As Islanders keep a watchful eye on news of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Brian E. Murphy of Vineyard Haven is taking part in the response by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Mr. Murphy serves as the chief marine engineer (CME) aboard NOAA’s research vessel Delaware II, based in Woods Hole.
NOAA is the lead science agency for oil spill response. Due to the catastrophic oil spill following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, CME Murphy said the Delaware II was deployed to the Gulf of Mexico in mid June to obtain samples of pelagic fish for a food safety survey.
During a two-week mission, the research vessel used long-line fishing gear to capture tunas, swordfish and sharks, and assessed their environment using sophisticated water chemistry monitoring instruments, according to a June 25 press release on NOAA’s website.
Researchers retained only the fish needed to get enough samples for the study. Some also were fitted with satellite tags to help determine how much time the highly migratory animals spend in oiled and unoiled waters, according to the press release.
“These fish, and other prized Gulf seafood species, are the focus of NOAA’s response mission to help assess the safety of seafood for consumers, and to lay the groundwork for measuring the long-term effects of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill on commercially important fish and shellfish,” the press release said.
The Delaware’s stay in the Gulf was extended and its crew is now collecting water samples throughout the region, CME Murphy said. The Delaware II is one of five NOAA ships presently in the Gulf, with one more on the way.
“We’ll have one more trip long-lining on our departure from the Gulf and our transit home,” Mr. Murphy wrote in an email to The Times last week. “All our fish, plankton, and water samples are preserved on board and turned over to shore side laboratories for analysis. With any luck we hope to arrive in our homeport in mid August at the latest.”
Their work is of a sensitive nature and samples collected are kept secure and turned over to laboratories with a chain of custody, he said. The crew does not know the results of the surveys.
As CME Murphy explained, the Delaware II is not in the thick of the oil spill, because, “There are enough vessels there already and we don’t need to hinder the clean-up process.” Instead the ship’s crew is taking water samples in a very large area of the Gulf, sometimes well away from the oil spill site.
“We have seen some oil sheens when we get close to the immediate area,” CME Murphy wrote in an update last Friday. “We have not witnessed the dead fish and shore birds that you see on the news every night. We haven’t been in or seen the globs of oil (nor do we wish to). We know where the oil is but how widespread it is, is one of the things we’re investigating.
At that time the Delaware’s crew was monitoring Tropical Storm Bonnie and making plans for safe haven, if necessary. CME Murphy said finding mooring space would require more advance planning than usual, since there are so many vessels in the Gulf right now.
In a follow-up email to The Times this week, Mr. Murphy said the Delaware II docked in Pascagoula, Miss., last Saturday.
“We had altered our cruise track to get sampling done near the accident site before the bad weather,” he wrote. “Turned out not to be too bad. We’re unloading samples and gearing up to go long-lining on the way home.”
“Murph,” as his Island friends know him, grew up in Menemsha. He graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1982 with a marine engineering degree and license, and signed on with N. E. Marine Fisheries, a department of NOAA.
Mr. Murphy worked his way up to chief while serving aboard the Delaware II for more than 25 years. His wife Jo Ann is the Veterans Services Officer for Dukes County.
More information about the NOAA’s oil spill response and research vessels is available online at www.noaa.gov/.