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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With NOAA as a Model, India Maps Coastal Sensitivity to Oil Spills

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Boy running on beach.

Scientists in India have used NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index maps as a model for preparing for oil spills on the west coast of India. (Credit: Samuel Kimlicka/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which is why we were thrilled to hear about recent efforts in India to mirror one of NOAA’s key oil spill planning tools, Environmental Sensitivity Index maps. A recent Times of India article alerted us to a pilot study led by scientists at the National Institute of Oceanography in India, which used our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) shoreline classifications to map seven talukas, or coastal administrative divisions in India. Amid the estuaries mapped along India’s west coast, one of the dominant shoreline types is mangroves, which are a preferred habitat for many migratory birds as well as other species sensitive to oil.

Traditional ESI data categorize both the marine and coastal environments as well as their wildlife based on sensitivity to spilled oil. There are three main components: shoreline habitats (as was mapped in the Indian project), sensitive animals and plants, and human-use resources. The shoreline and intertidal zones are ranked based on their vulnerability to oil, which is determined by:

  • Shoreline type (such as fine-grained sandy beach or tidal flats).
  • Exposure to wave and tidal energy (protected vs. exposed to waves).
  • Biological productivity and sensitivity (How many plants and animals live there? Which ones?).
  • Ease of cleanup after a spill (For example, are there roads to access the area?).

The biology data available in ESI maps focus on threatened and endangered species, areas of high concentration, and areas where sensitive life stages (such as when nesting) may occur. Human use resources mapped include managed areas (parks, refuges, critical habitats, etc.) and resources that may be impacted by oiling or clean-up, such as beaches, archaeological sites, or marinas.

Many countries have adapted the ESI data standards developed and published by NOAA. India developed their ESI product independently, based on these standards. In other cases, researchers from around the world have come across ESI products and contacted NOAA for advice in developing their own ESI maps and data. In the recent past, Jill Petersen, the NOAA ESI Program Manager, has worked with scientists who have visited from Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

By publishing our data standards, we share information which enables states and countries to develop ESI maps and data independently while adhering to formats that have evolved and stood the test of time over many years. In addition to mapping the entire U.S. coast and territories, NOAA has conducted some of our own international mapping of ESIs. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, we mapped the coastal natural resources in the affected areas of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador.

Currently, we are developing new ESI products for the north and mid-Atlantic coasts of the United States, many areas of which were altered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The new maps will provide a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of vulnerable shorelines, wildlife habitats, and key resources humans use. Having this information readily available will enable responders and planners to quickly make informed decisions in the event of a future oil spill or natural disaster.

For further information on NOAA’s ESI shoreline classification, see our past blog posts: Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills and After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline.


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Follow Along with the State Department’s Our Ocean 2014 Conference

Jellyfish swiming near a harbor bottom.

A brown sea nettle (Chrysaora fuscescens) drifting through Monterey Harbor in California. (NOAA)

You already know how much the ocean does for you and how important it is to both celebrate and protect it. The U.S. Department of State also realizes this importance and, as a result, is hosting the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC from June 16–17, 2014. According to ourocean2014.state.gov:

We will bring together individuals, experts, practitioners, advocates, lawmakers, and the international ocean and foreign policy communities to gather lessons learned, share the best science, offer unique perspectives, and demonstrate effective actions. We aim to chart a way forward, working individually and together, to protect “Our Ocean.”

Watch a message about the conference and find out how you can help from Secretary of State John Kerry:

Marine pollution, a topic NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is very concerned about, is one of three core areas the conference aims to address, along with ocean acidification and sustainable fisheries. When a plastic bag or cigarette butt blows into a river, it can end up flowing to the ocean, where it endangers marine life. The problem is global, but mitigation is local. It’s in our hands to reduce marine debris—our trash in our ocean—at its source. Learn more about the debris filling our seas by reading about the challenges and solutions in this Our Ocean conference document [PDF], by visiting marinedebris.noaa.gov, and by watching the video below:

On the Our Ocean 2014 website, you also can submit your own pledge to protect the ocean, whether that means volunteering to clean up a beach or tracing the sustainability of the seafood you eat. Plus, you can show your support for the ocean by sharing a photo that inspires your dedication to our ocean. (If you’re looking for inspiration, try the images in our Flickr stream.) The State Department says all you have to do to participate is:

Post your photo to your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #OurOcean2014 or add it to the OurOcean2014 group on Flickr.  We will be keeping an eye out for photos using the hashtag and will choose some of the photos to be featured at the Our Ocean conference in Washington on June 16-17.

Check out the program schedule and watch the conference streaming live starting at 9:30 a.m. Eastern on Monday and Tuesday at state.gov/ourocean.


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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


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What Have We Done for Endangered Species Lately?

Floating brown pelican.

