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 Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands.

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

A warming, more acidic ocean. Grounded ships and heavy fishing nets. Coral reefs face a lot of threats from humans. For these tiny animals that build their own limestone homes underwater, oil spills may add insult to injury.

But how does spilled oil reach coral reefs? And what are the effects?

How an oil spill affects corals depends on the species and maturity of the coral (e.g., early stages of life are very sensitive to oil) as well as the means and level of exposure to oil. Exposing corals to small amounts of oil for an extended period can be just as harmful as large amounts of oil for a brief time.

Coral reefs can come in contact with oil in three major ways:

  1. Oil floating on the water’s surface can be deposited directly on corals in an intertidal zone when the water level drops at low tide.
  2. Rough seas can mix lighter oil products into the water column (like shaking up a bottle of salad dressing), where they can drift down to coral reefs.
  3. As heavy oil weathers or gets mixed with sand or sediment, it can become dense enough to sink below the ocean surface and smother corals below.

 

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986.

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986. (NOAA)

Once oil comes into contact with corals, it can kill them or impede their reproduction, growth, behavior, and development. The entire reef ecosystem can suffer from an oil spill, affecting the many species of fish, crabs, and other marine invertebrates that live in and around coral reefs.

As oil spill responders, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has to take these and many other factors into account during an oil spill near coral reefs. For example, if the spill resulted from a ship running aground on a reef, we need to consider the environmental impacts of the options for removing the ship. Or, if an oil spill occurred offshore but near coral reefs, we would advise the U.S. Coast Guard and other pollution responders to avoid using chemical dispersants to break up the oil spill because corals can be harmed by dispersed oil.

We also provide reports and information for responders and natural resource managers dealing with oil spills and coral reefs:

You can learn more about coral reefs, such as the basic biology of corals, how damaged coral reefs can recover from an oil spill or be restored after a ship grounding, and what we’ve learned about oil spills in tropical reefs.

For lessons a little closer to home, be sure to find out five more things you should know about coral reefs and listen to this podcast about threats to coral health from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.



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Emergency Restoration Is in a Basketful of Coral

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Basket of loose corals collected from the area damaged by the VogeTrader's grounding, where divers are removing rubble.

Basket of loose corals collected from the area damaged by the VogeTrader’s grounding, where divers are removing rubble. (NOAA)

In 30 feet of water, just outside the entrance to Hawaii’s Kalaeloa Harbor, emergency coral restoration is just getting underway. NOAA and our partners are working with the owners of the cargo vessel M/V VogeTrader to repair corals that were injured when the vessel accidentally lodged itself onto the reef one morning in 2010.

The 734-foot bulk carrier M/V VogeTrader after it ran aground near Oahu, on February 5, 2010. The milky color in the water beneath the ship is the pulverized coral.

The 734-foot bulk carrier M/V VogeTrader after it ran aground near Oahu, on February 5, 2010. The milky color in the water beneath the ship is the pulverized coral. (U.S. coast Guard)

The grounding—and the response activities taken to haul the vessel off the reef and prevent it from spilling any of its fuel—crushed, broke, dislodged, and buried various species of corals. A few of the types of marine life affected include the common coral species Montipora capitata (rice coral), Porites lobata (lobe coral), Pocillopora meandrina (cauliflower coral); sponges; and other bottom-dwelling invertebrates. We’re pursuing emergency restoration [PDF] to prevent unnecessary future injuries that might occur if actions are further delayed.

Beginning on October 30, 2013, teams of divers began working to reattach broken coral and remove rubble to prevent loose pieces from moving with wave action and causing further damage to the reef.

This restoration project requires a series of trips, over several months, to the grounding location near the coast of Oahu. NOAA and our partners undertook the first of many of these missions during a recent two-day effort. Leaving from Kalaeloa/Barber’s Point Harbor, the first day was spent conducting acoustic mapping surveys to determine exactly where the rubble was located and the size of the affected area.

