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Latest Research Finds Serious Heart Troubles When Oil and Young Tuna Mix

Atlantic bluefin tuna prepares to eat a smaller fish.

Atlantic bluefin tuna are a very ecologically and economically valuable species. However, populations in the Gulf of Mexico are at historically low levels. (Copyright: Gilbert Van Ryckevorsel/TAG A Giant)

In May of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling for oil in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, schools of tuna and other large fish would have been moving into the northern Gulf. This is where, each spring and summer, they lay delicate, transparent eggs that float and hatch near the ocean surface. After the oil well suffered a catastrophic blowout and released 4.9 million barrels of oil, these fish eggs may have been exposed to the huge slicks of oil floating up through the same warm waters.

An international team of researchers from NOAA, Stanford University, the University of Miami, and Australia recently published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences exploring what happens when tuna mix with oil early in life.

“What we’re interested in is how the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico would have impacted open-ocean fishes that spawn in this region, such as tunas, marlins, and swordfishes,” said Stanford University scientist Barbara Block.

This study is part of ongoing research to determine how the waters, lands, and life of the Gulf of Mexico were harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response. It also builds on decades of research examining the impacts of crude oil on fish, first pioneered after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Based on those studies, NOAA and the rest of the research team knew that crude oil was toxic to young fish and taught them to look carefully at their developing hearts.

“One of the most important findings was the discovery that the developing fish heart is very sensitive to certain chemicals derived from crude oil,” said Nat Scholz of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

This is why in this latest study they examined oil’s impacts on young bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, and amberjack, all large fish that hunt at the top of the food chain and reproduce in the warm waters of the open ocean. The researchers exposed fertilized fish eggs to small droplets of crude oil collected from the surface and the wellhead from the Deepwater Horizon spill, using concentrations comparable to those during the spill. Next, they put the transparent eggs and young fish under the microscope to observe the oil’s impacts at different stages of development. Using a technology similar to doing ultrasounds on humans, the researchers were able create a digital record of the fishes’ beating hearts.

All three species of fish showed dramatic effects from the oil, regardless of how weathered (broken down) it was. Severely malformed and malfunctioning hearts was the most severe impact. Depending on the oil concentration, the developing fish had slow and irregular heartbeats and excess fluid around the heart. Other serious effects, including spine, eye, and jaw deformities, were a result of this heart failure.

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

“Crude oil shuts down key cellular processes in fish heart cells that regulate beat-to-beat function,” noted Block, referencing another study by this team.

As the oil concentration, particularly the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), went up, so did the severity of the effects on the fish. Severely affected fish with heart defects are unlikely to survive. Others looked normal on the outside but had underlying issues like irregular heartbeats. This could mean that while some fish survived directly swimming through oil, heart conditions could follow them through life, impairing their (very important) swimming ability and perhaps leading to an earlier-than-natural death.

“The heart is one of the first organs to appear, and it starts beating before it’s completely built,” said NOAA Fisheries biologist John Incardona. “Anything that alters heart rhythm during embryonic development will likely impact the final shape of the heart and the ability of the adult fish to survive in the wild.”

Even at low levels, oil can have severe effects on young fish, not only in the short-term but throughout the course of their lives. These subtle but serious impacts are a lesson still obvious in the recovery of marine animals and habitats still happening 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


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Remembering the Exxon Valdez: Collecting 25 Years of Memories and Memorabilia

On May 24, 1989, NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka was on board the NOAA ship Fairweather in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It had been two months since the tanker Exxon Valdez, now tied up for repairs nearby, had run aground and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters the Fairweather was now sailing through.

A man in a tyvek suit stands on a ship next to a life preserver with mountains and water in the background.

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka in 1989 aboard the tanker Exxon Valdez itself. In retrospect, Shigenaka joked that he should have made off with the ship’s life preserver for his eventual collection of artifacts related to the ship and spill. (NOAA)

That day Shigenaka and the other NOAA scientists aboard the Fairweather were collecting data about the status of fish after the oil spill.

Little did he know he would be collecting something else too: a little piece of history that would inspire his 25-year-long collection of curiosities related to the Exxon Valdez. Shigenaka’s collection of items would eventually grow to include everything from tourist trinkets poking fun at the spill to safety award memorabilia given to the tanker’s crew years before it grounded.

This unusual collection’s first item came to Shigenaka back on that May day in 1989, when the NOAA scientists on their ship were flagged down by the crippled tanker’s salvage crew. Come here, they said. We think you’re going to want to see this.

Apparently, while the salvage crew was busy making repairs to the damaged Exxon Valdez, they had noticed big schools of fish swimming in and out of the holes in the ship.

So Shigenaka and a few others went aboard the Exxon Valdez, putting a small boat inside the flooded cargo holds and throwing their nets into the waters. They were unsuccessful at catching the fish moving in and out of the ship, but Shigenaka and the other NOAA scientists didn’t leave the infamous tanker empty-handed.

They noticed that the salvage workers who had initially invited them on board were cutting away steel frames hanging off of the ship. Naturally, they asked if they could have one of the steel frames, which they had cut into pieces a few inches long so that each of these fish-counting scientists could take home a piece of the Exxon Valdez.