The brown pelican, a successfully recovered species, was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Endangered species have a tough time of it. These plants and animals have been trampled, hunted, contaminated, and pushed out of their homes by humans to the point that their very existence on this planet becomes dangerously uncertain. In the United States, this is when the federal government steps in to list a species as threatened or endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Over 40 years later, this critical piece of legislation has had many successes in protecting native animals and plants and the natural areas where they live—perhaps most notably bringing back the national symbol, the bald eagle, from the brink of extinction. Yet with more than 1,500 types of animals and plants remaining threatened or endangered in the United States, we still have more work to do.

On May 16, 2014, we’re going to take the time to recognize this very important national conservation effort by celebrating Endangered Species Day and the many ways, big and small, each of us can help save our nation’s incredible array of plants and animals from extinction—like the now-recovered brown pelican!

Tools for Protecting Species During Oil Spills

So, what has NOAA been doing for endangered species? One example is the Office of Response and Restoration’s special data mapping tools that come into play during oil spills.

When an oil spill occurs along the coast, one priority for our office is identifying whether any threatened or endangered species live in the area near the spill. The responders dealing with the spill have to take into account factors such as what time of year these protected species are breeding or how they might come into contact with spilled oil or the response. This means knowing whether young Chinook salmon may be migrating out to sea through an estuary where a ship may have accidentally discharged fuel. Or knowing if the beaches where spill responders need to clean up oil are also important nesting grounds for a shorebird such as the piping plover.

Our biologists and ecologists help provide this kind of information during an oil spill response, but our office also produces tools to organize and display all of this information for both NOAA and oil spill planners and responders outside our agency. One of these tools is NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps. These maps characterize coastal environments and wildlife based on their sensitivity to spilled oil. The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

A related Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool, the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases, make up a subset of the original ESI data from our maps. These data focus on the coastal species and habitats that are federally and/or state listed as endangered, threatened, protected, or as a species of concern. These databases offer a more user-friendly option to access some of the most critical biological information for a region.

In the example below, you see a map of Great South Bay from the Long Island ESI atlas. The colored shapes (red, blue, green, and maroon) indicate where the piping plover, shortnose sturgeon, eastern mud turtle, and seabeach amaranth occur in June.

Screen capture of Environmental Sensitivity Map showing habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York.

Habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York. (NOAA)

Using the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily gather complex information for a region, such as groupings of species with similar habitat preferences and feeding styles, threatened and endangered status, concentration, and life history summaries. This tool also features the ability to search for presence of a species in a particular month or season. You can take a look at these data, pulled from our many state and federal partners, for anywhere in the United States using this online map application.

What You Can Do

If you’re not an oil spill planner or responder, how can you help protect endangered species? Learn what you can do, such as protecting habitat by planting native rather than invasive plants in your yard, in this podcast from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Or find an Endangered Species Day event this weekend near you.


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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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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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Mapping the Problem After Owners Abandon Ship

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

One of the largest vessel removal efforts in Washington history was a former Navy Liberty Ship, the Davy Crockett. In 2011 the Davy Crockett, previously abandoned by its owner on the Washington shore of the Columbia River, began leaking oil and sinking due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations. Its cleanup and removal cost $22 million dollars, and the owner was fined $405,000 by the Washington Department of Ecology and sentenced to four months in jail by the U.S. Attorney, Western District of Washington.

As I’ve mentioned before, derelict and abandoned vessels like the Davy Crockett are a nationwide problem that is expensive to deal with properly and, if the vessels are left to deteriorate, can cause significant environmental impacts. Unfortunately Washington’s Puget Sound is no exception to this issue.

Agency Collaboration

I’m part of the Derelict Vessel Task Force led by U.S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound. Made up of federal, state, and local agencies, this task force aims to identify and remove imminent pollution and hazard-to-navigation threats from derelict vessels and barges within Puget Sound. Among these agencies there are different jurisdictions and enforcement mechanisms related to derelict vessels.

A key player is Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (WA DNR), which manages the state Derelict Vessel Removal Program (DVRP). The DVRP has limited funding for removal of priority vessels. Unfortunately, according to WA DNR [PDF], with the growing number and size of problem vessels, program funding can’t keep up with the rising removal and disposal costs. The backlog of vessels in need of removal continues to grow.

Keeping Track

I’m working with the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch to enter this list of derelict vessels into ERMA®. ERMA is a NOAA online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data to support environmental planning and response operations. Right now the vessels are primarily tracked in the WA DNR DVRP database. By pulling this data into ERMA, the task force will not only be able to see the vessels displayed on a map but also make use of the various layers of environmental sensitivity data already within ERMA. The hope is that this can help with the prioritizing process and possibly eventually be used as a tool to raise awareness.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington's Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline's characteristics and vulnerability to oil.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington’s Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline’s characteristics and vulnerability to oil. (NOAA)

However, there aren’t enough resources within the Derelict Vessel Task Force to gather and continue to track (as the vessels can move) all the data needed in order to map the vessels accurately in ERMA. As a result, the task force is turning to local partners in order to help capture data.

