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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Untangling Both a Whale and Why Marine Life Get Mixed up With Our Trash

Tail-view of humpback whale tangled in rope and nets underwater.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear swims near the ocean’s surface in 2005. (NOAA/Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:

“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.

Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”

Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:

Net Results

While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].

They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.

One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.

But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?

Location, Location, Location

The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.

For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.

Just Behave

Monk sleep sleeping on nets on beach.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal snuggles up on a pile of nets and other fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the population declined to one-third of its size due at least in part to entanglement in trawl nets and other debris that drift into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from other areas (e.g., Alaska, Russia, Japan) and accumulates along the beaches and in lagoon reefs of atolls. (NOAA)

While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.

Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.

Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.

While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:


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For a Salt Marsh on San Francisco Bay’s Eastern Shore, Restoration Means a Return to the Tides

Degraded marsh area on edge of bay.

This area along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay will be enhanced and expanded as part of the restoration of Breuner Marsh. (NOAA)

For more than half a century, a large portion of Breuner Marsh has been walled off from California’s San Francisco Bay, depriving it of a daily infusion of saltwater. The tide’s flooding and drying cycle is a key component of healthy salt marshes. But for decades, a succession of landowners drew up plans for developing the property and therefore were happy to keep the levee up and the bay’s waters out of it.

Today, however, ownership has changed and things look different at Breuner Marsh. The landing strip built for model airplanes is gone, and soon, parts of the levee will be as well. For the first time in years, this land which was once a salt marsh will be reconnected to the bay, allowing it to return to its natural state.

Before the Floodgates Open

A major milepost on the road to restoration for Breuner Marsh originated about five miles down the coast at Castro Cove. From the early 1900s until 1987, this tidal inlet on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay had a discharge pipe pumping wastewater from the nearby Chevron Richmond Refinery into the cove. As a result, mercury and a toxic component of oil known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons permeated the sediments beneath the cove’s waters.

Aerial view of Castro Cove next to Chevron refinery.

Southern Castro Cove and Chevron Richmond Refinery. Wildcat Creek entering Castro Cove in the background. Photo courtesy of Steve Hampton, California Department of Fish and Game. October 2005

The State of California had pinpointed this area as a toxic hotspot, and by the early 2000s, Chevron was ready to begin cleanup and restoration. Along with the state, NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessed the environmental impacts of historical pollution from the refinery and the amount of restoration needed to offset them. Through this Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) and our partners settled with Chevron on the funding the company would provide to implement that restoration: $2.65 million.

Because the impacts to Castro Cove’s salt marshes occurred over such a long time, even after Chevron cleaned up the roughly 20 worst-affected acres of the cove, there simply was not enough habitat in the immediate area to adequately make up for the backlog of impacts. The 2010 settlement called for Chevron to restore about 200 acres of marsh. This took us up the road to Breuner Marsh, part of a degraded coastal wetland that was ripe for restoration and which became one of two projects Chevron would fund through this settlement.

A Vision of Restoration

The vision for Breuner Marsh turned out to be a lot bigger than the $1 million originally set aside from Chevron’s settlement. A lot of this drive came from the Richmond, California, neighborhood of Parchester Village, a community across the railroad tracks from Breuner Marsh which was advocating the property’s habitat be restored and opened to recreation. Eventually, the East Bay Regional Park District was able to purchase the 218-acre-site and is managing the $8.5 million restoration of Breuner Marsh. Additional funding came from the park district and nine other grants.

Aerial view of marsh construction site, with berm separating the bay from the future marsh.

A view of the Breuner Marsh restoration site, where portions of the area have been graded and are waiting the take down of the berm. (Screen shot from video courtesy of Questa Engineering Corporation/East Bay Regional Park District)

Construction began in 2013 and the project, which also includes building trails, picnic areas, and fishing spots, is expected to wrap up in 2015. While at least 30 acres of Breuner Marsh will be transformed into wetlands fed by the tide, some areas will never be flooded because they sit at higher elevation.