After Shigenaka took this nondescript chunk of steel back home to Seattle, Wash., he heard rumors about the existence of another item that piqued his interest. The Exxon Shipping Company had allegedly produced safety calendars which featured the previously exemplary tanker Exxon Valdez during the very month that it would cause the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time—March 1989. Feeling a bit like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab chasing down a mythical white whale, Shigenaka’s efforts were finally rewarded when he saw one of these calendars pop up on eBay. He bought it. And that was just the beginning.

This young biologist who began his career in oil spill response with the fateful Exxon Valdez spill would find both his professional and personal life shaped by this monumental spill. Today, Shigenaka has an alert set up so that he is notified when anything related to the Exxon Valdez shows up on eBay. He will occasionally bid when something catches his eye, mostly rarer items from the days before the oil spill.

To commemorate the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, take a peek at what is in Gary Shigenaka’s personal collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts.

Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research over the past 25 years.


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Detecting Change in a Changing World: 25 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Life between high and low tide along the Alaskan coast is literally rough and tumble.

The marine animals and plants living there have to deal with both crashing sea waves at high tide and the drying heat of the sun at low tide. Such a life can be up and down, boom and bust, as favorable conditions come and go quickly and marine animals and plants are forced to react and repopulate just as quickly.

But what happens when oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez enters this dynamic picture—and 25 years later, still hasn’t completely left? What happens when bigger changes to the ocean and global climate begin arriving in these waters already in flux?

Telling the Difference

Two people wearing chest waders sift for marine life in shallow rocky waters.

In 2011 NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka (right) sifts through the sediments of Alaska’s Lower Herring Bay, looking for the tiny marine life that live there. (Photo by Gerry Sanger/Sound Ecosystem Adventures)

In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit Alaska’s Prince William Sound, NOAA scientists, including marine biologist Gary Shigenaka and ecologist Alan Mearns, have been studying the impacts of the spill and cleanup measures on these animals and plants in rocky tidal waters.

Their experiments and monitoring over the long term revealed a high degree of natural variability in these communities that was unrelated to the oil spill. They saw large changes in, for example, numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles from year to year even in areas known to be unaffected by the oil spill.

This translated into a major challenge. How do scientists tell the difference between shifts in marine communities due to natural variability and those changes caused by the oil spill?

Several key themes emerged from NOAA’s long-term monitoring and subsequent experimental research:

  • impact. How do we measure it?
  • recovery. How do we define it?
  • variability. How do we account for it?
  • subtle connection to large-scale oceanic influences. How do we recognize it?

What NOAA has learned from these themes informs our understanding of oil spill response and cleanup, as well as of ecosystems on a larger scale. None of this, however, would have been apparent without the long-term monitoring effort. This is an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez experience: that monitoring and research, often viewed as an unnecessary luxury in the context of a large oil spill response, are useful, even essential, for framing the scientific and practical lessons learned.

Remote Possibilities

As NOAA looks ahead to the future—and with the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in our recent past—we can incorporate and apply lessons of the Exxon Valdez long-term program into how we will support response decisions and define impact and recovery.

The Arctic is a region of intense interest and scrutiny. Climate change is opening previously inaccessible waters and dramatically shifting what scientists previously considered “normal” environmental conditions. This is allowing new oil production and increased maritime traffic through Arctic waters, increasing the risk of oil spills in remote and changing environments.

If and when something bad happens in the Arctic, how do scientists determine the impact and what recovery means, if our reference point is a rapidly moving target? What is our model habitat for restoring one area impacted by oil when the “unimpacted” reference areas are undergoing their own major changes?

Illustrated infographic showing timeline of ecological recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Tracking the progress of recovery for marine life and habitats following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is no easy task. Even today, not all of the species have recovered or we don’t have enough information to know. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

Listening in

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka explores these questions as he reflects on the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the following Making Waves podcast from the National Ocean Service:

[NARRATOR] This all points back at what Gary says is the main take-away lesson after 25 years of studying the aftermath of this spill: the natural environment in Alaska and in the Arctic are rapidly changing. If we don’t understand that background change, then it’s really hard to say if an area has recovered or not after a big oil spill.

[GARY SHIGENAKA] “I think we need to really keep in mind that maybe our prior notions of recovery as returning to some pre-spill or absolute control condition may be outmoded. We need to really overlay that with the dynamic changes that are occurring for whatever reason and adjust our assessments and definitions accordingly. I don’t have the answers for the best way to do that. We’ve gotten some ideas from the work that we’ve done, but I think that as those changes begin to accelerate and become much more marked, then it’s going to be harder to do.”

 

Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research on its recovery over the past 25 years.


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After the Big Spill, What Happened to the Ship Exxon Valdez?

This is a post by Gary Shigenaka, a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Close-up of the ship's name on side of Exxon Valdez.

The last days of the Exxon Valdez: in the San Diego shipyard before the first name change. Photo from the collection of Gary Shigenaka, NOAA.

