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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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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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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