.)

Contact: Ash Bullard, (334) 844-9278, (sab0019@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)