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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How Will You Celebrate World Ocean Day?

Red-footed booby landing near edge of ocean atoll.

Red-footed booby at the Three Sisters at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (NOAA)

World Ocean Day is June 8, and we’re only a month away. What will you do to celebrate and protect that big blue body of water that sustains our planet?

We have a few ideas to get you ready:

Look for even more ways to keep the ocean healthy and free of pollution, a small way of saying thanks for everything the ocean does for us.


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A Bird’s Eye View: Looking for Oil Spills from the Sky

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, with input from David Wesley and Meg Imholt.

View over a pilot's shoulder out of a plane to ocean and islands.

View over the pilot’s shoulder on the first visit to the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina to see how much the shoreline had been altered. (NOAA)

During an oil spill, responders need to answer a number of questions in order to protect coastal resources: What happened? Where is the oil going? What will it hit? How will it cause harm?

Not all of these questions can be answered adequately from the ground or even from a boat. Often, experts take to the skies to answer these questions.

Aerial overflights are surveys from airplanes or helicopters which help responders find oil slicks as they move and break up across a potentially wide expanse of water. Our oceanographers make predictions about where a spill might go, but each spill presents a unique combination of weather conditions, ocean currents, and even oil chemistry that adds uncertainty due to natural variability. Overflights give snapshots of where the oil is located and how it is behaving at a specific date and time, which we use to compare to our oceanographic models. By visually confirming an oil slick’s location, we can provide even more accurate forecasts of where the oil is expected to go, which is a key component of response operations.

Trained aerial overflight experts serve as the “eyes” for the command post of spill responders. They report critical information like location, size, shape, color, and orientation of an oil slick. They can also make wildlife observations, monitor cleanup operations, and spot oceanographic features like convergence zones and eddies, which impact where oil might go. All of these details help inform decisions for appropriate cleanup strategies.

Easier Said Than Done

Finding and identifying oil from the air is tricky. Oil slicks move, which can make them hard to pin down. In addition, they may be difficult to classify from visual observation because different oils vary in appearance, and oil slick appearance is affected by weather conditions and how long the oil has been out on the water.

False positives add even another challenge. When viewed from the air, algal blooms, boat wakes, seagrass, and many other things can look like oil. Important clues, such as if heavy pollen or algal blooms are common in the area, help aerial observers make the determination between false positives and the real deal. If the determination cannot be made from air, however, it is worth investigating further.

During an overflight, it takes concentration to capture the right information. Many things can distract the observer from the main mission of spotting oil, including taking notes in a notebook, technology, and other people. Even an item meant to help, such as a camera or GPS, can lose value if more time is spent fiddling with it rather than taking observations. The important thing is to look out the window!

Safety is paramount on an overflight. An observer must always pay close attention to the pilot’s instructions for getting on and off the aircraft, and not speak over the pilot if they are talking on the radio. While it’s not a problem to ask, a pilot may not be able to do certain maneuvers an observer requests due to safety concerns.

The Experts—And Becoming One Yourself

The Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has overflight specialists ready for quick deployment to do this job. These specialists have extensive training and expertise in aerial overflights.

View of airplane wing, clouds, and water.

Looking out of an observer window on a Coast Guard C-130 airplane during the Hurricane Katrina pollution response. (NOAA)

When I joined OR&R in 2011, I learned from the best before doing real-life observations myself. One of the first things I did was take a Helicopter Emergency Egress course to make sure I could safely exit an aircraft that had made an emergency landing over water. Then I took the Science of Oil Spills course, where I learned more about observing oil from the air. In preparation for my first overflight I also had one-on-one conversations with our trained aerial observers. Since then, I have done aerial observations for oil spills including a sunken vessel in Washington’s Penn Cove, the Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy pollution response, and the Texas City “Y” oil spill in Galveston Bay.

OR&R provides training opportunities for others who may need to do an overflight during a response. Throughout the year, OR&R offers Science of Oil Spill classes across the country. In March 2014, more than 50 oil spill responders learned about aerial observing, and many other spill response skills, at OR&R’s Science of Oil Spills class at NOAA’s Disaster Response Center in the Gulf of Mexico. For those interested in becoming an overflight specialist themselves, OR&R even offers a one-day, in-person course on the topic throughout the country a few times per year.

