Assessing post-spill coral recovery

Assessing post-spill coral recovery
Fanny stands in front of the ROV Global Explorer after a successful dive. She uses ROVs to image corals and collect different types of samples, including coral, water, and sediment. (Photo by Cherisse DuPreez)

March 28, 2017

Deep-sea corals are important organisms that support a healthy and diverse deep-sea ecosystem. However, there is much we do not know about certain coral species, including how they grow, reproduce, or interact with other organisms. Fanny Girard’s research helps bridge that knowledge gap through her work on how disturbances such as oil spills affect deep-sea coral colonies and if those effects have lasting impacts. She hopes that her research will underline the need to protect these important deep-sea ecosystems.

Fanny is a Ph.D. student in Pennsylvania State University’s biology program and a GoMRI Scholar with ECOGIG.

Fanny digitizes a high-definition image of an impacted coral colony to quantify impacts, growth, and recovery. (Photo by Cherisse DuPreez)
Fanny digitizes a high-definition image of an impacted coral colony to quantify impacts, growth, and recovery. (Photo by Cherisse DuPreez)

Her Path

Fanny participated in various deep-sea research projects during her master’s work, including projects at the Institut Français de Recherche pour l’Exploitation de la Mer (IFREMER) in France and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her master’s advisor introduced her to Pennsylvania State University’s Dr. Chuck Fisher, who offered her a Ph.D. position researching deep-sea corals for the ECOGIG project. “I had read about some of [Dr. Fisher’s work] in the Gulf of Mexico and was very excited about joining his lab,” said Fanny. “A lot of research still needs to be done to protect corals, and I really wanted to be part of this effort.”Fanny grew up on the Mediterranean coast of southern France and developed a special affinity for the ocean. Her desire to work on ocean related issues started when she was eleven years old, scuba diving with her mother. While pursuing a biology bachelor’s degree at Pierre and Marie Curie University, Fanny explored marine mammal ecology during internships studying whale populations in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. Her graduate marine ecology studies at the University of Western Brittany included a course on the deep sea that inspired her to change direction. “Even though the deep sea is the largest ecosystem on earth, there is still so much to discover. That fact made me want to get involved in deep-sea research,” she said.

Fanny takes photos of corals in the ROV control van onboard the E/V Nautilus. (Photo credit: Ocean Exploration Trust)

Fanny takes photos of corals in the ROV control van onboard the E/V Nautilus. (Photo credit: Ocean Exploration Trust)

Her Work

Natural mortality is a rare event among deep-sea octocorals, also known as sea fans, whichhave the potential to act as sentinels for anthropogenic impacts. Fanny uses high-definition imagery to assess the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s long-term impacts on octocorals.

Since 2010, her group’s lab has been monitoring hundreds of coral colonies at oil exposed and control sites. The team collects high-definition images of the same corals every year using ROV-mounted camera equipment. Fanny digitizes the images and identifies visible impacts to coral branches, including excess mucus, bare skeletons, and secondary colonization by hydroids. She compares the annual images to assess recovery over time and identifies factors potentially influencing recovery, which helps determine if the spill had delayed or long-term effects on the coral’s health and growth.

Her analyses suggest that while lightly-impacted corals have mostly recovered, many colonies are still unhealthy with little recovery evident. While deep-sea octocorals naturally grow extremely slowly, the growth of the impacted corals was barely detectable after six years, and significantly-impacted corals have lost branches continuously since 2011. Fanny recently authored a peer-reviewed article providing evidence that brittle stars, which live on and have a symbiotic relationship with coral colonies, appeared to protect and facilitate coral recovery.

The slow growth rates and abnormal branch loss that their team observed could indicate a lengthy post-oil spill recovery process. Fanny created a mathematical model that uses a matrix population model to project how many branches per coral colony will present as healthy, unhealthy, or colonized by hydroids and estimate recovery time. “The model suggests that it will take decades until all remaining branches appear healthy,” Fanny explained. “It will take another century until the lost branches have regrown.” She said that the long term image-based monitoring technique used in her research is an excellent tool to identify corals that suddenly become damaged or die, indicating an environmental disturbance.

An impacted coral imaged in 2011 (left) and 2016 (right). Part of this coral has visibly recovered, but most of the colony was still heavily impacted six years post-spill. (Image by Fanny Girard)

An impacted coral imaged in 2011 (left) and 2016 (right). Part of this coral has visibly recovered, but most of the colony was still heavily impacted six years post-spill. (Image by Fanny Girard)

Her Learning

Fanny experienced the most scientific growth while working with her advisors, Drs. Chuck Fisher and Iliana Baums, conducting field work aboard research cruises. Since beginning her Ph.D., she has participated in at least one research cruise each year and acted as chief scientist during a 2016 cruise. She says that the interdisciplinary nature of expeditions gave her a greater appreciation for other fields and introduced her to people who share her passion for the environment. The experiences taught her important skills for conducting research expeditions, such as coordinating between scientists, crew members, and ROV teams. “Making connections is extremely important for graduate students to find employers and identify future collaborations, but it can also be very difficult,” said Fanny. “I think being part of the GoMRI science community really facilitated that process.”

Her Future

Fanny plans to continue studying the deep sea and hopes her research can help protect and restore vulnerable ecosystems. She is considering post-doc opportunities, possibly in Europe, but is willing to travel anywhere for the right project. She advises students considering a scientific career to follow their passion, even if it seems difficult. As an undergraduate student, Fanny often expressed a desire to go on expeditions and study the ocean. However, most people dismissed her goals because of limited job opportunities and advised her to pursue a more mainstream profession. “I didn’t listen, and now I’m doing what I love,” she said. “I think if you are determined and love what you are doing, you will succeed.”

Praise for Fanny

Dr. Fisher said that Fanny has been an important asset to his team’s research since her first day. He explained that she developed the research methods used to demonstrate and quantify the brittle stars’ beneficial effects on oil-impacted coral’s recovery on her own. “Fanny is a pleasure to work with and has taken our research in new and exciting directions,” he said. “Most recently, she developed a mathematical model to predict the eventual fate of long-lived corals impacted by the oil spill.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Fanny Girard and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals.


This article originally appeard on GoMRI's website here, and was written by Maggie Dannreuther.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit


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