NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Living in the Age of Plastic: Conserving Plastic vs. Conserving the Environment from Plastic

Plastic spoons.

Plastic of the “disposable” variety. (Alex Smith, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

Today, we live an era dominated by plastics—versatile, ubiquitous, “disposable” plastics. In this “Age of Plastic,” enter Odile Madden, a research scientist studying historic plastic artifacts at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.

Using her training in materials science, Madden works to understand the materials—from their condition to their chemical composition—used in Smithsonian exhibits. She preserves these materials for as long as possible so that everyone who visits the museums can continue to enjoy these pieces of cultural history. The sensitive nature of the work demands non-invasive techniques that will not harm the artifact. It’s a cool job.

It also stands in stark contrast to environmental conservation, which depends on materials that break down quickly and do not stick around a long time. For example, an abandoned fishing net drifting in the open ocean will have a much lower chance of accidentally ensnaring marine life (“ghost-fishing”) if it breaks down quickly.

As a marine biologist with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, I work on the opposite end of the plastics spectrum from Madden. She and her team of cultural conservationists strive to maintain the integrity of valuable plastic artifacts, while at NOAA we’re trying to conserve marine environments by, for example, getting rid of plastic debris.

Madden’s continued interest in pursuing the technical and philosophical issues surrounding plastic use prompted her to coordinate the recent interdisciplinary symposium, “The Age of Plastic: Ingenuity and Responsibility.” Presentations covered everything from the space program’s use of plastics to the history of synthetic fibers. They also examined the challenges of preserving plastic in museums and of recycling plastics at the end of their lifecycles and had an open look at how plastics are perhaps indispensable in science and human health.

Nancy Wallace, program director for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, participated in an equally engaging panel discussion, where she highlighted the potential hazards of plastics that unintentionally end up as marine debris. (In other words, we brought up the negative side of plastics.)

Still, I walked away with two particularly refreshing perspectives from outside my world of marine debris:

  1. The difference between “conservationists”: Museums use “conservation” to mean saving materials, while environmentalists use “conservation” to mean saving the natural environment. Museums want the material to last as long as possible while we at NOAA would be happy if plastics degraded quickly into its molecular components: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. (The scientist in me needs to point out that the word “plastic” captures incredible variation in material type and structure. “Synthetic polymer” is more accurate, but alas, it doesn’t have public cachet.)
  1. The difference in values: The use of a material often defines its value. Materials that are meant to be art are arguably more valuable than materials used in life. Probably few people would disagree that there is an intrinsic difference in a resin sculpture housed at the Smithsonian versus the one-time-use spoon you pick up at the cafeteria. But we must ensure that materials are used and disposed of correctly, in ways that respect their value. Plastics are valuable— they were invented for a reason and serve a lot of fantastic purposes— but have become significantly devalued in today’s throw-away culture.
A cellulose nitrate Victorian Black Comb circa 1890.

A cellulose nitrate Victorian Black Comb (ca 1890). Celluloid novelties made to imitate precious materials such as ivory and tortoise shell were popular from about 1880 to the 1930s. (Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center)

I’d like to draw attention to another, unfortunately ironic, conservation connection. In his keynote speech, Robert Friedel of the University of Maryland pointed out that in the early days of synthetics, objects were created to imitate natural materials. In part, this was done to stop poaching of hawksbill sea turtles for tortoiseshell and elephant tusks for ivory. I thought, how interesting: Materials once used to conserve nature now occur in such quantity that natural environments are at risk from them.

Nevertheless, it was clear from this symposium that people care: both about preserving museum artifacts and about the baby albatross that chokes on ingested plastic bits. There are so many different, equally valuable perspectives on the use of plastics. All of these perspectives are needed if we are to move forward, as a society, with a more thoughtful approach to material use and conservation.


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Saving Coral After a Ship Grounds on a Reef in Puerto Rico

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom.

The ship M/V Jireh, run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico, is surrounded by protective oil boom. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Late last week a small freighter, the M/V Jireh, ran aground on Mona Island, an uninhabited island off Puerto Rico. The 22-square-mile island, an ecological reserve, is about 41 miles west of the main island of Puerto Rico. NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and U.S. Coast Guard are focusing on recovering the fuel and oil on board the freighter to minimize the environmental impact.

