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


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Latest Research Finds Serious Heart Troubles When Oil and Young Tuna Mix

Atlantic bluefin tuna prepares to eat a smaller fish.

Atlantic bluefin tuna are a very ecologically and economically valuable species. However, populations in the Gulf of Mexico are at historically low levels. (Copyright: Gilbert Van Ryckevorsel/TAG A Giant)

In May of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling for oil in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, schools of tuna and other large fish would have been moving into the northern Gulf. This is where, each spring and summer, they lay delicate, transparent eggs that float and hatch near the ocean surface. After the oil well suffered a catastrophic blowout and released 4.9 million barrels of oil, these fish eggs may have been exposed to the huge slicks of oil floating up through the same warm waters.

An international team of researchers from NOAA, Stanford University, the University of Miami, and Australia recently published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences exploring what happens when tuna mix with oil early in life.

“What we’re interested in is how the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico would have impacted open-ocean fishes that spawn in this region, such as tunas, marlins, and swordfishes,” said Stanford University scientist Barbara Block.

This study is part of ongoing research to determine how the waters, lands, and life of the Gulf of Mexico were harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response. It also builds on decades of research examining the impacts of crude oil on fish, first pioneered after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Based on those studies, NOAA and the rest of the research team knew that crude oil was toxic to young fish and taught them to look carefully at their developing hearts.

“One of the most important findings was the discovery that the developing fish heart is very sensitive to certain chemicals derived from crude oil,” said Nat Scholz of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

This is why in this latest study they examined oil’s impacts on young bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, and amberjack, all large fish that hunt at the top of the food chain and reproduce in the warm waters of the open ocean. The researchers exposed fertilized fish eggs to small droplets of crude oil collected from the surface and the wellhead from the Deepwater Horizon spill, using concentrations comparable to those during the spill. Next, they put the transparent eggs and young fish under the microscope to observe the oil’s impacts at different stages of development. Using a technology similar to doing ultrasounds on humans, the researchers were able create a digital record of the fishes’ beating hearts.

All three species of fish showed dramatic effects from the oil, regardless of how weathered (broken down) it was. Severely malformed and malfunctioning hearts was the most severe impact. Depending on the oil concentration, the developing fish had slow and irregular heartbeats and excess fluid around the heart. Other serious effects, including spine, eye, and jaw deformities, were a result of this heart failure.

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

“Crude oil shuts down key cellular processes in fish heart cells that regulate beat-to-beat function,” noted Block, referencing another study by this team.

As the oil concentration, particularly the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), went up, so did the severity of the effects on the fish. Severely affected fish with heart defects are unlikely to survive. Others looked normal on the outside but had underlying issues like irregular heartbeats. This could mean that while some fish survived directly swimming through oil, heart conditions could follow them through life, impairing their (very important) swimming ability and perhaps leading to an earlier-than-natural death.

“The heart is one of the first organs to appear, and it starts beating before it’s completely built,” said NOAA Fisheries biologist John Incardona. “Anything that alters heart rhythm during embryonic development will likely impact the final shape of the heart and the ability of the adult fish to survive in the wild.”

Even at low levels, oil can have severe effects on young fish, not only in the short-term but throughout the course of their lives. These subtle but serious impacts are a lesson still obvious in the recovery of marine animals and habitats still happening 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


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Swimming Upstream: Examining the Impacts of Nuclear-age Pollution on Columbia River Salmon

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it.

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it. (NOAA)

Flowing freely through southeastern Washington is an approximately 50 mile stretch of the Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. This unique section of river is birthplace and home to many animals at different stages of life, including Chinook salmon, the largest of the river’s Pacific salmon. Yet this same segment of river at one time also served as the birthplace of the nuclear age: at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Today, NOAA, other federal and state agencies, and Indian tribes are still trying to determine the full impact of this nuclear legacy on fish, wildlife, and their habitats.

Beginning in 1943, the Hanford Reach, with its steady supply of water and relative isolation, attracted the attention of the U.S. government during World War II. Searching for a location to erect nuclear reactors for the top-secret Manhattan Project, the U.S. was racing to build an atomic bomb and this work took shape at Hanford.

Two of Hanford's nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Two of Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (NOAA)

The first nuclear reactor built at Hanford—and the first full-scale nuclear production plant in the world—was the B Reactor, which began operating in 1944. This and the other eight reactors eventually constructed at Hanford were located right on the Columbia River, an essential source of water to carry away the extreme heat generated by nuclear fission reactions. In these plants, workers turned uranium (euphemistically referred to as “metal”) into weapons-grade plutonium (known as “product”). The plutonium eventually ended up in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, as well as in nuclear arms stockpiled during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Hanford’s last reactors shut down in 1987.

