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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From Dynamite to Deconstruction, or How to Remove Ships from Coral Reefs

USS Guardian grounded on coral reef with tug removing fuel and wastewater.

SULU SEA (Jan. 28, 2013) The U.S. Navy contracted Malaysian tug Vos Apollo removes petroleum-based products and human wastewater from the mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5), which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17. No fuel has leaked since the grounding and all of the approximately 15,000 gallons on board Guardian was safely transferred to Vos Apollo during two days of controlled de-fueling operations on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. The grounding and subsequent heavy waves hitting Guardian have caused severe damage, leading the Navy to determine the 23-year old ship is beyond economical repair and is a complete loss. With the deteriorating integrity of the ship, the weight involved, and where it has grounded on the reef, dismantling the ship in sections is the only supportable salvage option. Since Guardian’s grounding, the Navy has been working meticulously to salvage any reusable equipment, retrieve the crew’s personal effects, and remove any potentially harmful materials. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy)

On January 17, 2013, the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines. Salvage experts evaluated various options for removing the ship, including towing or pulling it off the reef, but concluded that such efforts would cause even more damage  to the reef and the ship’s hull. Earlier this month, the Navy decided to dismantle the ship and remove it in smaller sections in order to minimize damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment.

The Tubbataha Reef, where the ship grounded in the Sulu Sea, is a marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its biodiversity, pristine reefs, and protected nesting habitat for marine birds and sea turtles.

The photos of the stranded ship and the concern about the corals in this part of the world reminded me of a story about the old U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) vessel Fathomer.  The USC&GS mission was to survey the U.S. coastline and create nautical charts of the coast to help increase maritime safety. Today, this part of NOAA is called the Office of Coast Survey, which produces navigational products, data, and services to keep maritime commerce moving and to protect life and property at sea. (Editor’s note: You can check out their WordPress blog at http://noaacoastsurvey.wordpress.com.)

I came across old photos of the Fathomer when I was working on a project studying the impact of vessel groundings on corals.  That story ended quite differently than the USS Guardian, and shows how environmental protection has become a much bigger concern for salvors.  In the old days, the focus of salvage was strictly to save the ship and cargo, but modern salvors (salvage crews) have a much bigger emphasis on protecting the environment.

On August 15, 1936, the Fathomer dragged anchor in a typhoon and, like the USS Guardian, ended up grounded on a coral reef in the Philippine Islands[1].  At that time, the Philippines were a commonwealth of the United States, and the Fathomer was surveying and charting the islands.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936. (NOAA)

The story of the Fathomer’s grounding and salvage is a good sea story, complete with rum.  All of the crew survived the storm and grounding, but the official history mentions that “Everyone was bruised and suffering from exhaustion and exposure. Two quarts of brandy, stored in the sick bay, were rationed out to all hands, and undoubtedly resulted in no one developing a severe cold or pneumonia.” The entire crew was later commended for their “seamanship, courage and fortitude.”

But what I found most interesting was the salvage efforts.  Buried in the official history are some details that show that coral reef protection was not a concern in 1936.  For example, a pile driver was used to place a “cluster of piles driven on the reef,” and these pilings were “backed by three anchors imbedded in the reef.”  Wire ropes were then used to try to bring the Fathomer upright and haul it off the reef, but those efforts were unsuccessful and ultimately the reef was dynamited and the loose coral was dredged, allowing the Fathomer to be towed to deeper water.

The removal of the USS Guardian is ongoing, but thankfully, it is clear, almost 80 years later, that coral reef protection will be very high on the list of priorities.


[1] The Fathomer worked in the Philippines from 1905-1941. After the 1936 typhoon, Fathomer resumed survey duties in the Philippine Islands. During World War II the ship was used in the defense of the Philippines and was lost in April 1942 when the American and Filipino defenders surrendered the Bataan Peninsula.


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$2 Million in Aquatic Restoration Projects Proposed for Polluted Housatonic River in Connecticut

Housatonic River with covered bridge.