Reaching Out

One such partner is the local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotillas, a group of dedicated civilians helping the Coast Guard promote safety and security for citizens, ports, and waterways. In order to garner support for data-gathering, I recently attended the USCG Auxiliary Flotilla Seattle-Elliott Bay meeting, along with members of the local Coast Guard Incident Management Division who head the Puget Sound Derelict Vessel Task Force.

I spoke about a few local derelict vessel incidents and their impacts to the environment. I also showed how ERMA can be a powerful tool for displaying and prioritizing this information—if we can get the basic data that’s missing. As a result, this Flotilla will follow up with my Coast Guard colleagues and start collecting missing information on derelict and abandoned vessels on behalf of the Coast Guard and WA DNR.

Gathering data and displaying derelict vessels graphically is a small, but important, step on the way to solving the massive problem of derelict vessels. Once complete I hope that ERMA will be a powerful aid in displaying the issue and helping make decisions regarding derelict vessels in the Puget Sound. Stay tuned.

[Editor's Note: You can see a U.S. Coast Guard video of the start-to-finish process of removing the Davy Crockett from the Columbia River along with the Washington Department of Ecology's photos documenting the response.]

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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“Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” Exhibit Puts Ocean Trash on Display in Alaska

Last summer, we heard from the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Peter Murphy as he accompanied other scientists, artists, and educators on the Gyre Expedition, a 500-mile-long collaborative research cruise around the Gulf of Alaska. Along the way, Murphy and the scientists would stop periodically to survey and collect marine debris that had washed on shore.

Meanwhile, the artists with them were observing the same trash through a creative lens. They were taking photos and collecting bits of it to incorporate into the pieces now on exhibit in Gyre: The Plastic Ocean at the Anchorage Museum. This hands-on exhibit opened February 7 and will be available at the Anchorage Museum through September 6, 2014. The Gyre project aims to bring perspective to the global marine debris problem through art and science.

NOAA Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace kicked-off the exhibit’s opening weekend symposium by introducing the topic of marine debris—its origins, composition, and impacts. The symposium, coordinated by Murphy, provided a chance for attendees to participate with scientists, removal experts, and artists in an interactive session exploring the issue of marine debris. They were able to discuss marine debris’ origin and impacts, as well as the cleanup and communication efforts, and how science and art can help us in understanding, capturing, and communicating the issue.

Learn more about our involvement with the Gyre project and if you can’t make it to Anchorage, take a look at some of the incredible art installations created from marine debris now on exhibit.

A quote by Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace displayed in the Anchorage Museum's "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean" exhibit explains how debris impacts large marine animals such as gray whales.

A quote by Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace displayed in the Anchorage Museum’s “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” exhibit explains how debris impacts large marine animals such as gray whales. (NOAA)


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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Abandoned Ships?

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Two rusted ships partially sunk in water and surrounded by containment boom.

The old fishing vessel Helena Star has been allowed to become derelict, leaking oil and pulling down its neighboring vessel, the Golden West. (NOAA)

A rusted green hull, punched full of holes and tilted on its side, sits forlornly in the Hylebos Waterway of Tacoma, Washington. The dilapidated boat’s name, Helena Star, is partially obscured because the vessel is half sunk. The boat it is chained to, the equally rusted ship Golden West, is being drawn down into the waters with it. Bright yellow boom and a light sheen of oil surround the vessels. Meanwhile, the owners are nowhere in sight.

This is just one example of the nationwide problem of derelict vessels. These neglected ships often pose significant threats to fish, wildlife, and nearby habitat, in addition to becoming eyesores and hazards to navigation. Derelict vessels are a challenge to deal with properly because of ownership accountability issues, potential chemical and oil contamination, and the high cost of salvage and disposal. Only limited funds are available to deal with these types of vessels before they start sinking. In Washington’s Puget Sound alone, the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has had several recent responses to derelict vessels that either sank or broke free of their moorings.

Many of these recent responses have come with colorful backstories, including a pair of retired Royal Canadian Navy vessels, a fishing boat that at one time housed the largest marijuana seizure by the U.S. Coast Guard (F/V Helena Star), the first American-designed and –built diesel tugboat (Tug Chickamauga), and the boat that carried author John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts on their famous trip through the Sea of Cortez (Western Flyer).