Efforts are underway to remove about 2,000 gallons of fuel oil from the Jireh. So far it looks like a major oil spill has been averted, but there is concern about the physical impact of the ship itself. As the ship plowed into the reef, it crushed and toppled corals. Unless restored, these unstable and barren areas may take generations to recover as tiny young coral larvae struggle to find a stable place to attach to the reef. Scientists are currently conducting a survey to see how much coral the ship affected.

[UPDATE JUNE 28, 2012: After surveying the underwater area around the grounded vessel, NOAA divers concluded that the ship caused minimal impact to coral. As of June 27, they were assessing whether any coral colonies or endangered species 300 feet out from the ship might be in its path as salvage teams attempted to refloat and remove it. NOAA would proactively remove and transplant any vulnerable species before salvage operations began.

Response crews have confirmed the Jireh is sound enough for them to go ahead and remove the diesel on board. They have deployed 100 feet of containment boom around the smaller response vessel ready to receive the fuel pumped off the Jireh. They also are removing a variety of oiled cargo from the ship, including mangoes, water bottles, cinder blocks, grain, bags of horse feed, and carbonated drinks.]

An injury doesn’t only stem from the grounded vessel. Anchors for the protective boom meant to contain any spilled oil have to be placed carefully to prevent additional damage, and care needs to be taken when the salvage tugs start to rig their own anchors and cables. About 800 feet of oil boom is currently strung around the vessel.

Some emergency actions can be taken to restore the coral reef, but recovery will still be slow. My office works to minimize those environmental impacts and develop restoration alternatives. If you are interested in other photos showing how we address coral injuries, take a look at the Maitland, Fla., and Cape Flattery, Hawaii, cases.

Mona Island is uninhabited, but there is a lot of shipping traffic nearby, and it has been affected by other ship groundings. In July 1997, the 325-foot container ship Fortuna Reefer ran aground on the south shore of the island, damaging approximately 6.8 acres of coral habitat. In September 1997, NOAA initiated an emergency restoration to the reef dominated by elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) that was completed by mid-October 1997.


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How Big Is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”? Science vs. Myth

While everything may be bigger in Texas, some reports about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” would lead you to believe that this marine mass of plastic is bigger than Texas—maybe twice as big as the Lone Star State, or even twice as big as the continental U.S.

For NOAA, a national science agency, separating science from science fiction about the Pacific garbage patch (and other “garbage patches”) is important when answering people’s questions about what it is and how we should deal with the problem. (For the record, no scientifically sound estimates exist for the size or mass of these garbage patches.)

Map of garbage patches and convergence zones in the Pacific Ocean.

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige takes down two myths floating around with the rest of the debris about the garbage patches in a recent post on the Marine Debris Blog:

  1. There is no “garbage patch,” a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. Morishige explains this misnomer:

While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.

She’s not downplaying the significance of microplastics. They are nearly ubiquitous today—degrading into tiny bits from a range of larger plastic items* [PDF] and now turning up in everything from face scrubs to fleece jackets. Yet their impacts on marine life mostly remain a big unknown.

  1. There are many “garbage patches,” and by that, we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed, and other sea life. (Find out more about these “convergence zones” in the ocean and a NOAA study of marine debris concentrations in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF].)

Any way you look at these “peppery soups” of plastic in the Pacific, none of the debris should be there. The NOAA Marine Debris website and blog have lots of great information and references if you want to learn more about the garbage patch issue.

Next up, Morishige digs into how feasible it is to clean up the so-called garbage patches.

Looking for more information about the “garbage patches”?

*Updated July 10, 2012. **Updated Jan. 28,  2013 to correct a statement incorrectly identifying the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone as what is referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”


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Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts, Jill Petersen, and Ashley Braun.

Pelican escaping oiled waters after the tank ship Eagle Otome spill near Port Arthur, Texas.

