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Cynthia Jones is an Author of Science Paper Evaluating Lessons of Gulf Spill

ODU oceanographer Cynthia Jones

Efforts by scientists to evaluate the ecological effects of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have exposed large gaps in our knowledge of the population trends of marine species. This is the message of a paper this week in the journal Science written by a group of researchers including Cynthia Jones, eminent scholar and professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences at Old Dominion University.

Because many of these marine species were never adequately assessed prior to the BP spill, the authors say, U.S. agencies charged with managing protected species and with participating in recovery efforts in the Gulf cannot decide to what extent species and ecosystems have been hurt.

"After the 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill, evaluation efforts of effects on wildlife were ambiguous, in part because of limited data on abundance and demography… ," the authors write. "Sadly, the situation in the (Gulf) is similar more than 20 years later."

The article, headlined "Better Science Needed for Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico," is in the Policy Forum section of the journal. The 10 authors, in addition to ODU's Jones, are from the University of Florida, University of Hawaii, University of Queensland in Australia, Duke University, Oregon State University, University of Massachusetts, the National Research Council, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Jones said the policy paper resulted from concerns that were raised not only by the BP spill, but also in a report, "Sea Turtle Status and Trends: Integrating Demography and Abundance," published last year by the National Research Council. The Science paper's 10 authors also produced that report.

"The Science paper is not limited to sea turtles though, it expresses our more general concern that our nation responds to environmental catastrophes in a reactive way and this type of response may not get the right data to evaluate the full impact of such an event," she said.

"For example, we know that bluefin tuna, a greatly depleted fish species, spawn in the Gulf of Mexico at the time that the spill happened, and approximately in that vicinity. We do not, however, know what actual impact the spill will have on survival of bluefin tuna. Simply put, we lack fundamental knowledge on the survival of bluefin young, potential exchange of fish across the Atlantic that could mitigate deaths, or whether there are compensatory factors that ameliorate the loss of some of this year's spawning.

"So, it is difficult to estimate the spill's impact on bluefin, a species that is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act," Jones said. "I give but one example. How can we determine the spill's impact on threatened and endangered sea turtles when we don't even have reliable measures of their abundance."

Jones and the other authors contend that scientists know how to make the critical species assessments that are needed, but lack research data to achieve this goal.

"Tens of millions of dollars from BP intended to restore wildlife populations and ecosystems have already been disbursed, and hundreds of millions more are at risk of being distributed without a clear strategic plan to ensure that projects improve our understanding of population dynamics and the impacts of proposed management actions," the authors write.

"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."

Among the authors' specific recommendations is research that looks at the numbers and whereabouts of a particular species at various life stages; that considers the cumulative effects of threats, say, from habitat loss, overfishing and pollution; and that better utilizes new tools in genetics and statistical models.

They also call for the United States to develop strategic national research plans for key marine species and ecosystems based on evaluation of cause and effect and on integrated monitoring of abundance and demographic traits. "Agencies should focus resources and expertise on research that identifies why populations change and that enables modeling future impacts. In the wake of the BP oil spill, the need for this policy shift is as clear as it is compelling," the paper states. "If the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history is not enough to effect this policy shift, what would it take?"

Jones became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) last year on the strength, according to an AAAS citation, of her "distinguished contributions in marine fisheries ecology, especially development of analytical tools to evaluate stock structure, population dynamics and life-history strategies." The AAAS publishes the journal Science.

She received the Virginia Outstanding Scientist Award in 2003, the Virginia Professor of the Year award in 2004 from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award in 2005 from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia.

A member of the Old Dominion faculty since 1986, Jones has established an international reputation for her pioneering work in fisheries ecology. In the 1980s she developed new techniques to determine the daily age of fish by studying their ear bones, or otoliths, which have daily and annual rings similar to those of trees. Based on this research, scientists can now determine the date of birth in young fish as well as track their growth and survival during their most vulnerable life stages.

In the 1990s Jones developed a chemical analysis technique that can determine where a particular fish was hatched and what waters it has inhabited since. Using this information, scientists can tell what environmental changes a species can tolerate, identify essential habitats and determine the advantages and disadvantages of a specific habitat.

More recently, she has focused on nursery habitats, investigating the effects of carbon and nitrogen sources on juvenile fish growth and how seagrass beds support healthy fish growth.

She directs ODU's Center for Quantitative Fisheries Ecology and served on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission from 2002-2006. She was the first fisheries scientist to be appointed to the commission in its 125-year history.

This article was posted on: January 29, 2011

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