The latest round of aquatic restoration projects for the Housatonic River will also indirectly improve water quality, increase buffering during coastal storms, and reduce runoff pollution into the river. (NOAA)

NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Connecticut released a proposal to use approximately $2 million from a 1999 settlement with General Electric Company (GE) to fund projects to increase fish habitat and restore marshes on the Housatonic River. Between 1932 and 1977, GE discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemical wastes from its facility in Pittsfield, Mass, into the Housatonic River, which runs through western Massachusetts and Connecticut. As a result, the Housatonic’s fish, wildlife, and their habitats suffered from the effects of these highly toxic compounds.

Part of an amendment to the 2009 restoration plan [PDF] for the Housatonic site, these latest projects highlight aquatic restoration because the original plan primarily focused on recreational and riparian restoration, with more than half of those projects already complete. The amendment identifies seven preferred restoration projects and three non-preferred alternatives to increase restoration of injured aquatic natural resources and services. These projects aim to more fully compensate the public for the full suite of environmental injuries resulting from GE’s decades of PCB contamination by:

  • Enhancing wetland habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife.
  • Supporting native salt marsh restoration by eradicating nonnative reeds and removing large debris (e.g., plywood and lumber).
  • Restoring migratory fish and wildlife passages by removing dams and constructing bypass channels.
  • Promoting recreational fishing, other outdoor activities, and natural resource conservation.

The 1999 legal settlement with GE included $7.75 million for projects in Connecticut aimed at restoring, rehabilitating, or acquiring the equivalent of the natural resources and recreational uses of the Housatonic River injured by GE’s Pittsfield facility pollution. Settlement funds grew to more than $9 million in an interest-bearing fund. NOAA and its co-trustees are using the majority of the remaining $2,423,328 of those funds to implement these additional aquatic natural resources projects.

Public comments and additional project proposals for this draft amendment to the restoration plan will be accepted through March 11, 2013. Comments should be sent to Robin Adamcewicz, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Eastern District Headquarters, 209 Hebron Road, Marlborough, CT 06447, or emailed to robin.adamcewicz@ct.gov

Learn more about Restoring Natural Resources in Connecticut’s Housatonic River Watershed [PDF].


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for 2013

Coast Guard on beach looking out to sea.

During NOAA’s Science of Oil Spills classes, the U.S. Coast Guard and other oil spill responders gain practical knowledge they can put to work while protecting our nation’s coasts. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled its annual Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for June 25–28, 2013, in Seattle.

We will accept applications for this class through May 10 and notify applicants regarding their application status no later than May 24, 2013.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These three-and-a-half-day trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 117 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. The class will be limited to 40 participants. No other SOS classes are planned through fiscal year 2013 (ending September 30).

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page on the Office of Response and Restoration website.


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How to Handle (or Not) Hazardous Marine Debris

This is a post by Nir Barnea, Washington and Oregon Marine Debris Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Marine debris, the perennial, insidious, problem that affects oceans and coasts worldwide, has been impacting U.S. beaches for many years. After the massive tsunami struck the north eastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, inflicting tragic loss of human life and massive damage, a variety of items washed out to sea as the water receded. Some debris remained floating, drifting long distances by ocean currents and winds. This influx of marine debris, adding to an already existing problem, has attracted media attention as well as volunteers, who selflessly dedicate their time and energy to clean the beaches they love, picking up and recycling or disposing of plastic bottles and Styrofoam, fishing lines and floats, packaging of all sorts, and other types of debris. Their work is both welcome and appreciated. It is thanks to the thousands of volunteers that marine debris along the U.S. coastline is removed.

But, how can you tell what debris is safe to clean up? Among the thousands of debris items that wash ashore everyday, some can be hazardous.

An obvious example is large oil drums. They can contain flammable or toxic material, should be left alone, not handled or removed, and reported to proper authorities right away.  However, less obvious items, such as plastic boxes or bags with unusual symbols should be handled similarly. Medical waste, for instance, can come in small boxes or packages. A fine-looking glass jar may contain toxic material, and explosive devices may come in different shape and packaging. Often (but not always) hazardous materials are labeled.