OR&R has also created the online module, “Introduction to Observing oil from Helicopters and Planes,” to make training even more accessible. We even have a job aid for aerial observation of oil, a reference booklet conveniently sized to take on an overflight!

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska, and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.


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Sign up for 2014 NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

Registration for this summer’s NOAA Science Camp at our Seattle campus is now open. Each year, this week-long, hands-on camp for 7th and 8th graders immerses kids in the wide range of scientific activities going on at NOAA. For example, campers get the chance to solve an environmental mystery with our toxicologists and observe the impacts of oil on (simulated) beaches and wildlife with our oceanographers and biologists. And that’s only the beginning:

Get the details:

  • Who: Youths entering 7th and 8th grades in the fall of 2014.
  • Where: NOAA’s Sand Point Facility on Lake Washington—7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington.
  • When: Two camp sessions (both weeks have the same content focus)—July 7 – 11 and July 14 – 18, 2014. The Junior Leadership Program is two weeks long, and will run July 7-18.
  • Cost: $250. Camper scholarships to cover half of the registration fee are available.
  • Too old for NOAA Science Camp? Check out the Junior Leadership Program for teens entering 9th-12th grades in the fall of 2014.

Learn more and register on the NOAA Science Camp Web page.


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National Research Council Releases NOAA-Sponsored Report on Arctic Oil Spills

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy broke ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda on their way to Nome, Alaska, in January of 2012 to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Responding to a potential oil spill in the U.S. Arctic presents unique logistical, environmental, and cultural challenges unparalleled in any other U.S. water body. In our effort to seek solutions to these challenges and enhance our Arctic preparedness and response capabilities, NOAA co-sponsored a report, Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment, directed and released by the National Research Council today.

Several recommendations in the report are of interest to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), including the need for:

  • Up-to-date high-resolution nautical charts and shoreline maps.
  • A real-time Arctic ocean-ice meteorological forecasting system.
  • A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research program.
  • Regularly scheduled oil spill exercises to test and evaluate the flexible and scalable organizational structures needed for a highly reliable Arctic oil spill response.
  • A decision process such as the Net Environmental Benefit Analysis for selecting appropriate response options.

In addition, the report mentions NOAA’s ongoing Arctic efforts including our Arctic Environmental Response Mapping Application (ERMA), our oil spill trajectory modeling, and our innovative data sharing efforts. Find out more about OR&R’s efforts related to the Arctic region at response.restoration.noaa.gov/arctic.

Download the full NRC report.

This report dovetails with NOAA’s 2014 Arctic Action Plan, released on April 21, which provides an integrated overview of NOAA’s diverse Arctic programs and how these missions, products, and services support the goals set forth in the President’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF].

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] in March of 2014, which examined U.S. actions related to developing and investing in Arctic maritime infrastructure. The report outlines key issues related to commercial activity in the U.S. Arctic over the next decade.

Get a snapshot of the National Research Council report in this four minute video, featuring some of our office’s scientific models and mapping tools:


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Watch Art Explain What Kind of Habitat Young Salmon Need to Thrive

Illustration from video of two salmon swimming by tree roots.What do young salmon need to grow into the kind of big, healthy adult salmon enjoyed by people as well as bears, seals, and other wildlife? A recent collaboration between NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Northwest College of Arts makes the answer come to life in a beautiful animation by artists Beryl Allee and John Summerson.

Watch the intersection of art and science as we follow young salmon happily swimming through the cool, shallow waters along a shore. We see the bits of wood, tangled tree roots, and scattered rocks that provide these fish with both insects to eat and protection from predators.

But what happens when a home or business shows up along the water’s edge? How do people remake the shoreline? What kind of environment does this create for those same little salmon?