On the second day divers were back to find and move any live corals and coral fragments out of the area where rubble is going to be removed. We recovered the corals by hand, placing them in baskets before transporting them a short distance to areas outside the work zone. The corals will be safe there until after the rubble is removed and they can be transported back into the cleared area for reattachment.

Stay tuned as we post updates and photos of the progress. In the meantime, you can learn more about the underwater techniques and technologies we use for these types of projects.

Dr. Matthew Parry got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2003. He came to work for the NOAA Restoration Center in Honolulu as part of the Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program in 2007. He continues to work at NOAA as a Fishery Biologist specializing in Natural Resource Damage Assessment


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From Driving Underwater Scooters to Texting, Hawaii Students Learn Skills for Science Under the Sea

This is a post by NOAA Fisheries Biologist Dr. Matthew Parry. The Office of Response and Restoration’s Joe Inslee also contributed to this post.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course. (Jeff Kuwabara/University of Hawaii)

The sparkling, turquoise waters off the coast of Hawaii may seem like the perfect place to work, no matter what you’re doing. But when you’re trying to figure out what happened to that idyllic environment after a ship grounds on a coral reef or spills oil, those attractive waters present a surprising number of challenges.

You can’t just walk up with a clipboard and start taking samples. You have to haul your team and equipment out by boat, be a qualified SCUBA diver, and be able to get around underwater and communicate with your team. And this is all while (carefully and consistently) documenting the species of coral, fish, and other marine life, as well as their habitats, which might have been affected by a misdirected ship or spilled oil.

To help cultivate this unique and valuable skill set in Hawaii’s future scientists, NOAA has partnered with the University of Hawaii to offer a hands-on (and flippers-on) course introducing their students to a suite of marine underwater techniques. This multi-week course gives developing young scientists, all enrolled at the University of Hawaii, the critical technical skills required to succeed in the rapidly growing field of marine sciences. The course focuses on advanced underwater navigation, communication, and mapping techniques that NOAA uses in environmental assessment and restoration cases but which can be applied to almost any marine-related career.

Under the Sea

For the past month, our classroom was located in the Pacific Ocean off the south shore of the Hawaiian island Oahu. Students learned the proper techniques for using:

  • A GPS (Global Positioning System) tracker where GPS normally can’t go. Because a GPS unit doesn’t work underwater, students learned how to tow one in a waterproof bag attached to a float at the surface and which is also tethered to them as they dive. The bobbing GPS unit then follows them as they take photos of what they see in the water. Later, using a program to match the photos to their locations, students can create a map of the habitats on the ocean floor.
  • Underwater text messaging. While underwater, divers need a way to communicate with other dive teams when they are not in sight of each other. We taught the students to use underwater communication devices that use sonar to send very basic, preset messages to others in their group or on the boat. That way, they can coordinate when someone discovers, for example, a damage site, a rare coral, or even a shipwreck. They can also use it to navigate back to the boat.
  • Underwater scooters. For longer sampling surveys, students learned how to hang onto and drive a small underwater scooter. These aquatic vehicles allow divers to venture further out at a time and do so more efficiently, because they aren’t exerting themselves as much and using as much of their limited air supply.
  • High-precision underwater mapping equipment. This system, based on sonar, more accurately maps divers’ locations in real time as they gather data underwater. Surrounded by transmitters attached to fixed float lines, students were able to enter data they collected directly into handheld devices, while also creating maps underwater.

Get a better idea of what this was like for the students by taking a look at photos from the class:

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And into Local Jobs

This year’s course was taught as a partnership between the NOAA Restoration Center, the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), and the University of Hawaii Marine Option Program, with collaboration from staff with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The course was supported by PIRO’s Marine Education and Training program.

Efforts such as this one are aimed at keeping young scientists with local ecological skills and experience in Hawaii by allowing them to advance their knowledge of practical underwater techniques. Having this specialization enables them to stay employed in the region and in the field of marine science. Ideally, local students gain the technical skills they need to work in the natural resource management field in Hawaii. After taking the marine underwater techniques course, a number of highly specialized jobs would be open to them, such as conducting:

  • Environmental damage assessments after ship groundings.
  • Academic research.
  • Search and salvage missions.
  • Mitigation surveys for underwater construction projects.