The River Runs Through It

While the nuclear reactors were operating, however, water was pumped from the Columbia River and aerated at a rate of 70,000 gallons a minute. This was meant to improve its quality as it flowed through a maze of processing equipment—pipes, tubes, and valves—and into the core, the heart of the nuclear reactor. There, in the case of B Reactor, about 27,000 gallons of water gushed through 2,004 process tubes every minute. Each tube held 32 rods of uranium fuel.

The "valve pit" in Hanford's B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor's core passed through.

The “valve pit” in Hanford’s B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor’s core passed through. (NOAA)

Inside the reactor’s core, where the nuclear reactions were occurring, the water temperature would spike from 56 degrees Fahrenheit to 190 degrees in a single minute. Later in the reactor’s lifespan, the operators would be able to leave the water inside the nuclear reactor core long enough to heat it to 200 degrees before releasing the water into lined but leaky outdoor holding ponds. Once in the holding ponds, the reactor water would sit until its temperature cooled and any short-lived radioactive elements had broken down. Finally, the water would return to the Columbia River and continue its path to the Pacific Ocean.

Water played such an essential role in the nuclear reactor that engineers had four levels of backup systems to keep water constantly pumping through the core. In addition to being aerated, the water was also filtered and chemically treated. To prevent the core’s plumbing equipment from corroding, chromium was added to the water. Hanford’s D Reactor, in particular, handled large quantities of solid hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer.

The Salmon Runs Through It

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013.

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013. (NOAA)

Fast-forward to 2013. NOAA and its partners are participating in a natural resource damage assessment, a process determining whether negative environmental impacts resulted from the Department of Energy’s activities at Hanford. As part of that, NOAA is helping look at the places where water leaked or was discharged back into the Columbia River after passing through the reactors.

One goal is to establish at what levels of contamination injury occurs for species of concern at Hanford. Salmon and freshwater mussels living in the Columbia River represent the types of species they are studying. Yet these species may face impacts from more than 30 different contaminants at Hanford, some of which are toxic metals such as chromium while others are radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90.

Many of the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout spawn in or migrate through the Hanford Reach. Currently, NOAA and the other trustees are pursuing studies examining the extent of their spawning in this part of the river and determining the intensity of underground chromium contamination welling up through the riverbed. This information is particularly important because salmon build rocky nests and lay their eggs in the gravel on the bottom of the river.

You can learn more about the history of the Hanford Reach and the chromium and other contamination that threatens the river (around minute 8:50-9:03)  in this video from the Department of Energy:

The trustees have many other studies planned, all trying to uncover more information about the natural resources and what they have been experiencing in the context of Hanford’s history. Yet, for the natural resource damage assessment, even if the trustees find salmon experiencing negative impacts, the evidence found needs to be tied directly to exposure to Hanford’s pollution (rather than, for example, the influence of dams or pollution from nearby farms). It is a complicated process of information gathering and sleuthing, but eventually it will culminate in a determination of the restoration required for this critical stretch of habitat on the Columbia River.

For more information, see:


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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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Study Reveals D.C. Community near Anacostia River Are Eating and Sharing Contaminated Fish

A family fishes on the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C.

A family fishes on Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River. According to a 2012 report, 74 percent of those fishing this river are eating or sharing fish possibly contaminated by cancer-causing chemical pollutants. Credit: Rebecca Harlan/All rights reserved.

An extensive study partly funded by NOAA has found that nearly half of the people living near Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River are unaware of the dangers of eating its fish. The results are prompting a reexamination of how to communicate these important public health risks to a diverse, multilingual, and urban community.

The report uncovered further evidence that many local fishermen—who were disproportionately African American, Latino, or Asian—are catching, eating, and sharing potentially contaminated fish with family, friends, and others, greatly expanding the possible long-term health risks to the public. The study estimated some 17,000 people living near the Anacostia could be eating these polluted fish.

“Our research confirmed that contaminated fish are, indeed, being shared in the community,” said Steve Raabe of OpinionWorks, the company that did the survey. “What we could not have known, prior to embarking upon this effort, is the extent to which this sharing happens and the complex set of factors that drive it.”

Sign with a clean fish warning about possible pollutants inside.