Watch out for these specific hazard symbols and labels:

  • Look for the hazard symbols and labels, and don’t touch any item that displays these or similar labels.
  • Don’t pick up or handle any item that you are not sure about.
  • Don’t open bottles, jars, and boxes that could contain hazardous material.
  • Mark the location, warn others, take photos, and call proper authorities, providing exact location description and photos.

The bottom line: Do your part and clean up the beach from marine debris, but be smart and aware of hazardous debris. No debris is worth getting hurt over.

For more information about handling debris, check out our website: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/japan-tsunami-marine-debris/marine-debris-handling-guidelines

Originally posted on the NOAA Marine Debris Blog.


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When Setting Fire to an Oil Spill in a Flooded Louisiana Swamp is a Good Thing

Smoke and fire from a controlled burn in a wooded Lousiania swamp.

A view of one of the controlled burns to remove oil spilled in a wooded swamp outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on January 19, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

This is a post by Kyle Jellison, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator.

The longer I work in the Gulf of Mexico, the more I come to understand why oil spill responders claim that “every spill is a unique situation.” Really? Yes, really.

Currently, I am providing scientific support for a pollution response in the remote, wooded swamp tucked inside Bayou Sorrel, about an hour outside of Baton Rouge, La. In early January, a pipeline running underground ruptured, and responders believed it was leaking just a few barrels of crude oil onto land. Then the rains came … and the flooding … and then even more flooding. Right now, up to 4 feet of water is covering the entire affected area (about 1 acre), and cleanup crews are wading through the oil slick in hip waders. This has been quite the challenge.

Part of my job is to help figure out how we could expedite this cleanup while minimizing damage to the environment. For this case, we agreed that it’s time to get out your matches because we’re having a fire! It is not for every spill that in situ burning, or the controlled burning of spilled oil “in place,” comes up. This is the first incident that I have been involved with where burning has been seriously discussed as a spill response option and one of only a few burns conducted in an environment other than a marsh, where the practice is more common for removing oil. (You may remember similar burns on the open ocean during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.)

In preparation for the burn, we needed to consider many factors: public safety and health, worker safety and health, effects to vegetation and animal species, proper conditions to sustain combustion, controls for limiting collateral damage, potential quantity of oil removed, and more. The response team determined that rising flood waters would complicate the cleanup operation and increase the probability of the oil escaping containment and spreading throughout the swamp. Controlled burning, on the other hand, could rapidly remove a high percentage of oil while causing minimal local damage to area plant species. (With their roots protected underwater, the plants would be able to grow back after the oiled upper portions were burned off.) As these plans took shape, burn team safety was paramount, and cleanup crews corralled the oil to create thick pools of oil for combustion.

After the in situ burn incinerated oil from a wooded swamp at Bayou Sorrel.

Taken January 19, 2013, after the in situ burn incinerated oil from a wooded swamp at Bayou Sorrel. The landscape may look stark, but the controlled burn removes the oil and allows the vegetation to regenerate in a cleaner environment. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Considering the circumstances, the in situ burns seemed like a great success. The fire team was able to ignite three patches of pooled oil with a handheld propane brush torch; one burn lasted 5 minutes and the other two burns lasted 15 minutes. The fires did not spread outside the oiled area, and we’ve heard no reports of injury or ill health. With 35 minutes of total combustion, the burns were able to remove an estimated 20 to 30 barrels of oil from the affected swamp, leaving 30 to 40 barrels behind for further clean up.

Cleanup crew in boats and hip waders work to sop up the leftover oil using sorbent pads and boom in a wooded swamp.

Oil still remains in part of the flooded Louisiana swamp, where a cleanup crew in boats and hip waders worked to sop up the leftover oil using sorbent pads and boom on February 4, 2013. (NOAA/LTJG Kyle Jellison)

Wait a minute, how did we end up with so many barrels of oil if initial reports were that only a few barrels leaked? The rain and the flooding have been drawing oil up from the soils surrounding the ruptured pipeline, and the oil has been rising to the water’s surface. If the pipeline buried about 6 feet underground can generate a pool of oil at the surface under dry conditions, how much oil has really been released? Could more oil show up later?