Underwater Expertise in Action

This kind of underwater expertise was called upon in 2005 when the M/V Casitas ran aground in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. NOAA divers reported to the scene of the accident to help determine the damage to corals and other parts of the environment caused by the initial ship grounding and subsequent efforts to remove the ship.

Using several of the techniques we teach in this course, divers were able to accurately determine not only the locations where corals were injured but also how much of the reef was injured (about 18,220 square feet). This information was essential in the process of planning for restoration after the grounding. You can read more about the resulting restoration projects in another blog post.

Dr. Matthew Parry got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2003. He came to work for the NOAA Restoration Center in Honolulu as part of the Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program in 2007. He continues to work at NOAA as a Fishery Biologist specializing in Natural Resource Damage Assessment and teaches the Marine Underwater Techniques course with co-instructors Robert O’Conner, Kara Miller, and Jeff Kuwabara.


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Why You Should Thank a Hydrographer

NOAA's Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

World Hydrography Day is celebrated each year on June 21. But before we start thanking hydrographers, we first should explain: What is a hydrographer?

Basically, a hydrographer measures and documents the shape and features of the ocean floor and coasts. These scientists then create charts showing the ocean’s varying depths and the location of underwater obstructions, such as rocky outcroppings or shipwrecks. As our fellow NOAA colleagues at the Office of Coast Survey (an office full of hydrographers) further elaborate, “hydrographic surveying ‘looks’ into the ocean to see what the sea floor looks like,” with most of the work “primarily concerned with water depth.”

Mariners, unlike drivers on a dangerous road, can’t see the whole picture of the path their ships are taking. Is this harbor deep enough for a large ship to enter safely? Where should they avoid sensitive coral reefs? They rely on NOAA’s nautical charts to show them what is on the sea floor and where there are objects or areas to avoid.

Sometimes, however, ships do run afoul with underwater features—which, for example, could be coral reefs, pipelines, or damaged oil service platforms—leading to oil spills or crushed coral reef habitats. That brings our office into the picture to help minimize the environmental damage and then work to restore it.

This is why we at the Office of Response and Restoration are grateful for the hydrographers who are diligently creating and updating the charts that keep our ocean and its travelers safe. Beyond that, here are a few more reasons why we (and hopefully you) would want to thank a hydrographer.

Modeling Leaking Shipwrecks

Remote sensing data from hydrographic surveys are, in many instances, the first picture we have of a shipwreck and give us some sense of what state the ship is in before NOAA sends down divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). We know that even ships broken into two or three sections can still hold a significant amount of oil (from fuel or cargo). Recently, we worked with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to evaluate the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters for those with the potential to leak oil still onboard. In a report to the U.S. Coast Guard, we highlighted 17 wrecks, in particular, that should be assessed further and possibly have any remaining oil removed.

Coast Survey recently finished surveying one of these wrecks, the freighter Fernstream [PDF], which sank after colliding with another ship near San Francisco Bay in 1952. One of their physical science technicians then created a vibrant three-dimensional model of the wreck, with the colors representing different water depths detected by multibeam sonar. From this kind of information, maritime archaeologists can interpret how the wrecked ship might be oriented on the sea floor and estimate where oil tanks could be located.

Mapping Environmental Responses

Bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data is one of the primary data sets we use as a base layer in ERMA®, our online mapping tool for environmental planning and response. We often display high resolution bathymetry data in ERMA to better understand areas of interest, such as the site of a ship spilling oil. ERMA can readily pull in bathymetry data feeds from NOAA and university partners to help our scientist refine models of the water column and classify aquatic habitat. High resolution bathymetry data was particularly useful for visualizing the area surrounding the damaged wellhead for the Deepwater Horizon wreckage and has aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast.

