Local marine biologist feels bonded to Gulf

September 10, 2001; The Courier

by John DeSantis, Senior Staff Writer

COCODRIE – Initially, Nancy Rabalais had plans for a short stay.
A research project on the oil and gas industry’s effects on Gulf of Mexico waters brought Rabalais, then a University of Texas doctoral candidate, to this remote community of fishing camps and shrimp boats in 1982.
"It was supposed to be for two years," said Rabalais, whose work led to studies of the phenomenon that annually turns miles of Gulf waters into an oxygen-starved "dead zone," through the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. "LUMCON was developing their research vessel fleet and what they could do. We weren’t even in the building."
Nineteen years later Rabalais is recognized as a foremost expert on marine hypoxia – the condition that causes oceanic dead zones – in the nation if not the world. Her work continues, within the space-age style walls of LUMCON’s La. 56 complex, and sea-going vessels that routinely monitor the health of the Gulf’s ecosystem.
"The first few years were pretty intriguing, generating funds to keep the work going, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since," Rabalais said. "Writing proposals and publishing results, not just in the scientific literature but also getting the word out to the public."
A new book written by Rabalais, her researcher husband, Gene Turner, and other scientists, "Coastal Hypoxia: Consequences for Living Resources and Ecosystems," published by the American Geophysical Union, may not make it on to the New York Times Best Seller List. But other marine researchers say it promises to be a bible of study on oceanic dead zones. The book – available to the public through some retailers and online through Amazon.com – is for Rabalais one more component in a growing body of knowledge about the oceans.
"There is probably less known about the Gulf with living resources and low oxygen," Rabalais said. "We have lots of lessons to learn from elsewhere, and they will have lots to learn too."
Rabalais’ recognition from the scientific community has included the 1998 Blasker Award for Environmental Science, awards from a San Diego marine foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last week, Rabalais was named chairwoman of the National Research Council’s Ocean Studies Board, which studies oceans for Congress and a variety of federal agencies.
"I have a sense that what I am doing is important," she said. "I get positive feedback that is sustaining in ways, and the satisfaction of knowing I am doing good research."
Rabalais appears less comfortable discussing personal and professional glory than the implications of the research that leads to it, often conducted on board the Pelican – the LUMCON fleet’s 105-foot flagship, or the 57-foot Acadiana. As many as 12 or more scientists can work on the Pelican at once, making it ideal for longer trips.
"We’re mapping 24 hours a day with two shifts of people working 12-hour shifts," Rabalais said. "I usually bring student volunteers from LSU or Texas A&M. That’s their field of research; They want to learn something and they are generally good workers … I really like going out and being on the water because it gives me a real sense of things."
The hands-on personal approach, Rabalais said, appears to work best for her.
"I could have other people collect me data and bring me the data. But I have a sense of the Gulf and the oxygen, I can look and see it as obvious there are not fish at the bottom and no fish on the top," Rabalais said, adding that time on the water offers a respite from non-stop telephone calls and paper pushing that are also a part of her job.
Although the oxygen sensors that provide Rabalais with data will be increasingly automated in the future – requiring fewer sea journeys for data retrieval – they will still require maintenance. Barnacles and other organisms must be cleared from the sensors periodically or they will not work properly.
The deepest sensor is located at a depth of 67 feet.
"It can be pretty labor intensive," Rabalais said.
The daughter of a Texas oilfield worker, Rabalais showed an early interest in general biology.
"That was where I was headed and if I hadn’t had some good teachers maybe I wouldn’t have headed that way," Rabalais said, recalling a Corpus Christi high school teacher, Carl Young, as one of those instrumental in sustaining her interest.
Until she began courses at Texas A&I in Kingsville, Rabalais’ ocean interaction was limited to beach trips as a youngster. She grew closer to the sea when drawn to Gulf scuba dives with other students, and then through studies in junior and senior classes. Intrigue born of lessons in marine ecology and invertebrate life forms – those without backbones – was bolstered by field trips to Padre Island and other Gulf spots.
"You could see the environment and see how human beings were affecting it," Rabalais recalled.
She was working on her doctorate when Donald Bosch, LUMCON’s former director, tapped her for the oil and gas industry research project. Building on initial research done by Nicholls State University and other institutions, Rabalais was intrigued by the dead zone phenomenon, which occurs when nutrients from upriver agricultural waste and other sources flow into the Gulf from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. The waste encourages rapid growth of microscopic organisms that can deplete the water’s oxygen, making it unsuitable for living things. Currently, the dead zone in the Gulf is estimated to be the size of Massachussetts.
Rabalais splits her time between the LUMCON labs and her home in Baton Rouge. There, husband Gene continues his work as a marine exologist, focusing on wetlands, oceanography and other coastal sciences. Their 12-year-old daughter, Emily Turner, has expressed a mild interest in the work her parents do, but leans more toward artistic than scientific endeavors although she excels in math in science.
Emily has visited the Cocodrie lab but has yet to venture out on the ocean with her mother, although a trip is possible next summer.
Rabalais is pleased that research done by her and associates comes at a critical time in ocean science.
"We are learning so much more at a much faster pace in oceanography," Rabalais said. "This little Gulf of Mexico is not separate, it is not unique. It is all related to the system, to human activity on a global scale."