Efforts are underway to better understand this tricky situation by placing a closed loop of containment boom over the source point for several days. If more oil appears inside the boom, then the soil is continuing to release oil. If that is the case, this oily situation might persist for months to come, but only time will tell. Stay tuned at IncidentNews.gov.

LTJG Kyle Jellison and his family.

LTJG Kyle Jellison and his family.

LTJG Kyle Jellison is a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He is assigned to New Orleans, La., to provide Federal On-Scene Coordinators with mission critical scientific information for response and planning to oil and hazardous material releases. Jellison and his family currently reside on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and are enjoying the Louisiana lifestyle of crabbing, shooting, and “bon temps.” Prior to this, Jellison served aboard NOAA Ship HENRY B BIGELOW and was Acting Operations Officer during the vessel’s oceanographic mission to support the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response.


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Where Are the Pacific Garbage Patches Located?

Microplastics in sand.

Microplastics, small plastics less than 5 millimeters long, are an increasingly common type of marine debris found in the water column (including the “garbage patches”) and on shorelines around the world. Based on research to date, most commonly used plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Pacific Ocean is massive. It’s the world’s largest and deepest ocean, and if you gathered up all of the Earth’s continents, these land masses would fit into the Pacific basin with a space the size of Africa to spare.

While the Pacific Ocean holds more than half of the planet’s free water, it also unfortunately holds a lot of the planet’s garbage (much of it plastic). But that trash isn’t spread evenly across the Pacific Ocean; a great deal of it ends up suspended in what are commonly referred to as “garbage patches.”

A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces causes trash, free-floating sea life (for example, algae, plankton, and seaweed), and a variety of other things to collect in concentrations in certain parts of the ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, there are actually a few “Pacific garbage patches” of varying sizes as well as other locations where marine debris is known to accumulate.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch (aka “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”)

In most cases when people talk about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” they are referring to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch. This is located in a constantly moving and changing swirl of water roughly midway between Hawaii and California, in an atmospheric area known as the North Pacific Subtropical High.

NOAA National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner describes the North Pacific High as involving “a broad area of sinking air resulting in higher atmospheric pressure, drier warmer temperatures and generally fair weather (as a result of the sinking air).”

This high pressure area remains in a semi-permanent state, affecting the movement of the ocean below. “Winds with high pressure tend to be light(er) and blow clockwise in the northern hemisphere out over the open ocean,” according to Buehner.

As a result, plastic and other debris floating at sea tend to get swept into the calm inner area of the North Pacific High, where the debris becomes trapped by oceanic and atmospheric forces and builds up at higher concentrations than surrounding waters. Over time, this has earned the area the nickname “garbage patch”—although the exact content, size, and location of the associated marine debris accumulations are still difficult to pin down.

Map of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including "garbage patches") in the Pacific Ocean.

This map is an oversimplification of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including “garbage patches”) in the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous factors that affect the location, size, and strength of all of these features throughout the year, including seasonality and El Nino/La Nina. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Western Pacific Garbage Patch

On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, there is another so-called “garbage patch,” or area of marine debris buildup, off the southeast coast of Japan. This is the lesser known and studied, Western Pacific garbage patch. Southeast of the Kuroshio Extension (ocean current), researchers believe that this garbage patch is a small “recirculation gyre,” an area of clockwise-rotating water, much like an ocean eddy (Howell et al., 2012).

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone

While not called a “garbage patch,” the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone is another place in the Pacific Ocean where researchers have documented concentrations of marine debris. A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces create this convergence zone, which is positioned north of the Hawaiian Islands but moves seasonally and dips even farther south toward Hawaii during El Niño years (Morishige et al., 2007, Pichel et al., 2007). The North Pacific Convergence Zone is an area where many open-water marine species live, feed, or migrate and where debris has been known to accumulate (Young et al. 2009). Hawaii’s islands and atolls end up catching a notable amount of marine debris as a result of this zone dipping southward closer to the archipelago (Donohue et al. 2001, Pichel et al., 2007).