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

During the response to an oil spill or ship grounding, we sometimes work with hydrographers who may be able to do new underwater surveys of the affected area. In addition, with access to huge databases of bathymetry data, they can offer much more detailed information than what is on the average nautical chart, helping us guide response decisions, such as where response vessels can be anchored safely. For example, when Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Dec. 31, 2012, a Coast Survey specialist, using detailed nautical charts and data, helped us identify nearby Kiliuda Bay as a suitable safe harbor to relocate the rig.

Detecting Submerged Hurricane Debris

After a hurricane, lots of debris from on land, including oil drums, shipping containers, and chemical tanks, can get swept into the ocean. This has been a notable issue following Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. Currently, Coast Survey is collecting hydrographic data to update their charts from North Carolina to Connecticut, the states affected by Hurricane Sandy. We will be focusing in particular on the data they gather for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and whether they find items on the sea floor larger than one cubic meter in size (about 35 cubic feet). That survey data then will be processed by the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center. Their analyses will inform our Marine Debris Program’s future efforts to prioritize and remove the submerged debris items detected in these surveys.

Thanks also go to the Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton, Michele Jacobi, and Jason Rolfe and the Office of Marine Sanctuaries’ Lisa Symons for contributing to this post.


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NOAA Lifts 14 Metric Tons of Fishing Nets and Plastics from Hawaiian Coral Reefs

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

The sea life around Hawaii’s remote Midway Atoll is swimming easier after NOAA recently removed 14 metric tons of debris from its waters (a metric ton equals about 2,204 pounds). The removal team, consisting of members of the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, spent 19 days collecting debris both from along the shoreline and in the water around Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As usual, the bulk of the items recovered were abandoned fishing gear and plastics.

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

Notably, the team also removed a 23-foot-long derelict vessel weighing close to three-quarters of a metric ton. This vessel was confirmed as having been lost from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. (Learn more about marine debris from the tsunami.)

This current round of marine debris removal efforts began in 2011 when a plan was put in place to help restore the environment injured after the research ship M/V Casitas ran aground on the coral reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 2005. This atoll is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in what is now the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Our office, along with our partners, undertook a Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this ship grounding. This process resulted in a legal settlement which provided NOAA with funds to conduct marine debris removal projects over several summers, starting in 2011. The 2011 efforts removed 15 metric tons of marine debris while the 2012 cruise brought in 52 metric tons. Since 2011, NOAA has collected a total of 81 metric tons or 178,000 pounds of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

Marine debris, particularly discarded and lost fishing gear, is a substantial source of coral damage in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. NOAA and our partners determined that removing nets from coral reefs in this area would prevent similar injuries to corals as those that occurred during the M/V Casitas grounding and subsequent response.

Learn more about efforts to restore coral reefs after this ship grounding [PDF].


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Removal Operations Continue for Navy Mine Ship on Philippine Coral Reef

USS Guardian salvage operations

Aerial view of the vessels aiding in the dismantling process of the mine countermeasures ship Ex-Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef Jan. 17. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine authorities to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy/Anderson Bomjardim)

You may recall that in January the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines, inside Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. The Navy removed the approximately 15,000 gallons of fuel aboard the ship and decided that the safest way to extract the Guardian from the reef was to deconstruct and carry it away in smaller sections.

Here are some interesting photos showing how the removal of the grounded “Ex-Guardian” (formerly USS Guardian) is progressing.

First, the superstructure (Wheelhouse and above deck structures) was removed as you can see in the top photo. Now the hull is being cut into sections and removed. Earlier this week the bow section, weighing approximately 250 tons, was lifted off the reef and placed onto an awaiting barge (bottom photo).

A crane vessel removes the bow of the mine countermeasure ship Ex-Guardian.

A crane vessel removes the bow of the mine countermeasure ship Ex-Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef, Jan. 17. The U.S. Navy and contracted salvage teams continue damage assessments and the removal of equipment and parts to prepare the grounded ship to be safely dismantled and removed from Tubbataha Reef. (U.S. Navy/Kelby Sanders)

The U.S. Navy has been working closely with the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy, and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park during the process.