NOAA partnered with the Pacific Northwest College of Arts to create this moving and educational tool to raise awareness among waterfront landowners and the general public about how the decisions we make affect endangered salmon. In particular, NOAA wanted to address the practice of “armoring,” or using physical structures such as rocks and concrete to protect shorelines from coastal erosion. As we can see in the animation, armored shorelines do not make for happy, healthy young salmon.

Illustration from animation of a sad fish and an armored shoreline.

However, alternatives to armoring shorelines with hard materials are emerging. They include using plants and organic materials to stabilize the shores while also preserving or creating the kind of habitat young salmon need.

Creating better habitat for fish is often the goal of NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP). When we determine that fish were harmed after an oil spill or hazardous chemical release, we, with the help of a range of partners and the public, identify and implement restoration projects to make up for this harm.

Take a look at a few examples in which we built better habitat for salmon:

Beaver Creek, Oregon

A tanker truck carrying gasoline overturned on scenic Highway 26 through central Oregon in 1999, spilling 5,000 gallons of gasoline into Beaver Butte Creek and impacting steelhead trout and Chinook salmon. Working with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and other partners, we have helped implement five restoration projects. They range from adding large wood to stream banks to provide fish habitat to installing two beaver dam–mimicking structures to improve water quality.

White River, Washington

In 2006 a system failure sent 18,000 gallons of diesel into creeks and wetlands important to endangered Chinook salmon around Washington’s White River. To improve and expand habitat for these salmon, NOAA and our partners removed roadfill and added large pieces of wood (“logjams”) along the edges of the nearby Greenwater River. This restoration project will help slow and redirect the river’s straight, fast-moving currents, creating deep pools for salmon to feed and hide from predators and allowing some of the river water to overflow into slower, shallower tributaries perfect for spawning salmon.

Adak, Alaska

On the remote island of Adak in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a tanker overfilled an underground storage tank in 2010. This resulted in up to 142,800 gallons of diesel eventually flowing into the nearby salmon stream, Helmet Creek. Pink salmon and Dolly Varden trout were particularly affected. In 2013 NOAA and our partners restored fish passage to the creek, improved habitat and water quality, made stream flow and channel improvements, and removed at least a dozen 55-gallon drums from the creek bed and banks.

You can also watch a video to learn how NOAA is restoring recreationally and commercially important fish through a variety of projects in the northeast United States.


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NOAA and Partners Invest in an Innovative New Stewardship Program for Washington’s Commencement Bay

A group of people holding a giant check for $4.9 million.

NOAA hands off a $4.9 million check to the nonprofit EarthCorps, which will use the funding for planning, restoration, monitoring, and maintenance at 17 restoration sites across Washington’s Commencement Bay. U.S. Representatives Dennis Heck (WA), Derek Kilmer (WA), and Peter DeFazio (OR) were also in attendance. (NOAA)

Last week, NOAA and partners awarded $4.9 million to EarthCorps for long-term stewardship of restoration sites in Commencement Bay near Tacoma, Washington. The Commencement Bay Stewardship Collaborative is part of a larger investment that will conserve habitat for fish and wildlife and give local urban communities access to the shoreline.

EarthCorps, which was competitively selected for this funding, is a non-profit organization that trains environmental leaders through local service projects.

Volunteers plant ferns at a restoration site in Commencement Bay.

Volunteers restore a site in Commencement Bay. (NOAA)

The funding will support planning, restoration, monitoring, and maintenance at 17 sites across the Bay. These sites were restored over the past 20 years as part of the ongoing Commencement Bay natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) case. This is the first time that a third party has received funding to launch a comprehensive stewardship program as part of a NRDA case. We hope it will become a model of stewardship for future cases.

Commencement Bay is the harbor for Tacoma, Washington, at the southern end of Puget Sound. Many of the waterways leading into the Bay—which provide habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish—have been polluted by industrial and commercial activities. NOAA and other federal, state, and tribal partners have been working for decades to address the contamination and restore damaged habitat.