Pelican escaping oiled waters after the tank ship Eagle Otome spill near Port Arthur, Texas, in January of 2010. (NOAA)

The U.S. shoreline stretches 95,471 miles, from the coast of Alaska to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. However, these shores vary greatly in type, in how people use them, and in which species of birds, fish, and wildlife inhabit them.

These differences affect how sensitive the shorelines are to spilled oil and other environmental hazards. NOAA works with the federal and state governments to produce Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps, which identify coastal locations that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spill.

This series of maps shows the shorelines, wildlife, and habitat most sensitive to oil, as well as the resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Environmental Sensitivity Index map close-up.

Shorelines on Environmental Sensitivity Index maps are color-coded by sensitivity to oil. Symbols mark localized areas for biological and human-use resources.

For example, an ESI map in North Carolina might indicate an estuary where piping plovers, a threatened shorebird, nest between March and August. It would also display a color-coded ranking revealing that the saltwater marsh is highly sensitive to oiling and show the presence of and contact information for a nearby marina.

Quick Decisions

When a shoreline is threatened by an approaching oil spill, responders must decide quickly which locations along a shoreline to protect. Making these decisions sometimes requires difficult tradeoffs. Having this valuable information ready beforehand helps spill planners and responders prioritize areas to protect from oil and identify appropriate cleanup strategies.

For NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, one of our main goals in oil spill response is to reduce the environmental consequences of both spills and cleanup efforts. We help create and maintain ESI maps to facilitate the decision-making process surrounding these efforts. Some of the human-use resources on ESI maps include potential access points and staging areas, including boat launches and airports, which would be useful during an oil spill response.

Digital Maps

We offer ESI maps—and the data represented on them—for all of the U.S. coastal states and territories. Besides traditional print maps, we also make the data available through geographic information system (GIS) technology, which allows a much greater level of detail. You can see what digital file formats are available and download maps for your geographic region.

While all of the digital ESI maps are available in a free format, our team also has developed a collection of tools to simplify viewing and querying the data in an advanced GIS format. One of our newer tools, the Seasonal Summary Tool, creates a personalized ESI map, giving a snapshot of everything going on in a specific region for a particular time of the year. This may be beneficial for responders looking at an area impacted by an oil spill.

Another feature of the digital maps and data is that they group together species with common habitats, behaviors, and feeding patterns. One ESI tool can take advantage of this grouping to allow users to view areas where only those groups, such as birds of prey, occur. The user can filter this information further to show only the areas where these birds may be nesting in June or show only federally threatened or endangered species.

Mississippi Dog's Paw Environmental Sensitivity Index Map

Mississippi Dog’s Paw Environmental Sensitivity Index Map, showing a GIS tool feature which allows the user to delineate noncontiguous boundaries on the map.

A variety of people make use of Environmental Sensitivity Index maps, from the U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), to the Army Corps of Engineers and state contingency planners and emergency responders.

ESI maps are a constantly evolving product for constantly changing coasts and are rich with complex information. Since 1990, Jill Petersen has been observing this evolution firsthand, through her work on Environmental Sensitivity Index maps for the Office of Response and Restoration.

While demonstrating some of the advanced GIS tools in 2011, Petersen highlighted one which also allows users to draw their own geographic boundaries. The boundaries she, a canine enthusiast, chose for the Mississippi map? A dog’s paw, of course.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) mapping program.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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Restoration Amid Nuclear Waste and the Largest Environmental Cleanup in the U.S.

The front face of Hanford's B Reactor, where uranium fuel slugs were loaded into the reactor when it was operating.

The front face of Hanford’s B Reactor, where uranium fuel slugs were loaded into the reactor when it was operating. The reactor began operating in September 1944; it was shut down from 1946-1948, and then went back into service until 1968. (Dept. of Energy)

Recently I had the opportunity to tour the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation with a NOAA staffer working on the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). The goal of the Hanford damage assessment is to restore the natural resources affected by contamination from decades of nuclear defense activities at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

Spent fuel rods stored underwater at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Spent fuel rods are stored underwater at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (Dept. of Energy)

Between 1944 and 1987, Hanford, located in eastern Washington state, produced plutonium for atomic weapons, starting with the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. During the Cold War years, the facilities grew to include nine nuclear reactors and associated processing plants.