For more information on the removal operations, check out http://www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/010081

You can also find out more about how NOAA works to protect and restore coral reefs after ship groundings in some of our previous blog posts:


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From Dynamite to Deconstruction, or How to Remove Ships from Coral Reefs

USS Guardian grounded on coral reef with tug removing fuel and wastewater.

SULU SEA (Jan. 28, 2013) The U.S. Navy contracted Malaysian tug Vos Apollo removes petroleum-based products and human wastewater from the mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5), which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17. No fuel has leaked since the grounding and all of the approximately 15,000 gallons on board Guardian was safely transferred to Vos Apollo during two days of controlled de-fueling operations on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. The grounding and subsequent heavy waves hitting Guardian have caused severe damage, leading the Navy to determine the 23-year old ship is beyond economical repair and is a complete loss. With the deteriorating integrity of the ship, the weight involved, and where it has grounded on the reef, dismantling the ship in sections is the only supportable salvage option. Since Guardian’s grounding, the Navy has been working meticulously to salvage any reusable equipment, retrieve the crew’s personal effects, and remove any potentially harmful materials. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy)

On January 17, 2013, the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines. Salvage experts evaluated various options for removing the ship, including towing or pulling it off the reef, but concluded that such efforts would cause even more damage  to the reef and the ship’s hull. Earlier this month, the Navy decided to dismantle the ship and remove it in smaller sections in order to minimize damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment.

The Tubbataha Reef, where the ship grounded in the Sulu Sea, is a marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its biodiversity, pristine reefs, and protected nesting habitat for marine birds and sea turtles.

The photos of the stranded ship and the concern about the corals in this part of the world reminded me of a story about the old U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) vessel Fathomer.  The USC&GS mission was to survey the U.S. coastline and create nautical charts of the coast to help increase maritime safety. Today, this part of NOAA is called the Office of Coast Survey, which produces navigational products, data, and services to keep maritime commerce moving and to protect life and property at sea. (Editor’s note: You can check out their WordPress blog at http://noaacoastsurvey.wordpress.com.)

I came across old photos of the Fathomer when I was working on a project studying the impact of vessel groundings on corals.  That story ended quite differently than the USS Guardian, and shows how environmental protection has become a much bigger concern for salvors.  In the old days, the focus of salvage was strictly to save the ship and cargo, but modern salvors (salvage crews) have a much bigger emphasis on protecting the environment.

On August 15, 1936, the Fathomer dragged anchor in a typhoon and, like the USS Guardian, ended up grounded on a coral reef in the Philippine Islands[1].  At that time, the Philippines were a commonwealth of the United States, and the Fathomer was surveying and charting the islands.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936. (NOAA)

The story of the Fathomer’s grounding and salvage is a good sea story, complete with rum.  All of the crew survived the storm and grounding, but the official history mentions that “Everyone was bruised and suffering from exhaustion and exposure. Two quarts of brandy, stored in the sick bay, were rationed out to all hands, and undoubtedly resulted in no one developing a severe cold or pneumonia.” The entire crew was later commended for their “seamanship, courage and fortitude.”

But what I found most interesting was the salvage efforts.  Buried in the official history are some details that show that coral reef protection was not a concern in 1936.  For example, a pile driver was used to place a “cluster of piles driven on the reef,” and these pilings were “backed by three anchors imbedded in the reef.”  Wire ropes were then used to try to bring the Fathomer upright and haul it off the reef, but those efforts were unsuccessful and ultimately the reef was dynamited and the loose coral was dredged, allowing the Fathomer to be towed to deeper water.

The removal of the USS Guardian is ongoing, but thankfully, it is clear, almost 80 years later, that coral reef protection will be very high on the list of priorities.


