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Researchers provide temporary business to beleaguered charter captains in gulf

By Bonnie Berkowitz and Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 31, 2010; 12:06 PM

REDFISH BAY, LA. -- In a strangely silent corner of this usually thriving bay, charter captain Kevin Beach of Metairie says he should be seeing "shrimp, trout jumping, sea gulls . . . and knuckleheads like myself high-fiving over a catch."

Instead, he is seeing serious-minded researchers. Lots and lots of them, quietly collecting scientific samples.

"When this thing happened," Beach said of the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico, "I had every single day booked through July. Ouch," he said of his newly open schedule.

Beach typically makes 80 percent of his yearly income from the tourists who come to fish the gulf waters in May, June and July. At least for now, though, there's an odd silver lining to the dark cloud of oil that threatens the livelihoods of Beach and other charter captains who are within reach of the heaviest slick: the flood of scientists, graduate students and environmental researchers who have descended on the coastal marinas and beaches to get an up-close look at the spill and take the measure of this unprecedented event.

They come with glass jars, fiberglass mesh and cameras, ready to collect, label and test samples of the oil and the flora and fauna it threatens -- independent researchers whose work is truth-squadding the crisis as it unfolds, making it impossible for any single source, whether BP or the government, to dominate the flow of information.

"There are people everywhere doing amazing work to try to understand what's happening," Ian MacDonald, an oceanography professor at Florida State University, said Friday as he drove back to his lab in Tallahassee after spending several days collecting oil samples. MacDonald, who was among the first to challenge reports about the rate of the flow from the spill, plans to use the samples to help interpret data being collected from satellites, planes and other remote-sensing systems that are tracking the oil. Elsewhere on the gulf, university researchers are striving to identify and draw attention to what they say are vast plumes of oil floating below the surface -- the existence of which BP chief executive Tony Hayward disputed Sunday.

"If you think of information as a wave, the wave of truth in this calamity is not being driven by the government and government information sources. It's being driven by independent academics who are working under pressure and creatively to get information out," MacDonald said. "It's truly astonishing to see what's happening. The data cloud is so large and so complex it's beyond the scope of one person to figure it out."

MacDonald is part of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force, a consortium of more than 200 scientists at 15 universities in Florida trying to coordinate efforts to study the disaster. The task force also has begun working informally with scientists in several other states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and might expand.

"This is so complicated and has so many dimensions. It will take a lot of science to figure out what is happening from a biological point of view, from an oceanographic point of view and from an economic point of view," said W. Ross Ellington, associate vice president for research at Florida State University, where the task force is based.

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said local environmental groups and scientists were planning to do independent air sample tests because they were concerned that the federal government's monitoring was inadequate.

"There are a number of groups that are really frustrated with the lack of information that is available. There's a big interest from communities and outside scientists to try to get that information and make it available," said Rotkin-Ellman, who has been meeting with residents and advocacy groups in Louisiana. "They plan to go where people are reporting odors and have the level of sensitivity to monitor for substances the EPA is not monitoring for."

MacDonald also expressed frustration about the dearth of information from BP. For example, researchers would like detailed analyses of the oil as it travels from the broken well on the ocean bottom to the surface.

"The place where we know the least is where we want to know the most," he said. "We've never seen anything like this."

In the meantime, the National Science Foundation has awarded more than $1.15 million in grants to scientists from California, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Michigan, Massachusetts and Florida to study a variety of issues related to the environmental effects of the spill and cleanup.

Back on the gulf, Beach said ferrying the scientific crowd is preferable to some of the other makeshift jobs available and estimates that he is recouping 60 percent of what he would have made if his boat were booked with fish-seeking tourists.

On a recent trip out of the Venice Marina, Beach took a National Wildlife Federation charter group to observe an oiled marsh, where they met up with MacDonald and other researchers from Florida State taking separate sets of water samples where oil had managed to get past absorbent booms. The scientists hope the samples will provide clues to what the oil might do when it washes up on the coast of Florida.

Beach said he is making the most of the temporary flood of business from the researchers. But he is not counting on it for long, nor is he savoring it.

There are mounting uncertainties now that BP's latest effort -- the top kill -- has failed to plug the well. Regardless of what happens over the next few days and weeks, though, Beach said he knows he won't soon be returning to business as usual.

"It's about confidence," he said. "People come here to go fish. How do you put a price on that?"

Stein reported from Washington.

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