While producing plutonium for the U.S. defense program throughout the Cold War, billions of gallons and millions of tons of nuclear waste were generated, contaminating the ground around waste sites, the reactor and processing facility buildings, and groundwater. The site accounts for two-thirds of all the high-level radioactive waste in the entire country (by volume). There are 149 large eroding tanks filled with old nuclear waste that is in the process of being transferred into new tanks and eventually will be mixed with glass, a process called vitrification, for stability and permanent storage.

Since 1989, Hanford has been in cleanup mode and is the largest environmental cleanup in the U.S., employing about 11,000 people. Technicians work to mitigate contaminated groundwater before it reaches the Columbia River, which borders the site for 51 miles. They work on demolishing facilities, encasing (“cocooning”) old reactors, and burying tons of waste material into huge pits that are lined to prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil. A new waste treatment plant is underway that will handle the vitrification process for the nuclear waste currently stored in tanks. The process of cleaning up is likely to continue for decades.

Burned-out shell of Hanford High School.

Hanford High School as it looks today. It is the only building left from the original town of Hanford, Wash. (Dept. of Energy)

While touring Hanford, I was struck by the enormity of the site as well as the magnitude of the problem and the range of cleanup activities in progress. The 586-square-mile area is a desert steppe ecosystem mostly covered in grasses and sagebrush, with very few trees. For the most part nothing breaks the horizon but the now sealed-up, tall, windowless, nuclear reactors.

There are rolling hills and bluffs along the Columbia River, as well as the sites of two former small towns: Hanford, which gave the larger site its name, and White Bluffs. Both towns were evacuated permanently to make way for the top-secret nuclear project in 1943.

Two Hanford High School baseball players in 1925.

Two members of the Hanford High School baseball team in 1925. (Dept. of Energy)

All that’s left of them is the burned-out cement shell of Hanford High School, outlines of where sidewalks and streets once were, and a bank that had been in downtown White Bluffs. Some former residents return in the summer for a picnic on the site of the vanished communities.

For thousands of years before these two small towns existed, the area was inhabited by Native American people who gathered mussels, spear-fished salmon, and hunted the bison that previously roamed there.  The site is still important as a cultural meeting place and fall fishing ground for descendants of the Native people. Also of concern to the Native American people are the more than 600 archeological sites that have been discovered within the Hanford Nuclear site.

Three Tribes, as well as representatives from the states of Washington and Oregon, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and NOAA are all involved in the environmental damage assessment. This collective group of trustees operates by consensus to replace lost or injured resources. They face diverse interests as they continue to collaborate throughout this process. In future blog posts here, we’ll look at a particular challenge of interest to NOAA, which is whether to initiate environmental restoration in the Columbia River before the full cleanup and damage assessment is complete.

For more information on tours of the Hanford Nuclear Site, see the U.S. Department of Energy Hanford Site Tours.


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Do Bigger Oil Spills Require More Restoration?

This is a post by NOAA intern Franziska Economy.

Quick, can you name ten major oil spills?

Having a hard time? Until recently, I would have been scratching my head after:

  1. Deepwater Horizon/BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010)
  2. Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska (1989)
  3. … ?

Maybe some of you managed to come up with a couple of the other major spills from the last few decades, but this seems to be a tall order for the average person.

Oil spills actually happen just about every day, but most don’t make the news. I was surprised to learn that there are nearly 14,000 oil and chemical spills reported to the National Response Center every year.

Even crazier to me was the discovery that sometimes the best recovery option for small oil spills is actually taking “No Action.” This can be the case when cleaning up the oil would cause more harm to a sensitive ecosystem than just leaving it there to break down naturally. Sometimes, however, an oil spill can be relatively large and present real dangers to the plants and animals in the area without attracting much attention from the greater public.

Learning all of this prompted me to delve into the treasure trove of information on the oil spill cases NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration handles. As the lead science agency for oil spills, NOAA is asked to respond to about 100–200 of the more significant marine and coastal spills every year to provide scientific support to help with the cleanup. A much smaller subset of those spills require a legal assessment of environmental monetary damages to restore those natural resources. This is known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA.