[1] The Fathomer worked in the Philippines from 1905-1941. After the 1936 typhoon, Fathomer resumed survey duties in the Philippine Islands. During World War II the ship was used in the defense of the Philippines and was lost in April 1942 when the American and Filipino defenders surrendered the Bataan Peninsula.


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With Tropical Storm Isaac’s Passing, Crews Resume Cutting Apart Grounded Ship and Protecting Coral at Mona Island, Puerto Rico

Response barges are anchored near the grounded M/V Jireh.

August 20, 2012 — Response barges are anchored near the M/V Jireh (foreground), which grounded on coral reefs in June. (U.S. Coast Guard/Jaclyn Young)

With the passage of the Tropical Storm formerly known as Hurricane Isaac, salvage crews and coral ecologists are once again back on Mona Island, Puerto Rico, working to remove the grounded freighter M/V Jireh while also protecting the island’s corals.

In previous ship salvage cases involving coral habitats, biologists have observed considerable coral damage from not only the physical placement of anchors, cables, and support vessels, but also continued shifting and grinding from the grounded vessel. As a result, crews are working carefully to keep that from happening here.

In such a long and complicated salvage project, it is impossible to prevent all impacts, but crews are continuing to remove and reattach corals at risk from the grounded ship. Nearly 1,000 corals have been moved already. These transplanted corals are expected to have a high survival rate and reduce the overall impacts from the vessel removal operation.

A NOAA-authorized biologist is on site during all coral relocation operations to make sure corals are properly handled and reattached to reefs. Before responders attempt to refloat the vessel, qualified divers will evaluate the corals in the area and determine an exit path for the damaged ship that will have the least impact to the surrounding coral habitat. This may or may not turn out to be the same path the ship took when it entered the reef. Depending on conditions after the vessel’s removal, the coral colonies may be relocated back to their original place on the reef.

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The U.S. Coast Guard and the rest of the response crew have been working carefully to cut up portions of the ship, in order to lighten the vessel enough to refloat and remove it from the reef. Once disassembled, the removed portions of the ship are loaded onto a barge and taken to Puerto Rico for recycling.

Additionally, since the grounding on June 21, crews already have removed 600 tons of oiled cargo and more than 5,000 gallons of oil-water mixture.

Here you can see their plan for removing and disposing of this damaged vessel.

Jireh removal and disposal process.

Jireh removal and disposal process. (Jireh Grounding Unified Command)

Once the ship is refloated, the plan is to scuttle (purposefully sink) the wreck 12 miles away from Mona Island. After it is sunk, the wreckage is not expected to pose any additional risk to corals or other marine life. The difference with this shipwreck is the location.

“Intertidal wrecks are unstable and scour the reefs as they degrade and fall apart, while a wreck far out at sea becomes a stable deep-water habitat over time,” said Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration.

The Coast Guard reports that removing the Jireh from Mona Island is the best solution to protect the sensitive environment and coral reefs surrounding this highly valuable natural reserve. Once this threat is permanently removed, NOAA divers will conduct an assessment of the grounding area and continue to work with local environmental agencies to ensure its full recovery.


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NOAA Hauls 50 Metric Tons of Debris out of Hawaiian Waters

Scientists load onto a small boat marine debris collected at Midway Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Scientists load onto a small boat marine debris collected at Midway Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (NOAA)

With their eyes on the ocean, a team of 17 NOAA scientists recently removed nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris—mostly abandoned fishing nets and plastics—from the turquoise waters of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Part of an annual effort to restore the area’s coral ecosystems, this latest sweep of marine debris also scanned for items which might have been carried there from the 2011 Japan tsunami. However, nothing could be linked directly to the tragedy.

“While we did not find debris with an obvious connection to last year’s tsunami, this mission was a great opportunity to leverage activities that had already been planned and see what we might find,” said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration. “It’s also an important reminder that marine debris is an everyday problem, especially here in the Pacific.”

