It didn't take long for Mote Marine Laboratory to act after a blown rig sent oil gushing into the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Cory Boyes and Jason Wolf of Mote Marine Laboratory deploy an oil-tracking robot May 25 off Key West.
The agency held an emergency meeting within 24 hours of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sinking and scientists soon were gathering samples and deploying oil-detecting robots.
Now, one of Sarasota's most recognizable institutions is angling for a larger role in what could be decades of oil-related research. Mote has applied for more than $3.3 million in research grants related to the oil spill. More than a dozen proposals are pending with state and federal agencies.
Oil monitoring could become another niche for an agency that has long been known for red tide monitoring but has struggled with state budget cuts for red tide research.
Competition for these funds is fierce, and Mote may not be positioned for a lead role in the oil research as a more regionally focused marine center located hundreds of miles from where the main spill occurred. But the lab's leaders say they expect some measure of long-term involvement.
"A lot of the work we're doing is critical work, so we expect we'll get an appropriate share to continue what we're doing," said Richard Pierce, a chemical oceanographer and director of Mote's Center for Ecotoxicology who is coordinating the agency's oil spill response.
Mote has collected $150,000 in local donations relating to the oil spill so far, allowing the agency to conduct baseline environmental surveys and operate two oil-detecting robots.
Pierce said one of Mote's most important roles in the spill has been to monitor Gulf water west of the Florida Keys to see if underwater plumes of oil are moving south toward the Keys and South Florida.
Such monitoring is expensive, costing $25,000 per robot expedition. And the oil-monitoring devices attached to these robots can be inaccurate, so Mote has applied for a grant to develop better oil detection machinery.
Mote's lab in the Keys also submitted a grant to study the effects of the oil, and of the chemical dispersants used to break up surface slicks, on coral reefs.
Few such studies have been done, but scientists say they could be critical in determining how to react if oil reaches the Keys.
"They're really not sure how to handle disturbances of oil in places like coral reefs," said David Vaughan, director of Mote's Center for Coral Reef Research on Summerland Key.
Mote also has significant expertise on all manner of sea life, be it sea turtles and dolphins or tiny marine organisms. Lab scientists have spent decades studying the toxic effects of red tide algae blooms, pesticides, flame-retardant chemicals and fertilizer runoff on marine animals.
Oil had not been high on Pierce's list of environmental contaminants to study.
"The consensus prior to the oil blowout was that, yes, petroleum contamination is a concern, but it's not a significant problem," Pierce said. "But when the oil spill occurred, that kind of changed our focus."
Major universities across Florida and the nation are competing for oil-related research grants.
Mote has focused on the $10 million in research funds BP gave to the Florida Institute of Oceanography -- an academic umbrella group based at the University of South Florida that includes 21 universities and marine research stations.
More than 200 grant proposals have been submitted to the Institute of Oceanography, including 15 from Mote.
The winners will be chosen Aug. 12.
Mote lost $500,000 in state funding this year for red tide monitoring but kept the program going through local donors.
"This incident just shows how important it is to keep these programs going," Pierce said. "You never know when something like this is going to happen and you need immediate response."