When studying these NRDA spill cases, I focused on two particularly interesting factors: the size of the oil spill and the “restoration cost,” or how much money the oil spiller has to pay to restore the public’s injured natural resources. Take a look at the top ten oil spill cases in each category and see how they compare:

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources.

Figure 1. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources. Note: each color in this graph corresponds to a spill found on both Figure 1 and Figure 2; gray spills are only found on one graph. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons.

Figure 2. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Right off the bat, it is easy to spot that bigger oil spills don’t always result in the highest restoration costs, and even if the restoration cost of a spill is relatively high, it is not necessarily related to the size of the spill. The Cosco Busan and Athos place first and second among oil spill settlements by restoration cost (Figure 1), but they are not big enough to land in the top ten by spill size (Figure 2; they are 12 and 23, respectively).

Furthermore, before the Deepwater Horizon/BP incident, the spill Barge Morris J. Berman was the largest spill that OR&R had responded to; yet it ranked only the fifth highest among restoration settlements, not even one-third the amount of the highest settlement, the Cosco Busan. In general, only half of the spills on each graph appear on the other, showing a lower correlation between these two variables than I originally thought.

So, why do you think that is? I’ve been brainstorming what factors could influence why gallons of oil spilled do not necessarily result in the most money required to restore natural resources. A single variable—such as the amount or type of oil spilled—isn’t by itself an accurate indicator of how much money it takes to respond to, clean up, and restore the environment after an oil spill. We have to examine a variety of factors to understand the bigger picture.

Other factors which might affect the restoration cost of an oil spill include:

  • the properties of the oil spilled (was it thick like tar that would sink to the bottom? Or was it light and likely to evaporate quickly from the water’s surface?)
  • the type and effectiveness of cleanup methods (was very little oil able to be recovered?)
  • the type of ecosystem affected (was it an estuary full of sensitive marsh grass and bird nesting sites or in an lower quality industrial area with a bulkheaded shoreline?)
  • the cultural and economic values of nearby cities and towns (was the spill close to a population with strong ties to the outdoor environment?)

What other issues do you think might play a role in how much restoration is required to offset the impacts of an oil spill on the environment?

Franziska Economy is an American University graduate with a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and Environmental Science. She is working as a Constituent and Legislative Affairs intern for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and enjoys sharing the interesting facts she has learned and statistics she has uncovered. She hopes to help break down the acronym-filled, complicated world of responding to oil spills, assessing damages, and restoring broken ecosystems.


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A NOAA Scientist’s Message on World Ocean Day: Follow Your Interests on Whatever Path They Take You

This is a post by Vicki Loe and NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten

Happy World Ocean Day, a global celebration honoring the ocean that gives us so much and links us across the globe. This year the theme is Youth: the Next Wave for Change. The Ocean Project, which coordinates World Ocean Day, believes that we share the responsibility of ensuring our ocean is protected for future generations. In that same vein, the scientists at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration strive to share their knowledge and experiences with young people to inspire them to careers in ocean science.

Amy Merten with students from the 2012 Salish Sea Expeditions program.

Amy Merten (right, front) with students from the 2012 Salish Sea Expeditions program.

One of our scientists, Dr. Amy Merten, recently spoke to a group of 150 students from Washington’s Salish Sea Expeditions program as they nervously prepared to present their final research projects. The program provides a unique marine science experience to middle and high school students as they navigate Puget Sound on a 61-foot sailing vessel and work on group research projects.

As she addressed the budding young scientists, Dr. Merten spoke not only about the problems she works on now, but also the circuitous path it took to get her there. As a biology undergraduate student in the early 1990s, a senior project introduced her to cutting-edge oceanography as well as the early discussions of climate change.

“This experience exposed me to real scientists, including those in NOAA,” Merten explained. “It was my first exposure to NOAA, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.” This experience landed Merten her first job out of college and led her to study the effect of chronic pollution on Chesapeake Bay’s food web.