NOAA divers cut a Hawaiian green sea turtle free from a derelict fishing net during a recent mission to collect marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

NOAA divers cut a Hawaiian green sea turtle free from a derelict fishing net during a recent mission to collect marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Through NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Restoration, and Remediation Program, the Office of Response and Restoration is helping restore coral reefs here after the M/V Casitas grounded on Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in July 2005. Part of the funding for the marine debris removal survey comes from the legal settlement for the Casitas ship grounding, as well as from the NOAA Marine Debris Program and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

This recurring issue of marine debris threatens Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and other marine life in the coral reef ecosystems of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  The scientists on this mission loaded the massive amounts of collected debris on to the 224-ft. NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

NOAA collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, piled on ship's deck.

NOAA collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, shown here with researchers sitting on top of the piles of nets aboard the ship Oscar Elton Sette during a July 2012 survey in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

“What surprises us is that after many years of marine debris removal in Papahānaumokuākea and more than 700 metric tons of debris later, we are still collecting a significant amount of derelict fishing gear from the shallow coral reefs and shorelines,” said Kyle Koyanagi, marine debris operations manager at NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for the mission. “The ship was at maximum capacity and we did not have any space for more debris.”

This year, marine debris was collected from waters and shorelines around the islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island and Laysan Island.

Marine debris removed during this project will be used to create electricity through Hawaii’s Nets to Energy Program, a public-private partnership. Since 2002, it has collected and converted more than 730 metric tons of abandoned fishing gear into electricity—enough to power nearly 350 Hawaii homes for a year.


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Saving Coral After a Ship Grounds on a Reef in Puerto Rico

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom.

The ship M/V Jireh, run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico, is surrounded by protective oil boom. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Late last week a small freighter, the M/V Jireh, ran aground on Mona Island, an uninhabited island off Puerto Rico. The 22-square-mile island, an ecological reserve, is about 41 miles west of the main island of Puerto Rico. NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and U.S. Coast Guard are focusing on recovering the fuel and oil on board the freighter to minimize the environmental impact.

Efforts are underway to remove about 2,000 gallons of fuel oil from the Jireh. So far it looks like a major oil spill has been averted, but there is concern about the physical impact of the ship itself. As the ship plowed into the reef, it crushed and toppled corals. Unless restored, these unstable and barren areas may take generations to recover as tiny young coral larvae struggle to find a stable place to attach to the reef. Scientists are currently conducting a survey to see how much coral the ship affected.

[UPDATE JUNE 28, 2012: After surveying the underwater area around the grounded vessel, NOAA divers concluded that the ship caused minimal impact to coral. As of June 27, they were assessing whether any coral colonies or endangered species 300 feet out from the ship might be in its path as salvage teams attempted to refloat and remove it. NOAA would proactively remove and transplant any vulnerable species before salvage operations began.

Response crews have confirmed the Jireh is sound enough for them to go ahead and remove the diesel on board. They have deployed 100 feet of containment boom around the smaller response vessel ready to receive the fuel pumped off the Jireh. They also are removing a variety of oiled cargo from the ship, including mangoes, water bottles, cinder blocks, grain, bags of horse feed, and carbonated drinks.]

An injury doesn’t only stem from the grounded vessel. Anchors for the protective boom meant to contain any spilled oil have to be placed carefully to prevent additional damage, and care needs to be taken when the salvage tugs start to rig their own anchors and cables. About 800 feet of oil boom is currently strung around the vessel.

Some emergency actions can be taken to restore the coral reef, but recovery will still be slow. My office works to minimize those environmental impacts and develop restoration alternatives. If you are interested in other photos showing how we address coral injuries, take a look at the Maitland, Fla., and Cape Flattery, Hawaii, cases.

Mona Island is uninhabited, but there is a lot of shipping traffic nearby, and it has been affected by other ship groundings. In July 1997, the 325-foot container ship Fortuna Reefer ran aground on the south shore of the island, damaging approximately 6.8 acres of coral habitat. In September 1997, NOAA initiated an emergency restoration to the reef dominated by elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) that was completed by mid-October 1997.

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