When shown this ad during interviews with Anacostia River fishermen, one respondent answered, “This (ad) makes you just want to grill it!” This demonstrated “how difficult it is to break through to this audience with a message about unseen contaminants,” such as PCBs. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

A Dirty History

The Anacostia River, which runs through Maryland and the District of Columbia, has suffered from decades of pollution, mainly from runoff and hazardous waste sites. NOAA has been partnering to evaluate, clean up, and restore the Anacostia watershed since the late 1990s.

One of the most notable chemical pollutants in the river is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have immune, reproductive, endocrine, and neurological effects, and may cause cancer and affect children’s cognitive development. This and other chemicals build up in the river bottom, where they make their way up the food chain and become stored in the tissues of fish, posing a health threat if people consume them.

Even though the District of Columbia and Maryland have been issuing warnings about eating Anacostia River fish for more than twenty years, the majority of fishermen and community members surveyed were not aware of these advisories. While both governments tell the public not to eat any channel catfish or carp, this report exposed that these are some of the most commonly caught fish in the river.

Furthermore, over half the fishermen reported that “knowing about such a health advisory” would not change whether or how they ate their catch. Researchers found at least two misunderstandings playing into this. One was the fishermen’s mistaken belief that they would be able to see contamination on the outside of the fish. Another was their assumption that getting “sick” from the fish would be immediate, in the form of food poisoning, instead of a future risk of cancer.

Hungry Now or Sick Later?

A particularly surprising result from the study was that fishermen along the Anacostia River often are approached by people who ask them to share fish because they do not have enough food.

Warning sign reading: Danger: Eating fish from this river may cause cancer.

Researchers found that this kind of direct messaging got the attention of those fishing on the Anacostia River. But simply improving warning signs may not be enough to address the root of the problem. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

“They will ride around in their cars and look to see if we’re catching fish and ride up and ask, ‘Have you caught anything today? Are you going to keep them?’” said one Anacostia fisherman interviewed during the study about sharing his catch with those lacking food.

The community’s apparent lack of access to enough affordable food complicates the task of merely delivering a better message about health risks.

“The answer to this problem will be far more complex than simply telling anglers not to share their catch,” said Raabe. “How can you tell someone who is hungry today not to eat fish that may pose future health risks?”

With almost three-quarters of fishermen eating or sharing the fish they catch, those involved in the study are looking at a broad range of possible fixes to this complex problem:

  • Improving health-risk messages to those most affected.
  • Creating more and better opportunities for education, such as fishing tournaments.
  • Introducing healthier alternative protein options to the community, through aquaponics (“a farming technique that grows plants and fish in a recirculating environment”) and local fish subscription services (akin to community supported agriculture programs).
  • Increasing the amount of city food gardens and farmers markets in the area.

Along with NOAA, the following organizations were involved in this study: Anacostia Watershed Society, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Anacostia Riverkeeper, District Government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

You can download the complete report at www.anacostiaws.org/fishing, read about ways to reduce exposure to chemical contaminants when eating fish, and learn about efforts to cleanup and restore the Anacostia.


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The Never-ending History of Life on a Rock

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

In 1989 when Dr. Alan Mearns first caught sight of a certain seaweed-encrusted boulder in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, he had little idea he would be visiting that chest-high, relatively nondescript rock year after year … for the next two decades. Or that, along the way, the boulder would eventually bear his name: Mearns Rock.

This particular rock—like many others in the southwest corner of the sound—was coated in oil after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on nearby Bligh Reef and flooded the salty waters with nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in March 1989. For the next ten years, Mearns and other NOAA biologists examined how marine life in these tidal areas reacted to the Exxon oiling. Some of the rocky areas in their study had been oiled; others had later been cleaned of oil using high-pressure, hot-water hoses, while still others, serving as a “control” or baseline comparison, had been untouched by oil or cleaning efforts—as if the Exxon Valdez had never disemboweled its oily innards at all.

Looking Under a Rock

Over the years, Mearns and his fellow biologists were able to observe [PDF] the many faces of “normal” for this intertidal ecosystem—a dynamic habitat on the edge of land and sea and exposed to the rigors of both. In doing so, they and other scientists found that this ecosystem showed signs of recovery from oiling after about three or four years [PDF].