As she was finishing her Ph.D. and working at NOAA, she transitioned to the field of emergency response at the Office of Response and Restoration. This took her to several oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2004 Athos spill in Delaware Bay, and the 2004 Selendang Ayu oil spill off the coast of Unalaska, Alaska. During this time, Merten also aided Vietnamese scientists in developing their nation’s oil spill response plan. In 2005, she helped mitigate the effects of numerous oil and chemical spills caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “Working on the ground with oil spill responders gave me practical experience for applying my academic and policy expertise,” Merten recalled.

Describing her work in the aftermath of the hurricanes, Merten told how she came to the difficult decision to burn spilled oil in a contaminated marsh near a Gulf of Mexico refinery. Because there were potential risks, her decision was met with some skepticism, but as a result, the marsh showed remarkable recovery after the burn.

Before, during, and after a successful effort to restore oiled marsh in the Gulf of Mexico by burning it.

Before, during, and after a successful effort to restore oiled marsh near a Gulf of Mexico refinery by burning the oil.

She emphasized to the students that such problems can be very complex, and frequently without black-and-white solutions. “You never know when a leadership opportunity will emerge,” she reflected. “You have to trust your instinct and your skills, and people will work with you to overcome risky challenges.”

Later, Merten’s team finished developing a mapping tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), coincidentally just in time to be put to use for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. The idea for ERMA was conceived by Merten and a University of New Hampshire scientist to consolidate environmental data on a web mapping platform. It was used by responding agencies, corporations, and others as the common operating picture throughout the oil spill cleanup and damage assessment in the Gulf of Mexico.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue. Amy serves as Chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Assessment and Restoration Division in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Wrapping up with where her current passion is taking her now, Merten discussed how the Arctic environment is changing and the challenges that oil spills, a potential consequence of increased drilling and shipping in that region, could pose to local communities. She now is working on solutions to the unique and complicated problems an Arctic oil spill response could present: an isolated environment, sub-freezing temperatures, unique cultures, and what happens when oil mixes with ice.

Merten, a technical advisor to the Salish Sea Expeditions program, ended her speech by saying, “I hope your experience at Salish gives you a foundation in science, and you’re able to think back to what you’ve accomplished to help you move forward in the future.” Her overriding message to the young scientists was one of encouragement: Follow your interests, don’t always expect a linear career path, stay curious, and work hard.


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Mussel Memory: How a Long-Term Marine Pollution Program Got New Life

This is a post by Dr. Alan Mearns, NOAA Senior Staff Scientist.

Volunteer scrapes mussels off rocks at Hat Island.

Kathleen Herrmann of the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) samples mussels at Hat Island, 5 miles offshore of Everett, Wash. Credit: Lincoln Loehr, MRC.

Scraping small black mussels off of slippery rocks in the Pacific Northwest’s chilly, wet January weather probably doesn’t sound like much fun. However, thanks to the dedicated folks who endure those conditions (and to several other important partners), these mussels and others tested in NOAA’s National Mussel Watch Program will keep telling us about water pollution levels and seafood safety for years to come.

NOAA's Gary Shigenaka and Tim Jones of Penn Cove Shellfish Co. sample raft-grown mussels from one of the numerous culture rafts.

NOAA’s Gary Shigenaka and Tim Jones of Penn Cove Shellfish Co. sample raft-grown mussels from one of the numerous culture rafts, five days following the nearby sinking of the derelict vessel, Deep Sea. Credit: Alan Mearns/NOAA.

For example, just last month a fishing boat caught fire and sank near Washington’s Whidbey Island. The boat ended up leaking diesel fuel into waters near a Penn Cove Shellfish Company mussel farm, and the company took the precautionary measure of stopping the harvest. Fellow NOAA scientist Gary Shigenaka and I rushed to the scene.

With help from the shellfish company’s co-owner Ian Jefferds, we sampled mussels from six mussel floats and two beach sites and received the lab results of the oil pollution screening a few days later. They confirmed that the mussels had low levels of diesel contamination. The Washington State Department of Health had shut down all shellfish harvesting in Penn Cove on May 15 and just reopened some areas on June 5.

Penn Cove Shellfish mussel farm floats, with protective floating boom surrounding the site where the fishing vessel sank.