But the Pacific Ocean isn’t the only ocean with marine debris troubles. Trash from humans is found in every ocean, from the Arctic (Bergmann and Klages, 2012) to the Antarctic (Eriksson et al., 2013), and similar oceanic processes form high-concentration areas where debris gathers in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere.

You can help keep trash from becoming marine debris by (of course) reducing, reusing, and recycling; by downloading the NOAA Marine Debris Tracker app for your smartphone; and by learning more at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, also contributed to this post.

Literature Cited

Bergmann, M. and M. Klages. 2012. Increase of litter at the Arctic deep-sea observatory HAUSGARTEN. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64: 2734-2741.

Donohue, M.J., R.C. Boland, C.M. Sramek, and G.A Antonelis. 2001. Derelict fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: diving surveys and debris removal in 1999 confirm threat to coral reef ecosystems. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 42 (12): 1301-1312.

Eriksson, C., H. Burton, S. Fitch, M. Schulz, and J. van den Hoff. 2013. Daily accumulation rates of marine debris on sub-Antarctic island beaches. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 66: 199-208.

Howell, E., S. Bograd, C. Morishige, M. Seki, and J. Polovina. 2012. On North Pacific circulation and associated marine debris concentration. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 65: 16-22.

Morishige, C., M. Donohue, E. Flint, C. Swenson, and C. Woolaway. 2007. Factors affecting marine debris deposition at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, 1990-2002. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1162-1169.

Pichel, W.G., J.H. Churnside, T.S. Veenstra, D.G. Foley, K.S. Friedman, R.E. Brainard, J.B. Nicoll, Q. Zheng and P. Clement-Colon. 2007. Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF]. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1207-1211.

Young L. C., C. Vanderlip, D. C. Duffy, V. Afanasyev, and S. A. Shaffer. 2009. Bringing home the trash: do colony-based differences in foraging distribution lead to increased plastic ingestion in Laysan albatrosses? PLoS ONE 4 (10).


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NOAA Heritage Week 2013

 The NOAA Coast and Geodetic Survey Steamer PATTERSON.

NOAA’s heritage stretches back far: The NOAA Coast and Geodetic Survey Steamer PATTERSON was in service on the Pacific Ocean from 1884-1919. It’s shown here in Wailuku, Hawaii, in 1913. (NOAA)

It’s NOAA Heritage Week: Explore your world and learn how NOAA—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—takes the pulse of the planet every day and protects and manages ocean and coastal resources.

The week of Feb. 4, NOAA is hosting a series of free lunchtime presentations at the Gateway to NOAA exhibit on a variety of timely topics. It started with ocean acidification’s effects on oysters and ends Friday with microscopic images of ocean life. Gateway to NOAA is located at 1325 East-West Highway in Silver Spring, Maryland.

NOAA Heritage Week Open House in Maryland

Join us on NOAA’s Silver Spring, Maryland, campus on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for free activities, including engaging talks by NOAA experts, interactive exhibits, special tours, and hands-on activities for ages 5 and up.

Meet and talk with scientists, weather forecasters, hurricane hunter pilots, and others who work to understand our environment, protect life and property, and conserve and protect natural resources. Look forward to making origami whales, viewing seahorse X-rays, building an ocean buoy, or getting “shocked” learning about lightning safety with NOAA.

Visit www.noaa.gov/openhouse for details. Adults, please bring a photo ID to enter this federal facility.

Protecting America’s Heritage

In communities across America, NOAA is preserving the nation’s heritage. For example, NOAA promotes the message that our heritage resources belong to everyone, and that we all have a role to play in preserving them for future generations. NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary offers a Web-based shipwreck trail that highlights the region’s rich maritime history and encourages the public to visit the Keys and dive the trail’s nine carefully chosen, mapped, and interpreted sites. Learn more at http://preserveamerica.noaa.gov/welcome.html.

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