One of the sites that EarthCorps will maintain is the Sha Dadx project on the bank of the Puyallup River. The lower Puyallup River was straightened in the early 20th century, leaving little off-channel habitat—which juvenile salmon use for rearing and foraging. The project reconnected the river to a curve that had been cut off by levees. This restored 20 acres of off-channel habitat, and fish and wildlife are using the site.

Most of the parties responsible for the contamination have settled and begun implementing restoration. NOAA and its partners are evaluating options for pursuing parties that haven’t settled yet. As new sites are added, stewardship funds will be secured at settlement and likely added to the overall long-term effort.

This story was originally posted on NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Habitat Conservation website.


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NOAA Scientists Offer In-depth Workshops at 2014 International Oil Spill Conference

2014 International Oil Spill Conference banner with sea turtle graphicEvery three years, experts representing organizations ranging from government and industry to academic research and spill response gather at the International Oil Spill Conference. This event serves as a forum for sharing knowledge and addressing challenges in planning for and responding to oil spills. NOAA plays a key role in planning and participating in this conference and is one of the seven permanent sponsors of the event.

This year is no different. In addition to presenting on topics such as subsea applications of dispersants and long-term ecological evaluations, Office of Response and Restoration staff are teaching several half-day workshops giving deeper perspectives, offering practical applications, and even providing hands-on experience.

If you’ll be heading to the conference in Savannah, Ga., from May 5–8, 2014, take advantage of the following short courses to pick our brains and expand yours. Or, if you can’t make it, consider applying for our next Science of Oil Spills training this August in Seattle, Wash.

Environmental Trade-offs Focusing on Protected Species

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Ed Levine (Scientific Support Coordinator), Jim Jeansonne (Scientific Support Coordinator), Gary Shigenaka (Marine Biologist), Paige Doelling (Scientific Support Coordinator)

Level: Introductory

What: Learn the basics about a variety of marine protected species, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, birds, fish, corals, invertebrates, and plants. This course will cover where they are found, the laws that protect them, and other information necessary to understand how they may be affected by an oil spill. The course will discuss the impacts of specific response operations on marine protected species, and the decision making process for cleaning up the oil while also working in the best interest of the protected species. We will also discuss knowledge gaps and research needs and considerations when information is not available.

A man points out something on a computer screen to another person.Advanced Oil Spill Modeling and Data Sources

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Glen Watabayashi (Oceanographer), Amy MacFadyen (Oceanographer), Chris Barker (Oceanographer)

Level: Intermediate

What: This is a rare opportunity to get hands-on experience with NOAA’s oil spill modeling tools for use in response planning and trajectory forecasting. We will lead participants as they use our General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment (GNOME) model for predicting oil trajectories and the Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills (ADIOS) model for predicting oil weathering.

Arctic Drilling Environmental Considerations

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Kate Clark (Acting Chief of Staff), Mary Campbell Baker (Northwest/Great Lakes Damage Assessment Supervisor)

Level: Introductory

What: How are Arctic development decisions being made given environmental, political, and societal uncertainty? How should they be made? Examine how a changing Arctic is intersecting with increased shipping and oil development to alter the profile of human and environmental risks.

Worldwide Practice Approaches to Environmental Liability Assessment

When: Monday, May 5, 2014, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern

Who: Ian Zelo (Oil Spill Coordinator) and Jessica White (Deputy Director, NOAA’s Disaster Response Center)

Level: Intermediate

What: In the United States, Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) regulations promulgated pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 institutionalized the concept of NRDA and the cooperative NRDA. Learn some of the key principles related the NRDA and restoration process in the context of oil spills, as well as suggested best practices and how they may be implemented at various sites in the U.S. and worldwide.


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Summer 2014

Two people looking at forms and a booklet on the beach.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills. (California Office of Spill Prevention and Response)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of August 4–8, 2014 in Seattle, Wash.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, June 13, 2014, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, June 27, 2014. Class will begin on Monday afternoon, August 4, and will conclude at noon on Friday, August 8.