When the ten-year monitoring study ended, the NOAA team shifted to a smaller-scale, experimental phase of research that continues today. As part of this field-based research, Mearns (or occasionally one of his colleagues) still returns to Mearns Rock and up to eight other rocky sites to record an annual snapshot of the ecological processes there. He has observed the ebb and flow of the mussels, barnacles, and various seaweeds populating these boulders, which are set on sections of beach alternately flooded and drained by the Pacific Ocean’s tides.

Photographic Memory

The NOAA-led study team observes Mearns Rock (left of center) in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on June 5, 2012. (NOAA)

This collection of annual snapshots adds up to an ecological photo-journal of sorts, while also serving as a much less labor-intensive method of research. By taking the same photograph around the same time each year, Mearns is able to examine and compare the general year-to-year variability of the plants and animals living on Mearns Rock. You can see the progression of these annual changes occurring on Mearns Rock in a photo slideshow.

But 24 years into this experiment, Mearns decided it was time for this kind of enduring, localized scientific observation to take on new energy. In January 2012 at the annual Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska, he and Office of Response and Restoration colleague John Whitney presented a poster describing the decades of environmental trends at Mearns Rock.

The two hoped to garner the attention of others interested in turning this annual photo-surveillance of Mearns Rock and the other boulders from the original study—nine in all—into a volunteer-led project.

“It worked,” Mearns reported. “Scientists and students stopped by to chat. At one point a half dozen of us gathered at the poster and several offered to visit sites in the summer of 2012.”

But science requires consistency: everything needs to be done the exact same way. Mearns pulled together a reference guide for these volunteers, which would direct them to the study sites; tell them precisely where, when, and how to take photos at each location; and provide samples of past photos for comparison.

Passing the Torch

Locations of Mearns' study sites in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Inset map of relative location of Prince William Sound.

The locations of intertidal boulders in Dr. Alan Mearns’ study in southwest Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in the northeast corner of the sound (not on map). Key: Yellow sites were oiled and cleaned with high pressure, hot-water washing in 1989. Green sites were oiled but not cleaned in 1989. Blue sites were not oiled in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Inset: Relative location of Prince William Sound. Click to enlarge.

On an exceptionally clear and calm morning this past June, Mearns, other NOAA scientists, and a couple Coast Guard staff cruised across the waters of Prince William Sound aboard a 30-foot charter vessel. They visited three different locations around the sound, including Mearns Rock.

But unlike in the past, the crew wasn’t alone in their efforts. Mearns and Whitney had successfully recruited volunteers to help photograph the other six study areas in the sound.

In fact, the first volunteer, David Janka, skipper of Auklet Charters in Cordova, Alaska, had already taken photos the month before at three NOAA sampling sites on the northern end of Knight Island, which was heavily oiled during the Exxon Valdez spill. Janka was no stranger to this project; he had taken the annual snapshot of Mearns Rock several times in the past when Mearns was unable to venture out there himself.

First for Mearns and his crew on that June day, however, was stopping at an unoiled rocky site at Eshamy Bay Lodge, near Whittier, Alaska. It had been several years since their team had been able to photograph a site that had escaped the Exxon oiling, and Mearns was anxious to re-establish this one. While there, they worked on recruiting the manager of the nearby lodge to photograph that boulder in the future. Afterwards, they sped off to a second study site and finally to Snug Harbor, location of Mearns Rock.

A few weeks later, Dr. Thomas Dean, a marine biologist from San Diego working in Prince William Sound, joined the effort and, using Mearns’ reference guide, was able to photograph the seventh site, one on Knight Island’s Herring Bay. With only two study sites left to visit in 2012, Dr. Rob Campbell of the Prince William Sound Science Center pitched in to check off the eighth site. While out doing herring surveys, he stopped by the study site in Shelter Bay long enough to snap photos of two boulders the NOAA team had nicknamed “Bert” and “Ernie.”

Finally, thanks to a tip from Dr. Campbell, Mearns reached out to Kate McLaughlin, a scientist and educator living in Chenega Bay, a Native village only a mile from the untouched Crab Bay control site on Evans Island. She happily agreed to help, and in July, she and her dog made a couple trips to that corner of Prince William Sound to secure the last photos.

An Unexpected Legacy

Yet Mearns and his research have managed to inspire an even larger effort which would expand on this type of coastal monitoring in Alaska. John Harper at Coastal and Ocean Resources, Inc. in Victoria, British Columbia, is leading an initiative to engage citizen scientists around the Gulf of Alaska.

