From In the Loop (

A group of environmental scientists, including sea turtle and bluefin tuna expert Molly Lutcavage of the campus’ Large Pelagics Research Center, recommends that funds from the BP oil spill fund be used to assess long-term impacts on wildlife and marine ecosystems and to develop strategies for recovering these populations.

“It is not too late to invest funds from BP to support teams of experts to develop effective strategic plans that identify, prioritize and provide methodologies for collecting essential data,” they say in the current issue of the journal Science. For example, according to Lutcavage’s data, the BP oil spill “may have had a substantial impact on Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) because it occurred during spawning. But the impact of that loss is difficult to assess because bluefin migration paths, reproductive habits and early life history are inadequately resolved.”

Plans for collecting such information and strategies for recovery will vary by species and ecosystems because current knowledge varies widely, the researchers add, but seven elements should be included in most, if not all approaches. They recommend:

• Including both demographic and abundance data when diagnosing causes of population decline

• Emphasizing the cumulative effects of threats

• Using new tools in genetics, tracking and statistical models to discover links among and within populations

• Revising the process to reduce peer-review and permitting times to speed conservation efforts

• Encouraging data sharing

• Improving assessment tools for evaluating human impact on ecosystems

• Prioritizing investments to address long-term management needs for each species.

“In the wake of the BP oil spill, the need for this policy shift is as clear as it is compelling,” the authors state. “If the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history is not enough to effect this policy shift, what would it take?”

Lutcavage, whose Gloucester laboratory is part of the Environmental Conservation Department, also contributed information to a sidebar on sea turtle populations, which have been declining since 1998 for unknown reasons. Developing an effective management plan for sea turtles remains particularly “elusive” in the wake of the oil spill, the researchers point out. Pelagic species such as bluefin tuna and sea turtles migrate for hundreds or thousands of miles in the deep ocean each year as part of their life cycle.

Over a decade ago, Lutcavage and colleagues examined the physiologic effects of crude oil on sea turtles, and she was among the experts consulted by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to develop oil spill contingency plans for endangered marine species. “Unfortunately, after we completed a single study, there was no opportunity to examine longer-term effects of oil exposure on sea turtles. With so many gaps in understanding, it’s difficult to predict what ultimately happens to oiled animals,” she says.

Since 1993, Lutcavage has directed a program studying the Atlantic bluefin tuna’s migration routes and spawning areas by tracking them over a full year from their summer feeding grounds in New England and Canada. In 2010, she and collaborators reported that only some adult bluefin tuna, presumably mature individuals, traveled in the spring to known spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico before returning to northern feeding grounds.

Lutcavage summarizes, “Our findings suggest bluefin tuna may spawn outside of the Gulf of Mexico, some might not spawn each year, or both scenarios may be true. As is the case for many marine species, it’s really important to understand where, when and how often they spawn. Without this basic knowledge, how can we predict the impacts of oil spills, climate change and human activities on their populations?”

Other contributors to the forum article are from the University of Florida, University of Hawaii, University of Queensland in Australia, Duke University Marine Lab, Oregon State University, Old Dominion University, National Research Council, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Image: Captain Ewen Clark, a member of the Large Pelagics Research Center tagging team, applies a popup satellite tag to a giant bluefin tuna in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Photo by E. Murray, Jr., LPRC.

February 3, 2011.