Instead, they will become a patchwork of seasonal wetlands and prairie. Yet this diversity of habitats actually makes the salt marsh even more valuable, because this patchwork creates welcoming buffer zones for various birds, fish, and wildlife as they feed, rest, and reproduce.

But first, those levees need to be breached and the tide needs to reach deep into Breuner Marsh, creating conditions just right for the plants and animals of a salt marsh to take hold once more. Conditions the project managers have been working hard to prepare.


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Out of Sandy, Lessons in Helping Coastal Marshes Recover from Storms

Cleanup workers scoop oil out of an oiled marsh with containment boom around the edges.

After Sandy’s flooding led to an oil spill at a Motiva refinery, Motiva cleanup workers extract oil from Smith Creek, a waterway connected to the Arthur Kill, in Woodbridge, New Jersey, on November 5, 2012. (NOAA)

Boats capsized in a sea of grass. Tall trees and power lines toppled over. A dark ring of oil rimming marsh grasses. This was the scene greeting NOAA’s Simeon Hahn and Carl Alderson a few days after Sandy’s floodwaters had pulled back from New Jersey in the fall of 2012.

They were surveying the extent of an oil spill in Woodbridge Creek, which is home to a NOAA restoration project and feeds into the Arthur Kill, a waterway separating New Jersey from New York’s Staten Island. When the massive storm known as Sandy passed through the area, its flooding lifted up a large oil storage tank at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, New Jersey. After the floodwaters set the tank back down, it caused roughly 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel to leak into the creek and surrounding wetlands.

That day, the NOAA team was there with Motiva and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin what can be a long and litigious process of determining environmental impacts, damages, and required restoration—the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

In this case, however, not only did the group reach a cooperative agreement—in less than six months—on a restoration plan for the oiled wetlands, but at another wetland affected by Sandy, NOAA gained insight into designing restoration projects better able to withstand the next big storm.

Cleaning up the Mess After a Hurricane

Hurricanes and other large storms cause a surprising number of oil and hazardous chemical spills along the coast. After Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals leaking into coastal waters from damaged refineries, breached petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The ruptured tank at the Motiva Refinery was just one of several oil spills after the storm, but the approach in the wake of the spill is what set it apart from many other oil spills.

“Early on we decided that we would work together,” reflected Hahn, Regional Resource Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “There was a focus on doing the restoration rather than doing lengthy studies to quantify the injury.”

This approach was possible because Motiva agreed to pursue a cooperative Natural Resource Damage Assessment with New Jersey as the lead and with support from NOAA. This meant, for example, that up front, the company agreed to provide funding for assessing the environmental impacts and implementing the needed restoration, and agreed on and shared the data necessary to determine those impacts. This cooperative process resulted in a timely and cost-effective resolution, which allowed New Jersey and NOAA to transition to the restoration phase.

Reaching Restoration

Because of the early agreement with Motiva, NOAA and New Jersey DEP did not conduct exhaustive new studies detailing specific harm to these particular tidal wetlands. Instead, they turned to the wealth of data from the oil spill response and existing data from the Arthur Kill to make an accurate assessment of the oil’s impacts.

People driving small boats up a marshy river in winter.

A few days after the oil spill, Motiva’s contractors ferried the assessment team up Woodbridge Creek in New Jersey, looking for impacts from the oil. (NOAA)

From their shoreline, aerial, and boat surveys, they knew that the marsh itself had a bathtub ring of oil around the edge, affecting marsh grasses such as Spartina. No oiled wildlife turned up. However, the storm’s immediate impacts made it difficult to take water and sediment samples or directly examine potential effects to fish. Fortunately, the assessment team was able to use a lot of data from a nearby past oil spill and damage assessment in the Arthur Kill. In addition, they could rely on both general scientific research on oil spill toxicology and maps from the response team detailing the areas most heavily oiled.

Together, this created a picture of the environmental injuries the oil spill caused to Woodbridge Creek. Next, NOAA economists used the habitat equivalency analysis approach to calculate the amount of restoration needed to make up for these injuries: 1.23 acres of tidal wetlands. They then extrapolated how much it will cost to do this restoration based on seven restoration projects within a 50 mile radius, coming to $380,000 per acre. As a result, NOAA and New Jersey agreed that Motiva needed to provide $469,000 for saltwater marsh restoration and an additional $100,000 for monitoring, on top of Motiva’s cleanup costs for the spill itself.