Unfortunately, all these vessels have met the end of their floating lives either through the deliberate action or negligence of their owners. Had the owners taken responsibility for maintaining them, the environmental impacts from leaked fuel, hazardous waste, and crushing impacts to the seabed could have been avoided, as well as the costly multi-agency response and removal operations that resulted.

heavy machinery is brought in to raise a sunken vessel from the sea floor.

In May 2012, the derelict fishing boat Deep Sea caught fire and sank near Washington’s Whidbey Island. The boat ended up leaking diesel fuel into waters near a Penn Cove Shellfish Company mussel farm, and the company took the precautionary measure of stopping the harvest. NOAA worked with them to sample mussels in the area for diesel contamination. Here, heavy machinery is brought in to raise the sunken vessel from the sea floor. (NOAA)

Yet there is hope that we can prevent these problems before they start. In Washington state there is momentum to combat the derelict vessel issue through measures to prevent boats from becoming derelict or environmental hazards, and by holding vessel owners accountable for what they own.

Washington State House bill 2457 is currently in the Washington State Legislature. Among other measures, the proposed bill:

  • “Establishes a fee on commercial moorage to fund the state’s derelict and abandoned vessel program.”
  • “Creates new penalties for failure to register a vessel.”

Additionally, Washington’s San Juan County is developing a new Derelict Vessel Prevention program, using a grant from the Puget Sound Partnership. San Juan County, a county composed of small rural Pacific Northwest islands, has a high number of derelict vessels [PDF]. This program is going to be used not only in San Juan County but throughout counties bordering Puget Sound.

On January 15, 2014, Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark (who leads the Department of Natural Resources) announced the state was pursuing criminal charges against the owners of the Helena Star, which sank in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway, and the Tugboat Chickamauga, which sank in Eagle Harbor. Both vessels released oil and other pollutants when they sank.

It is an ongoing battle to hold accountable the owners of derelict and abandoned vessels and prevent them from causing problems in our nation’s waterways. Yet with cooperation, prevention, and increased accountability we can help manage the problem, and in the end reduce impacts to Washington’s cherished Puget Sound.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more information about how LTJG Drury is working with Washington’s Derelict Vessel Task Force to tackle this growing problem in Puget Sound. Update: Mapping the Problem After Owners Abandon Ship.

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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PCBs: Why Are Banned Chemicals Still Hurting the Environment Today?

Heavy machinery removes soil and rocks in a polluted stream.

PCB contamination is high in the Housatonic River and New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts. How high? The “highest concentrations of PCBs ever documented in a marine environment.” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For the United States, the 20th century was an exciting time of innovation in industry and advances in technology. We were manufacturing items such as cars, refrigerators, and televisions, along with the many oils, dyes, and widgets that went with them. Sometimes, however, technology races ahead of responsibility, and human health and the environment can suffer as a result.

This is certainly the case for the toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. From the 1920s until they were banned in 1979, the U.S. produced an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of these industrial chemicals. They were used in a variety of manufacturing processes, particularly for electrical parts, across the country. Wastes containing PCBs were often improperly stored or disposed of or even directly discharged into soils, rivers, wetlands, and the ocean.

Unfortunately, the legacy of PCBs for humans, birds, fish, wildlife, and habitat has been a lasting one. As NOAA’s National Ocean Service notes:

Even with discontinued use, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are still present in the environment today because they do not breakdown quickly. The amount of time that it takes chemicals such as PCBs to breakdown naturally depends on their size, structure, and chemical composition. It can take years to remove these chemicals from the environment and that is why they are still present decades after they have been banned.

Sign by Hudson River warning against eating contaminated fish.

According to a NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and State of New York report on the Hudson River, “Fish not only absorb PCBs directly from the river water but are also exposed through the ingestion of contaminated prey, such as insects, crayfish, and smaller fish…New York State’s “eat none” advisory and the restriction on taking fish for this section of the Upper Hudson has been in place for 36 years.” (NOAA)

PCBs are hazardous even at very low levels. When fish and wildlife are exposed to them, this group of highly toxic compounds can travel up the food chain, eventually accumulating in their tissues, becoming a threat to human health if eaten. What happens after animals are exposed to PCBs? According to a NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and State of New York report [PDF], PCBs are known to cause:

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Reproductive dysfunction
  • Growth impairment
  • Behavioral changes
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Damage to the developing brain
  • Increased susceptibility to disease

Because of these impacts, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) works on a number of damage assessment cases to restore the environmental injuries of PCBs. Some notable examples include:

Yet the list could go on—fish and birds off the southern California coast, fish and waterfowl in Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River, a harbor in Massachusetts with the “highest concentrations of PCBs ever documented in a marine environment.”

These and other chemical pollutants remain a challenge but also a lesson for taking care of the resources we have now. While PCBs will continue to be a threat to human and environmental health, NOAA and our partners are working hard to restore the damage done and protect people and nature from future impacts.

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