Penn Cove Shellfish mussel farm floats, with protective floating boom surrounding the site where the fishing vessel sank in the background. Credit: Alan Mearns/NOAA.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have an existing Mussel Watch site in this cove. Nevertheless, thanks to comparable Mussel Watch sites nearby, we have a decent idea of what the contaminant levels in Penn Cove mussels might have looked like before this oil spill. But not long ago this valuable shellfish-monitoring program almost disappeared from Washington waters.

Endangered Research
During the past couple years, I’ve worked together with Dr. Dennis Apeti at NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and Dr. James West at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to help revive and expand the National Mussel Watch Program in the state of Washington where I live.

Under NOAA, the National Mussel Watch Program has been monitoring trends in contaminant levels in the mussels (Mytilus spp.) living in Washington waters since 1986. Regionally, this program has been tracking changing levels of pollution at up to 20 different locations in Puget Sound, the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, and Washington’s Olympic Coast.

This provides valuable water quality data on background levels and trends of fossil-fuel byproducts and other chemicals. These include about 50 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are potentially cancer-causing pollutants. By sampling mussels, we’ve discovered that parts of Puget Sound have significantly higher amounts of PAHs than anywhere else in the U.S., including heavily trafficked ports like Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay.

However, a steady decrease in funding over the past several years threatened to end NOAA’s mussel monitoring in Washington and across the country. As early as 2006, I was working as a volunteer member of the Snohomish County (Washington) Marine Resources Committee to convince the county, the Stillaguamish Tribe, and the Tulalip Tribe to help save the program by funding and coordinating their own local mussel sampling—and had some success by 2006 and 2007. But it wouldn’t be enough to save the program.

In 2009, I approached scientists at the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, who evaluate trends in Puget Sound’s environmental quality. Chief Eco-toxicologist Dr. West bit at the opportunity to help and got his department involved.

Volunteer Muscle
By the winter of 2009–10, we were ready to save the program with the help of citizen scientists. These were the hardy volunteers we helped train to collect mussels using scientific methods around Puget Sound and on the Olympic Coast. Many of these volunteers are part of Washington State University Beach Watchers, a program active in marine education, research, and stewardship.

Volunteers sample mussels at a Mussel Watch beach site near Edmonds, Wash.

Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee members and Snohomish County BeachWatcher volunteers sample mussels at the Edmonds Jetty Mussel Watch site, one of the National Mussel Watch Program sites. Credit: Alan Mearns/NOAA.

Alongside these volunteers was staff from the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. And of course, my NOAA colleague Debra Simecek-Beatty and I were out in our rain gear gathering mussels too.

From January through March 2010, both old and new collection sites in Washington had been sampled, and the mussels were sent to a NOAA-contracted laboratory for chemical analysis.

Then on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon/BP well blowout caused nearly every qualified pollutant chemistry laboratory in the U.S. to drop everything and support the oil spill response and assessment in the Gulf of Mexico. Our Washington samples were ready and waiting but got set aside for more than a year.

Forging Ahead
Anxiously awaiting results, but undaunted, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife began preparing for the next biennial survey in 2012. Thanks to new U.S. EPA funding, they now could expand the Washington program to test mussels at nearly 30 locations, which were sampled this past February.

Just last month, we finally received the long-awaited 2010 lab results. Preliminary inspection revealed a new hotspot of oil byproducts in Elliot Bay while several past locations like this disappeared from urban areas. I’ve been providing guidance for the data analysis, particularly for the petroleum hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Mussels and barnacles on rip rap rocks at a mussel watch site. Note also the seaweed, Fucus (popweed), and several dog whelk snails (that prey on mussels).

Mussels and barnacles on rip rap rocks at a Mussel Watch site. Note also the seaweed, Fucus (popweed), and several dog whelk snails (that prey on mussels). Credit: Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee.

The recent Washington Mussel Watch expansion is now poised to open sampling at 60 sites, including completely new areas, such as the San Juan Islands; to sample during different seasons to pin down big runoff pollution events; and potentially to use a new technique that allows us to sample in areas where mussels aren’t living already (by placing clean mussels in a bag attached to a buoy anchored at sea).