One of the goals of this initiative, known as the Three Amigos Intertidal Sampling Program, is “to collect information on the condition of rocky intertidal communities and changes that occur over time.” Supported by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, Harper and his colleagues in this endeavor are developing a protocol and model for community-based environmental monitoring and admitted that their proposed approach for this program is inspired directly by Mearns Rock—an exciting legacy for an otherwise average boulder patiently setting at the ocean’s edge, year after year.

Dr. Alan Mearns contributed to this blog post.


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With Skiff Found off Maui, NOAA and Partners Confirm Hawaii’s Latest Reports of Japan Tsunami Marine Debris

Skiff covered in barnacles towed behind a boat.

After finding the 20-by-6-foot skiff covered in barnacles floating northeast of Maui, the crew of the F/V Zephyr towed it in and cleaned it up. This skiff is Hawaii’s second confirmed piece of marine debris connected to the 2011 Japan tsunami. (Peter Grillo, F/V Zephyr)

On the heels of Hawaii’s first confirmed report of Japan tsunami debris, NOAA and our partners are already examining the second confirmed item: a barnacled skiff which a fisherman found off the Hawaii coast—and which he wants to keep.

Using the skiff’s registration number, NOAA worked through the Japan Consulate in Hawaii to track down its owner, who expressed no interest in having it returned or in whom took possession of it.

The Zephyr, a longline fishing vessel, discovered the 20-by-6-foot skiff approximately 700 nautical miles northeast of Maui and reported it to the U.S. Coast Guard on September 29. After cleaning the aquatic species from its hull, the crew took it aboard and arrived with it in Honolulu Harbor the morning of October 5.

“We appreciate that this fisherman reached out to us and our partners at the Coast Guard and State of Hawaii to alert us of the skiff and determine appropriate measures to take,” said Carey Morishige, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program Pacific Islands regional coordinator. “Boaters are our eyes on the water and we need their help to be on the lookout for marine debris.”

State marine invasive species experts have already examined the skiff for signs of remaining aquatic life, especially those which may be invasive to Hawaii. Although no items connected to the 2011 Japan tsunami have shown above-normal radiation levels, out of an abundance of caution, state Department of Health officials also checked the boat for radiation.

Plastic bin being towed in to pier off Oahu.


NOAA’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory tows in the 4-by-4-foot plastic bin which was the first confirmed item of Japan tsunami marine debris in Hawaii. It was spotted at sea off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

Just a few weeks ago, the first confirmed piece of Japan tsunami debris in Hawaii [PDF]—a blue seafood storage bin—showed up off the southeast coast of Oahu. The bin belonged to the Japanese seafood wholesaler Y.K. Suisan, Co., Ltd., whose offices were affected by the 2011 Japan tsunami.

On the morning of September 18, personnel from Makai Ocean Engineering pointed out the buoyant blue container, which is used to transport seafood, near a pier on the southeastern shore of Oahu, and NOAA’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory fished the 4-by-4-foot box out of the water.

A closeup of the seafood storage bin from Japan found near Oahu and encrusted with marine life.

A close examination of the seafood storage bin from Japan found near Oahu revealed a variety of wildlife both inside (Hawaiian red-footed boobies) and out (gooseneck barnacles and two species of open-water crabs). (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

While the lower, submerged portion of the bin was covered in gooseneck barnacles and crabs common in the open sea, a NOAA marine invertebrate scientist joined state aquatic invasive species experts in examining and confirming that none of the organisms were invasive. When the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory towed in the bin, they also found five Hawaiian red-footed boobies inside; three of which were dead, though two successfully managed to fly off.

Because both the skiff and the seafood bin have unique identifying information, both items have been definitively traced back to Japan and confirmed as lost during the tsunami of March 2011. These items were confirmed with the assistance of the Japan Consulate in Honolulu and Government of Japan.

However, the assorted flotsam which Hawaii residents have reported recently is often nearly impossible to connect to the tsunami. It includes everything from unusual light bulbs and a hard hat to plastic containers and pieces of Styrofoam. Marine debris is an everyday problem, and items like these have been known to wash up on Hawaiian shores long before the 2011 tsunami.

While fishermen reportedly saw a floating concrete dock near the Main Hawaiian Islands, it has not been sighted again [PDF] since initial reports on September 19. In the meantime, NOAA has coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard, State of Hawaii, and other agencies to prepare for its possible reappearance and support the state in its plan to deal with the dock before it makes landfall.