To use this relatively small amount of money most efficiently, New Jersey DEP, as the lead agency, is planning to combine it with another, larger restoration project already in the works. While still negotiating which project that will be, the team has been eyeing a high-profile, 80-acre marsh restoration project practically in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile, the monitoring project will take place upstream from the site of the Motiva oil spill at the 67-acre Woodbridge Creek Marsh, which received light to moderate oiling. NOAA already has data on the state of the animals and plants at this previously established restoration site, which will provide a rare comparison for before and after the oil spill.

Creating More Resilient Coasts

A storm as damaging as Sandy highlights the need for restoring wetlands. These natural buffers offer protection for human infrastructure, absorbing storm surge and shielding shorelines from wind and waves. Yet natural resource managers are still learning how to replicate nature’s designs, especially in urban areas where river channels often have been straightened and adjoining wetlands filled and replaced with shorelines armored by concrete riprap.

To the south in Philadelphia, Sandy contributed to significant erosion at a restored tidal marsh and shoreline at Lardner’s Point Park, located on the Delaware River. This storm revealed that shoreline restoration techniques which dampen wave energy before it hits the shore would help protect restored habitat and reduce erosion and scouring.

Out of this destructive storm, NOAA and our partners are trying to learn as much as possible—both about how to reach the restoration phase even more efficiently and how to make those restoration projects even more resilient. The wide range of coastal threats is not going away, but we at NOAA can help our communities and environment bounce back when they do show up on our shores.

Learn more about coastal resilience and how NOAA’s Ocean Service is helping our coasts and communities bounce back after storms, floods, and other disasters and follow #NOAAResilience on social media.


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NOAA Prepares for Bakken Oil Spills as Seattle Dodges Oil Train Explosion

As federal leaders in oil spill response science, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is grateful for each oil spill which does not take place, which was fortunately the case on July 24, 2014 in Seattle, Washington, near our west coast office. A train passing through the city ran off the tracks, derailing three of its 100 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in the port town of Anacortes, Washington. No oil spilled or ignited in the accident.

However, that was not the case in five high-profile oil train derailments and explosions in the last year, occurring in places such as Casselton, North Dakota, when a train carrying grain derailed into an oil train, causing several oil tank cars to explode in December 2013.

Oil production continues to grow in North America, in large part due to new extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) opening up massive new oil fields in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. The Bakken region lacks the capacity to transport this increased oil production by the most common methods: pipeline or tanker. Instead, railroads are filling this gap, with the number of tank cars carrying crude oil in the United States rising more than 4,000 percent between 2009 (9,500 carloads) and 2013 (407,761).

Just a day before this derailment, Seattle City Council signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, urging him to issue an emergency stop to shipping Bakken crude oil in older model tank train cars (DOT-111), which are considered less safe for shipping flammable materials. (However, some of the proposed safer tank car models have also been involved in oil train explosions.) According to the Council’s press release, “BNSF Railway reports moving 8-13 oil trains per week through Seattle, all containing 1,000,000 or more gallons of Bakken crude.” The same day as the Council’s letter, the Department of Transportation proposed rules to phase out the older DOT-111 model train cars for carrying flammable materials, including Bakken crude, over a two-year period.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is examining these changing dynamics in the way oil is moved around the country, and we recently partnered with the University of Washington to research this issue. These changes have implications for how we prepare our scientific toolbox for responding to oil spills, in order to protect responders, the public, and the environment.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D. (U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

For example, based on our knowledge of oil chemistry, we make recommendations to responders about potential risks during spill cleanup along coasts and waterways. We need to know whether a particular type of oil, such as Bakken crude, will easily ignite and pose a danger of fire or explosion, and whether chemical components of the oil will dissolve into the water, potentially damaging sensitive fish populations.

