GoMRI meeting - lessons learned

Last week I attended the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference (AKA the GoMRI meeting) in New Orleans, along with many colleagues from our consortium (CONCORDE). The meeting is always a good experience that brings together scientists from many different areas of expertise studying the Gulf of Mexico. I had a poster and was co-author on a few talks (see @lavalfishlab on Twitter for some examples), but the highlight of the meeting, at least for me, was getting to share a “Shiny app” that I have been working on over the past few weeks. “Shiny” is a powerful R package that allows you to create plots in a customized and interactive manner, and you don’t need any programming experience to use the apps. Many websites use these apps to create interactive graphics (see showmeshiny.com for examples). My app takes data from the imaging system we use (the ISIIS) and allows you to plot several different oceanographic variables (you choose color and contour data) then overlay the fine-scale abundances of different zooplankton groups. You can also select transect and portions of the transects you want to view. I am hoping to get more data on the app and eventually make it available for use by scientists within the consortium (all data will ultimately be publicly available).

From the biological side of things, many talks focused on the impacts of the oils spill on various plants and animals in the marine ecosystem. Some species show changes in abundance after the spill, but the lack of background data before the oil spill is a major issue when making statements about impacts of any event. Also, the lack of data prevents us parsing out what amount of change is due to the natural variability in species abundance vs. changes due to anthropogenic impacts. Many of these presentations highlight the need to continuous ecosystem monitoring if we are to better understand the interactions between humans and the functioning of the marine ecosystem.

There were also many presentations related to marine snow. For those who do not know, marine snow consists of a mixture of biological material (i.e., dead phytoplankton, fecal pellets, and transparent exopolymers that provide “stickiness” to aggregate the particles), and it is ubiquitous in the marine environment. You can even see it when you are diving or snorkeling if you focus on the tiniest things close to your mask. Marine snow is really interesting in the context of the oil spill because these particles can entrain oil and export it to depth. Understanding how marine snow forms, its composition, and potential to interact with oil and dispersants, is key to understanding how oil can propagate throughout the marine environment. Under normal conditions, marine snow is an important vector for moving carbon out of the euphotic zone to deeper waters (i.e., the ocean biological pump).

The meeting has caused me to think more about how imaging plankton and marine snow can lead to some new insights. In the marine snow area, we can measure properties of the particles in situ that are difficult or impossible to measure in the lab. For zooplankton, there may be some species that are indicators of ecosystem stress, such as gelatinous plankton, that we simply have not been able to detect using traditional plankton sampling gear. With CONCORDE, we have a unique opportunity to address some of these questions, and I am looking forward to digging into the data more over the coming months.