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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Follow Along as NOAA Clears the Waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Two people pull nets from the ocean into a small boat.

Two members of the NOAA dive team remove derelict fishing gear from a reef at Midway Atoll during the 2013 marine debris removal cruise. (NOAA)

Turquoise waters, vibrant coral reefs, white sand beaches—this is often what we think of when we think about far-off islands in the Pacific Ocean. But even the furthest reaches of wilderness, such as the tropical reefs, islands, and atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which are hundreds of miles from the main Hawaiian archipelago, can be polluted by human influence. In these shallow waters, roughly 52 tons of plastic fishing nets wash up on coral reefs and shorelines each year.

For nearly two decades, NOAA has been leading an annual mission to clean up these old nets that can smother corals and entangle marine life, including endangered Hawaiian monk seals. This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has two staff—Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi—joining the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center scientists and divers on board the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to document this effort.

A man pulls a net out of the ocean into a small boat.

Chief scientist Mark Manuel hauls derelict nets over the side of a small boat at Maro Reef during the 2014 expedition. (NOAA)

You can follow their journey to remove nets from five areas in the marine monument:

You can keep track of all things related to this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef: Undersea Vacuums, Power Washers, and Winter Storms

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matt Parry contributed to this story and this restoration work.

After a ship runs aground on a coral reef, the ocean bottom becomes a messy place: thickly carpeted with a layer of pulverized coral several feet deep. This was the scene underwater off the Hawaiian island of Oahu in February of 2010. On February 5, the cargo ship M/T VogeTrader ran aground and was later removed from a coral reef in the brilliant blue waters of Kalaeloa/Barber’s Point Harbor.

NOAA and our partners suited up in dive gear and got to work restoring this damaged reef, beginning work in October 2013 and wrapping up in April 2014. While a few young corals have begun to repopulate this area in the time since the grounding, even fast-growing corals grow less than half an inch per year. The ones there now are mostly smaller than a golf ball and the seafloor was still covered in crushed and dislodged corals. These broken corals could be swept up and knocked around by strong currents or waves, potentially causing further injury to the recovering reef. This risk was why we pursued emergency restoration [PDF] activities for the reef.

What we didn’t expect was how a strong winter storm would actually help our restoration work in a way that perhaps has never before been done.

How Do You Start Fixing a Damaged Reef?

First, we had to get the lay of the (underwater) land, using acoustic technology to map exactly where the coral rubble was located and determine the size of the affected area. Next, our team of trained scuba divers gathered any live corals and coral fragments and transported them a short distance away from where they would be removing the rubble.

Then, we were ready to clean up the mess from the grounding and response activity and create a place on the seafloor where corals could thrive. Divers set up an undersea vacuum on the bottom of the ocean, which looks like a giant hose reaching 35 feet down from a boat to the seafloor. It gently lifted rubble up through the hose—gently, because we wanted to avoid ripping everything off of the seafloor. Eventually, our team would remove nearly 800 tons (more than 700 metric tons) of debris from the area hit by the ship.

Unexpected Gifts from a Powerful Storm

In the middle of this work, the area experienced a powerful winter storm, yielding 10-year high winter swells that reduced visibility underwater and temporarily halted the restoration work. When the divers returned after the storm subsided, they were greeted by a disappointing discovery: the cache of small coral remnants they had stockpiled to reattach to the sea bottom was gone. The swells had scoured the seafloor and scattered what they had gathered.

But looking around, the divers realized that the energetic storm had broken off and dislodged a number of large corals nearby. Corals that were bigger than those they lost and which otherwise would have died as a result of the storm. With permission from the State of Hawaii, they picked up some of these large, naturally detached corals, which were in good condition, and used them as donor corals to finish the restoration project.

Finding suitable donor corals is one of the most difficult aspects of coral restoration. This may have been the first time people have been able to take advantage of a naturally destructive event to restore corals damaged by a ship grounding.

A Reef Restored

Once our team transported the donor corals to the restoration site a few hundred yards away, they scraped the seafloor, at first by hand and then with a power washer, to prepare it for reattaching the corals. Using a cement mixer on a 70-foot-long boat, they mixed enough cement to secure 643 corals to the seafloor.

While originally planning to reattach 1,200 coral colonies, the storm-blown corals were so large (and therefore so much more valuable to the recovering habitat) that the divers ran out of space to reattach the corals. In the end, they didn’t replace these colonies in the exact same area that they removed the coral rubble. When the ship hit the reef, it displaced about three feet of reef, exposing a fragmented, crumbly surface below. They left this area open for young corals to repopulate but traveled a little higher up on the reef shelf to reattach the larger corals on a more secure surface, one only lightly scraped by the ship.

The results so far are encouraging. Very few corals were lost during the moving and cementing process, and the diversity of coral species in the reattachment area closely reflects what is seen in unaffected reefs nearby. These include the common coral species of the genus Montipora (rice coral), Porites lobata (lobe coral), and Pocillopora meandrina (cauliflower coral). As soon as the divers finished cleaning and cementing the corals to the ocean floor, reef fish started moving in, apparently pleased with the state of their new home.

But our work isn’t done yet. We’ll be keeping an eye on these corals as they recover, with plans to return for monitoring dives in six months and one year. In addition, we’ll be working with our partners to develop even more projects to help restore these beautiful and important parts of Hawaii’s undersea environment.


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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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