Our office responded to a spill of Bakken crude oil earlier this year on the Mississippi River. On February 22, 2014, the barge E2MS 303 carrying 25,000 barrels of Bakken crude collided with a towboat 154 miles north of the river’s mouth. A tank of oil broke open, spilling approximately 31,500 gallons (750 barrels) of its contents into this busy waterway, closing it down for several days. NOAA provided scientific support to the response, for example, by having our modeling team estimate the projected path of the spilled oil.

Barge leaking oil on a river.

Barge E2MS 303 leaking 750 barrels of Bakken crude oil into the lower Mississippi River on February 22, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard)

We also worked with our partners at Louisiana State University to analyze samples of the Bakken crude oil. We found the oil to have a low viscosity (flows easily) and to be highly volatile, meaning it readily changes from liquid to gas at moderate temperatures. It also contains a high concentration of the toxic components known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that easily dissolve into the water column. For more information about NOAA’s involvement in this incident, visit IncidentNews.


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Who Is Biking to Work in America? NOAA Is!

May is National Bike to Work Month. As usual, those of us at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been donning our two-wheelers and helmets to join in the fun that often starts this month but in Seattle can go year-round. In addition, this year the U.S. Census Bureau has released its first-ever report on biking and walking to work. It holds some interesting insights into the shifts occurring in how people get around town:

Although changes in rates of bicycle commuting vary across U.S. communities, many cities have experienced relatively large increases in bicycle commuting in recent years. The total number of bike commuters in the U.S. increased from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 during the period from 2008 to 2012, a larger percentage increase than that of any other commuting mode.

Take a look at the top 15 big cities for people biking to work:

Top 15 large cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

Top 15 large U.S. cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

As you can see, Seattle, Washington, is in the top five, and NOAA’s Seattle contingent is doing its part to help get there. In 2012, NOAA had 132 people riding bikes in the Northwest Federal Bike-to-Work Challenge, landing us the prestigious “Pink Jersey” award—referring to Italy’s Giro d’Italia bike race in May where the leader wears a pink jersey—for our overall participation among federal agencies in the region.

This year, about half-way into Bike Month, it looks like NOAA has roughly 139 people on 12 teams who have been biking to work already. We’ve logged more than 600 trips to and from work and ridden nearly 9,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles not driven in cars, pounds of pollution not emitted, and gallons of petroleum not burned. Let’s not forget the health benefits of integrating bicycling into an active lifestyle too. Many people who bike commute also enjoy being outside, hearing the birds, seeing the change of seasons, having more energy during the work day, and slowing down and unplugging after work.

Six people wearing bike helmets and standing next to bikes.

My Bike to Work Month team stopped for breakfast burritos and then rode in the rest of the way to work together on a brisk May morning in 2013.

Personally, I bought my bicycle about two weeks into my first Bike to Work Month in 2011 (better late than never!). I was a little nervous but more excited. Growing up in the car-friendly suburbs of the Midwest didn’t prepare me at all for biking in a city like Seattle. Fortunately, I had a friend to help ease me into biking, showing me how fun and easy it could be, along with introducing me to some simple biking protocols for staying safe. It also helped to live in Washington, which has been ranked the #1 most bike-friendly state seven years in a row.

That first month of biking to NOAA back in 2011, I was hoping to commute once or even twice a week if I could, but this year, I’m going for three, maybe even four times a week. While my commute isn’t super short—nearly 8 miles each way— I’m lucky enough that I can ride almost the entire way on the Burk-Gilman Trail, a dedicated bike path that “carries as many people during peak hours as a high-performing lane of a major freeway.”

A white bicycle and helmet.

My bike, when it was shiny and new. It’s still pretty shiny, but less new, and with more bike racks and fenders.

It was not so long ago that I thought, “Biking around town? Me? I’ll stick to the bus, thanks.” Now, thanks to a lot of support, I know it’s not a huge deal. The more people there are biking, the safer it becomes for everyone on the road [PDF]. I know I can ride my bike to work (and elsewhere) and I can even do it while wearing a dress and a smile.

Do you bike to work? What do you enjoy about it? Would you bike to work if you could?

Get even more data on biking to work from this video discussion between the U.S. Census Bureau and the League of American Bicyclists.


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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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