The 30-by-50-foot dock appears similar to one that washed ashore in Oregon last June, which, when it arrived encrusted in sea life, prompted concerns about the possibility of aquatic invasive species from Japan. If this latest dock reappeared and proved to be a match, it would be the second of three docks reported missing from Japan following the March 2011 tsunami.

However, despite aerial surveys by the U.S. Coast Guard and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources to identify the dock’s location, no additional sightings have surfaced. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration oceanographers have used our GNOME model to forecast the dock’s possible movement using data on currents from the University of Hawaii’s Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) and wind forecasts from NOAA’s National Weather Service. However, the accuracy of the model’s predictions is unknown due to the lack of observational data on where the dock was traveling over time. In addition, NOAA has prepared two satellite tracking buoys for Hawaii to use in case the dock is relocated.

Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the state’s lead agency for responding to possible Japan tsunami marine debris, is asking that boaters, fishers, and pilots keep an eye out for debris. If sighted, the agency says to call in reports immediately to 1.808.587.0400. The NOAA Marine Debris Program also is gathering sightings of potential Japan tsunami marine debris at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

Keep up with NOAA’s latest efforts surrounding the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.


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Cyborg Sea-Kitty Found Prowling Waikiki During Beach Cleanup

Ocean acidification aside, the latest (and most adorable) tiny terror of the sea is this cyborg toy cat, which volunteers found during the 2012 International Coastal Cleanup on a beach in Waikiki, Hawaii.

NOAA staffer finds a heart-shaped piece of marine debris at the 2005 International Coastal Cleanup held in Seattle, Wash.

Nir Barnea, Marine Debris West Coast Regional Coordinator, finds a bit of marine debris “love” at the 2005 International Coastal Cleanup held in Seattle, Wash. (NOAA)

You never know what kind of odd treasures and trash you might find when cleaning up your local beach, river, or lake — from TVs and toilet seats to a rusted-out scooter and even a little ocean “love.”

We want to know: What weird items did you find during your International Coastal Cleanup event this year? Tell us in the comments here or over at the NOAA Marine Debris Blog.


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Salmon Celebrate Less Oily Habitat Six Years after Diesel Spill in Washington’s Cascade Mountains

Joe Inslee and Ian Zelo of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division also contributed to this post.

Returning salmon swim through the new engineered log jam habitat.

Returning salmon, possibly a male and female preparing to spawn, swim through the new engineered log jam habitat along the Greenwater River in Washington. (South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group)

Salmon and other water-loving species in Washington’s White River watershed should be breathing (through their gills) a collective sigh of relief. A mile of their habitat on the Greenwater River in the Cascade Mountains finally has returned to a more natural state. This restoration project is compensating for a diesel spill in nearby Silver Creek when a faulty pump overfilled a fuel tank and despoiled the area on November 3, 2006.

This small 200-gallon operating, or “day,” tank was part of a Puget Sound Energy generator station that supplies backup power to the nearby Crystal Mountain ski area. Normally, the system senses when the day tank is low and fills it by pumping fuel from large underground tanks, automatically shutting down the flow of diesel when the day tank is full.  On that November day, however, a system failure sent an extra 18,000 gallons of fuel gushing through the day tank from three 12,000-gallon underground tanks. The wave of diesel eventually seeped underground into Silver Creek, where it not only affected endangered Chinook salmon and bull trout but at least five miles of the creek and 16 acres of wetlands.

NOAA and our co-trustees evaluated how extensive the environmental injuries were and recovered damages from Puget Sound Energy. The trustees then worked with local partners to carry out restoration activities, which are now complete. The projects emphasized Chinook salmon and their river habitat in the White River watershed (where Silver Creek is located).

Crews place large wood material which will become engineered log jam habitat for salmon.

Crews place large wood material which will become engineered log jam habitat for salmon in the Greenwater River. (South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group)

The Greenwater River floodplain project rehabilitated natural river and floodplain processes in order to expand where and how salmon navigate the White River watershed.  According to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, “This project removed road fill along the Greenwater River and incorporated large woody material into the channel as engineered log jams.”

Historically, log jams were prevalent in Pacific Northwest rivers [PDF] and would help slow and redirect a river’s straight, fast-moving currents. The benefits for salmon are two-fold: This action chisels deep pools and pockets into the riverbed, which adult and young salmon need to feed and find refuge from predators, and it also overflows some water outside of the main river channel, creating slower-moving tributaries perfect for older salmon as they prepare to spawn. Engineering log jams through restoration projects like this one helps recreate these benefits for salmon [PDF].

Two key partners in this project’s efforts were South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.


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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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