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

These trainings cover topics including:

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

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. The class will be limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Little “Bugs” Can Spread Big Pollution Through Contaminated Rivers

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

When we think of natural resources harmed by pesticides, toxic chemicals, and oil spills, most of us probably envision soaring birds or adorable river otters.  Some of us may consider creatures below the water’s surface, like the salmon and other fish that the more charismatic animals eat, and that we like to eat ourselves. But it’s rare that we spend much time imagining what contamination means for the smaller organisms that we don’t see, or can’t see without a microscope.

Mayfly aquatic insect on river bottom.

A mayfly, pictured above, is an important component in the diet of salmon and other fish. (NOAA)

The tiny creatures that live in the “benthos”—the mud, sand, and stones at the bottoms of rivers—are called benthic macroinvertebrates. Sometimes mistakenly called “bugs,” the benthic macroinvertebrate community actually includes a variety of animals like snails, clams, and worms, in addition to insects like mayflies, caddisflies, and midges. They play several important roles in an ecosystem. They help cycle and filter nutrients and they are a major food source for fish and other animals.

Though we don’t see them often, benthic macroinvertebrates play an extremely important role in river ecosystems. In polluted rivers, such as the lower 10 miles of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, these creatures serve as food web pathways for legacy contaminants like PCBs and DDT. Because benthic macroinvertebrates live and feed in close contact with contaminated muck, they are prone to accumulation of contaminants in their bodies.  They are, in turn, eaten by predators and it is in this way that contaminants move “up” through the food web to larger, more easily recognizable animals such as sturgeon, mink, and bald eagles.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River. (Portland Harbor Trustee Council)

The image above depicts some of the pathways that contaminants follow as they move up through the food web in Oregon’s Portland Harbor. Benthic macroinvertebrates are at the bottom of the food web. They are eaten by larger animals, like salmon, sturgeon, and bass. Those fish are then eaten by birds (like osprey and eagle), mammals (like mink), and people.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As PCB and DDT contamination makes its way up the food chain through these organisms, it is stored in their fat and biomagnified, meaning that the level of contamination you find in a large organism like an osprey is many times more than what you would find in a single water-dwelling insect. This is because an osprey eats many fish in its lifetime, and each of those fish eats many benthic macroinvertebrates.

Therefore, a relatively small amount of contamination in a single insect accumulates to a large amount of contamination in a bird or mammal that may have never eaten an insect directly.  The graphic to the right was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to illustrate how DDT concentrations biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain.

Benthic macroinvertebrates can be used by people to assess water quality. Certain types of benthic macroinvertebrates cannot tolerate pollution, whereas others are extremely tolerant of it.  For example, if you were to turn over a few stones in a Northwest streambed and find caddisfly nymphs (pictured below encased in tiny pebbles), you would have an indication of good water quality. Caddisflies are very sensitive to poor water quality conditions.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom are indicators of high water quality. (NOAA)

Surveys in Portland Harbor have shown that we have a pretty simple and uniform benthic macroinvertebrate population in the area. As you might expect, it is mostly made up of pollution-tolerant species. NOAA Restoration Center staff are leading restoration planning efforts at Portland Harbor and it is our hope that once cleanup and restoration projects are completed, we will see a more diverse assemblage of benthic macroinvertebrates in the Lower Willamette River.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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Marine Life in Gulf of Mexico Faces Multiple Challenges

Editor’s Note: This is a revised posting by Maggie Broadwater of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science that has corrected some factual misstatements in the original post.

photo of a bottlenose dolphin calf.

A bottlenose dolphin calf in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Animals living in coastal waters can face a number of environmental stressors—both from nature and from humans—which, in turn, may have compounding effects. This may be the case for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico which experiences both oil spills and the presence of toxic algae blooms.

On the Lookout

Marine sentinels, like bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, share this coastal environment with humans and consume food from many of the same sources. As marine sentinels, these marine mammals are similar to the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” Studying bottlenose dolphins may alert us humans to the presence of chemical pollutants, pathogens, and toxins from algae (simple ocean plants) that may be in Gulf waters.

Texas Gulf waters, for an example, are a haven for a diverse array of harmful algae. Additional environmental threats for this area include oil spills, stormwater and agricultural runoff, and industrial pollution.