This Mussel Watch triumph of partnerships not only gives scientists and natural resource managers in Washington the ability to track the benefits of pollution management actions, but it also gives them a basis for comparing background contaminant levels in the event of an oil spill like the one near Whidbey Island, Wash. When cleaning up spilled oil, it helps us to know how “clean” any particular place was before oil spilled there.

As both a professional and citizen scientist myself (10 years of tracking birds in my backyard!), I know just how valuable this kind of work can be. I’m proud to be part of this association and look forward to a healthy future for tracking Washington’s marine health.

Many thanks to NOAA’s Drs. Gunnar Lauenstein, Debra Simecek-Beatty, and Dennis Apeti for assistance.

Dr. Alan Mearns.Dr. Alan Mearns is Ecologist and Senior staff Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division in Seattle. He has over 40 years of experience in ecology and pollution assessment and response, with focus on wastewater discharges and oil spills along the Pacific Coast and in Alaska. He has worked in locations as varied as the Arctic Ocean, Southern California, Israel, and Australia, and has participated in spill responses around the U.S. and abroad.


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Building Relationships out on the Ice in Kotzebue, Alaska

Overlook of shoreline of Kotzebue, Alaska.

Overlook of Kotzebue, Alaska. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

I could read reports and attend meetings until I’m blue in the face, but until I made my first trip above the Arctic Circle to the village of Kotzebue, located on Alaska’s northwest coast, I couldn’t fully appreciate the challenges of dealing with an oil spill in Arctic conditions. Last week, however, I finally was able to see some of those challenges first hand.

The purpose of this trip up north was to attend a workshop on involving the community not only when responding to oil spills but also when measuring and restoring the resulting damage to natural resources. Due to the prospect of increased ship traffic and offshore oil drilling in Arctic regions, the risk of an oil spill in Arctic waters is growing.

As a result, Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough sponsored this workshop to discuss oil spill response and restoration issues. NOAA attended along with several other state and federal agencies, and the Coastal Response and Research Center facilitated the meeting. The workshop also included discussions about how to integrate local community knowledge into the newly released Arctic Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that integrates different types of environmental information for decision makers during disasters.

A classic building on the Kotzebue waterfront.

A classic building on the Kotzebue waterfront. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

Located 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kotzebue is a hub of travel for this area of Alaska, allowing participants from eleven villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough to attend this workshop. During the course of the meeting, community members from Kotzebue and surrounding villages expressed concerns about oil spill response capabilities and how a spill would affect their subsistence lifestyle.

These initial discussions are extremely useful in NOAA’s efforts to broaden our understanding of how people are so closely tied to and dependent on natural resources in the Arctic—and how we would be able to evaluate those connections in case an oil spill interfered with them. The most important goal of the workshop that we were able to achieve was to enhance relationships and the knowledge exchange between local Alaskan communities and government agencies.

I’m not sure of the best way to explain how important this is, but I’ll give it a shot. When we first arrived in Kotzebue, we spent a good amount of time looking out over the vast sea ice; it was the first time I had ever seen this thick layer of ice frozen over the Arctic Ocean. We saw snowmobilers and skiers speed across it, and we observed numerous small groups ice fishing on it. Two days later, the first layer of snow on the ice had firmed up, enabling us to walk out onto it without sinking up to our knees in snow.

The big question was, How safe was the ice? (Because this was my first trip to the Arctic and I only know Seattle’s mild winters, I was justifiably apprehensive about it.) We could see some cracks in the ice, but two days ago it was being heavily used. Even though there was no one out on the ice at the time, eventually we figured that it was safe.

The author venturing out onto the ice.

I finally venture out onto the ice in Kotzebue. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

Very timidly, we walked out onto the sea ice, but no issues arose except cold fingers. What we needed and desired, however, was guidance from the locals who knew the ice. Those who live in this amazing corner of the world know the status of the ice and would have been able to direct us if there were any safety problems.

I think this experience, although on a very small scale, can be compared to the objectives of this workshop.  One of the central goals was to start building relationships between those who know the local environments with those emergency responders and restoration experts who will need their guidance and expertise if an oil spill does occur.

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