Interview with Dr. Charles Fisher
by Ken Kostel
Photo of Chuck Fisher by Eric Simms, FLEXE.
First of all, what’s a guy from Pennsylvania doing out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico?
One question I often get when I give presentations around the country is “What is a deep-sea biologist doing in the middle of Pennsylvania?” And the fact of the matter is, the kind of work that I do does not require rubber boots and a plastic bucket. It requires access to big ships and expensive deep-submergence facilities. I’ve worked all over the world, and my research starts with an airplane ride to a port. There we meet a big ship and the right facilities and take it from there.
How did you end up studying life on the bottom of the ocean?
I was working on my dissertation at the University of California Santa Barbara when the first hydrothermal vent communities were discovered. Jim Childress' lab was next door—he was one of the first biologists involved—and he gave a presentation to the entire university after his first vent cruise. It was a very big deal. I got interested then and had a good reason to get involved in the research when it was discovered that the tubeworms had nutritional symbionts. There were interesting parallels with photosynthetic symbioses in corals, which was the focus of my PhD work. I went on my first vent cruise in 1982 and have been hooked ever since.
Why do you spend so much time in the Gulf of Mexico?
The Gulf of Mexico is a very unique place geologically. It is home to the largest oil-and gas-producing region in the continental United States, and it is also one of the most complex continental shelves in the world. So in the northern Gulf of Mexico, we have oil- and gas-bearing shales with a salt sheet underneath them and a layer of sediment on top. And as these different geological forces interact we get cracks in the oil-bearing shale, and we get natural seepage coming out of the seafloor. So at thousands of different places in the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas is naturally seeping—very slowly—from the seafloor, and in those environments we have some very special communities of animals that have evolved to live there.
And now there’s the oil spill to think about. How is that affecting the creatures you study?
The communities we study start at about 300 meters and go down to 3,000 meters, and with the Deepwater Horizon disaster at 1,400 meters in the Gulf of Mexico, we had a spill with oil being released at the same depth as many of the communities that we study. Some of the oil evaporated, some was burnt off, but people are wondering where the rest went. Now there’s growing evidence that a lot of that oil has ended up in the deep sea, on the seafloor. Our [previous] work on the communities of megafauna that live in these environments sets the stage to see if, in fact, this oil has impacted any of those communities. We can return to the locations on the seafloor that we know very well, and we know exactly what’s growing there, and see how those animals are doing.
What do you think you’ll find on the bottom of the Gulf?
We don’t really know what we’re going to find when we go back out to visit these communities. We don’t know if they will be impacted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but they certainly may have. Even though some were adapted to oil, none of them are adapted to dispersant, and if there was a heavy exposure to dispersant in any of the communities this could have some very serious toxic effects. If, in fact, the dispersed oil forms small globules, this could foul feeding appendages. It could foul respiratory appendages and have a very bad effect on these communities. Similarly, if in areas a deepwater plume of oil and dispersant stayed cohesive, if it stayed intact, oxygen in that area could be depleted, and all of these animals require oxygen. So certainly we don’t know that we’ll see an impact, but there are a variety of scenarios where we could, and the only way to find out is to go down and take a look.