Recently, we have been learning about the potential effects of oil on bottlenose dolphin populations in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. Dolphins with exposure to oil may develop lung disease and adrenal impacts, and be less able to deal with stress.

Certain types of algae produce toxins that can harm fish, mammals, and birds and cause illness in humans. During harmful algal blooms, which occur when colonies of algae “bloom” or grow out of control, the high toxin levels observed often result in illness or death for some marine life, and low-level exposure may compromise their health and increase their susceptibility to other stressors.

However, we know very little about the combined effects from both oil and harmful algal blooms.

A barge loaded with marine fuel oil sits partially submerged in the Houston Ship Channel, March 22, 2014. The bulk carrier Summer Wind, reported a collision between the Summer Wind and a barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil, towed by the motor vessel Miss Susan. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A barge loaded with marine fuel oil sits partially submerged in the Houston Ship Channel, March 22, 2014. The bulk carrier Summer Wind, reported a collision between the Summer Wind and a barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil, towed by the motor vessel Miss Susan. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Familiar Waters

Prior to the Galveston Bay oil spill, Texas officials closed Galveston Bay to the harvesting of oysters, clams, and mussels on March 14, 2014 after detecting elevated levels of Dinophysis. These harmful algae can produce toxins that result in diarrhetic shellfish poisoning when people eat contaminated shellfish. Four days later, on March 18, trained volunteers from NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network detected Pseudo-nitzschia in Galveston Bay. NOAA Harmful Algal Bloom scientist Steve Morton, Ph.D., confirmed the presence of Pseudo-nitzchia multiseries, a type of algae known as a diatom that produces a potent neurotoxin affecting humans, birds, and marine mammals. NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Analytical Response Team confirmed the toxin was present and notified Texas officials.

When Oil and Algae Mix

Studying marine mammal strandings and deaths helps NOAA scientists and coastal managers understand the effects of harmful algal blooms across seasons, years, and geographical regions. We know that acute exposure to algal toxins through diet can cause death in marine mammals, and that even exposures to these toxins that don’t kill the animal may result in serious long-term effects, including chronic epilepsy, heart disease, and reproductive failure.

But in many cases, we are still working to figure out which level of exposure to these toxins makes an animal ill and which leads to death. We also don’t yet know the effects of long-term low-level toxin exposure, exposure to multiple toxins at the same time, or repeated exposure to the same or multiple toxins. Current NOAA research is addressing many of these questions.

A dolphin mortality event may have many contributing factors; harmful algae may only be one piece in the puzzle. Thus, we do not yet know what effects recent Dinophysis and Pseudo-nitzchia blooms may have on the current marine mammal populations living in Texas coastal waters. Coastal managers and researchers are on alert for marine mammal strandings that may be associated with exposure to harmful algae, but the story is unfolding, and is very complex.

Photo of volunteer with a microscope.

Galveston volunteer with NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network helps identify toxic algae. (NOAA)

On March 22, 2014, four days after harmful algae were found in Galveston Bay, the M/V Summer Wind collided with oil tank-barge Kirby 27706 in Galveston Bay near Texas City, releasing approximately 168,000 gallons of thick, sticky fuel oil. The Port of Houston was closed until March 27. State and federal agencies are responding via the Unified Command. NOAA is providing scientific support and Natural Resource Damage Assessment personnel are working to identify injured natural resources and restoration needs. Much of the oil has come ashore and survey teams are evaluating the shorelines to make cleanup recommendations.

Time will tell if the harmful algal toxins and oil in Galveston Bay have a major negative effect on the marine mammals, fish, and sea turtles that live in surrounding waters. Fortunately, NOAA scientists with a range of expertise—from dolphins to harmful algae to oil spills—are on the job.

Maggie BroadwaterMaggie Broadwater is a Research Chemist and serves as coordinator for NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Analytical Response Team at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Charleston, S.C.  Dr. Broadwater earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2012 and has a M.S. in Biomedical Sciences and a B.S. in Biochemistry.

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