ABSTRACT: After oil spills and dispersant applications the formation of red tides or harmful algal blooms (HABs) has been observed, which can cause additional negative impacts in areas affected by oil spills. However, the link between oil spills and HABs is still unknown. Here, we present experimental evidence that demonstrates a connection between oil spills and HABs. We determined the effects of oil, dispersant-treated oil, and dispersant alone on the structure of natural plankton assemblages in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. In coastal waters, large tintinnids and oligotrich ciliates, major grazers of phytoplankton, were negatively affected by the exposure to oil and dispersant, whereas bloom-forming dinoflagellates (Prorocentrum texanum, P. triestinum, and Scrippsiella trochoidea) notably increased their concentration. The removal of key grazers due to oil and dispersant disrupts the predator−prey controls (“top-down controls”) that normally function in plankton food webs. This disruption of grazing pressure opens a “loophole” that allows certain dinoflagellates with higher tolerance to oil and dispersants than their grazers to grow and form blooms when there are no growth limiting factors (e.g., nutrients). Therefore, oil spills and dispersants can act as disrupters of predator−prey controls in plankton food webs and as indirect inducers of potentially harmful dinoflagellate blooms.
The instrument LISST (laser in situ scattering and transmissiometry) has been widely used for measuring the size of oil droplets in relation to oil spills and sediment particles. Major concerns associated with using the instrument include the impact of high concentrations and/or out-of-range particle (droplet) sizes on the LISST reading. These were evaluated experimentally in this study using monosized microsphere particles. The key findings include: (1) When high particle concentration reduced the optical transmission (OT) to below 30%, the measured peak value tended to underestimate the true peak value, and the accuracy of the LISST decreased by ~8% to ~28%. The maximum concentration to reach the 30% OT was about 50% of the theoretical values, suggesting a lower concentration level should be considered during the instrument deployment. (2) The out-of-range sizes of particles affected the LISST measurements when the sizes were close to the LISST measurement range. Fine below-range sizes primarily affected the data in the lowest two bins of the LISST with >75% of the volume at the smallest bin. Large out-of-range particles affected the sizes of the largest 8–10 bins only when very high concentration was present. The out-of-range particles slightly changed the size distribution of the in-range particles, but their concentration was conserved. An approach to interpret and quantify the effects of the out-of-range particles on the LISST measurement was proposed.
Field data from the first several days after an oil spill is rare but crucial for our understanding of a spill’s impact on marine microbiota given their short generation times. Field data collected within days of the Texas City “Y” oil spill showed that exposure to crude oil can rapidly imbalance populations of marine microbiota, which leads to the proliferation of more resistant organisms. Vibrionales bacteria were up to 48 times higher than background concentrations at the most impacted sites and populations of the dinoflagellate Prorocentrum texanum increased significantly as well. Laboratory microcosm experiments with a natural plankton community showed that P. texanum grew significantly faster under oiled conditions but monocultures of P. texanum did not. Additional laboratory experiments with natural communities from Tampa Bay, Florida showed similar results although a different species dominated, P. minimum. In both cases, tolerance to the presence of crude oil was enhanced by higher sensitivity of grazers led to a release from grazing pressure and allows Prorocentrum species to dominate after an oil spill. The results suggest careful monitoring for Vibrionales and Prorocentrum during future spills would be beneficial given the potential implications to human health.