A popular myth exists that it is bad luck to rename a boat.  It is unclear whether this applies to “boats” as big as a 987-foot-long oil tanker, but it is possible that the ship originally known as the Exxon Valdez might be used to argue that the answer is “yes.”

When the Exxon Valdez was delivered to Exxon on December 11, 1986, it was the largest vessel ever built on the west coast of the U.S. On July 30, 1989, four months after it ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and caused the then-largest oil spill in U.S. waters, the crippled Exxon Valdez entered dry dock at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego—its original birthplace.

The trip south from Prince William Sound had not been without incident. Divers discovered hull plates hanging from the frame 70 feet below the surface that had to be cut away, and a 10 mile oil slick trailing behind the ship for a time prevented it from entering San Diego Bay.

New Law, New Name

Ship Exxon Mediterranean in Trieste, Italy, July 1991.

Exxon Mediterranean in Trieste, Italy, July 1991. Photo by Arki Wagner, used with permission.

Nearly a year and $30 million later, the ship emerged for sea trials as the Exxon Mediterranean.  The Exxon Valdez had suffered the ignominy—and corporate hardship—of effectively being singled out in U.S. legislation (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 [PDF]) and banned from a specific U.S. body of water:

SEC. 5007. LIMITATION.

Notwithstanding any other law, tank vessels that have spilled more than 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989, are prohibited from operating on the navigable waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska.

(33 U.S.C. § 2737)

With this banishment institutionalized in U.S. law, Exxon Shipping Company shifted the operational area for the ship to the Mediterranean and the Middle East and renamed it accordingly.  In 1993, Exxon spun off its shipping arm to a subsidiary, Sea River Maritime, Inc., and the Exxon Mediterranean became the Sea River Mediterranean.  This was shortened to S/R Mediterranean.

In 2002, the ship was re-assigned to Asian routes and then temporarily mothballed in an undisclosed location.

A Ship Singled Out?

Exxon filed suit in federal court challenging the provisions of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that had banned its tanker from the Prince William Sound trade route.  In November 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Oil Pollution Act and its vessel prohibition provision (the Justice Department noting that to that time, 18 vessels had been prevented from entering Prince William Sound).  While Sea River had argued that the law unfairly singled out and punished its tanker, and that there was no reason to believe that a tanker guilty of spilling in the past would spill in the future, the three-judge panel disagreed unanimously.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the landmark law resulting from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, legislated the phase-out of all single-hulled tankers from U.S. waters by 2015. On October 21, 2003, single-hulled tankers carrying heavy oils were banned by the European Union.  A complete ban on single-hulled tankers was to be phased in on an accelerated schedule in 2005 and 2010. There remains pressure to eliminate single-hulled tankers from the oil trade worldwide, so their days are clearly numbered.

In 2005, the S/R Mediterranean was reflagged under the Marshall Islands after having remained a U.S.-flagged ship for 20 years (reportedly in the hopes that it eventually would have been permitted to re-enter the Alaska – U.S. West Coast – Panama route for which it had been designed).  The ship’s name became simply Mediterranean.

In 2008, ExxonMobil and its infamous tanker finally parted ways when Sea River sold the Mediterranean to a Hong Kong-based shipping company, Hong Kong Bloom Shipping Co., Ltd. The ship was once again renamed, to Dong Fang Ocean, and reflagged under Panamanian registry.  Its days as a tanker also came to an end, as the Dong Fang Ocean was converted into a bulk ore carrier at Guangzhou CSSC-Oceanline-GWS Marine Engineering Co., Ltd., China.

The Dong Fang Ocean labored in relative anonymity in its new incarnation until November 29, 2010.  On that day, it collided with another bulk carrier, the Aali in the Yellow Sea off Chengshan, China. Both vessels were severely damaged; the Dong Fang Ocean lost both anchors, and the Aali sustained damage to its ballast tanks.  The Dong Fang Ocean moved to the port of Longyan with assistance by tugs.

The End Is Near

With this last misfortune, the final countdown to oblivion began in earnest for the vessel-formerly-known-as-Exxon-Valdez.  In March 2011, the ship was sold for scrap to a U.S.-based company called Global Marketing Systems (GMS). GMS in turn re-sold it to the Chinese-owned Best Oasis, Ltd., for $16 million.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

Intending to bring the Oriental Nicety, as it had been renamed yet one last time, ashore at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, Best Oasis was blocked by a petition filed by Delhi-based ToxicsWatch Alliance with the Indian Supreme Court on the grounds that the ship could be contaminated with asbestos and PCBs. ToxicsWatch Alliance invoked the Basel Convention, which restricts the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes for disposal. However, an environmental audit required by the court showed no significant contamination, and in July 2012, the Oriental Nicety was cleared to be brought ashore for its final disposition. The ship was reportedly beached on August 2, 2012.

Shanta Barley, writing for Nature, penned a wry obituary as a lead-in to her article about the last days of the ship:

The Oriental Nicety (née Exxon Valdez), born in 1986 in San Diego, California, has died after a long struggle with bad publicity.

Editor’s note: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka about the Exxon Valdez and its impacts on Alaska’s marine life and waters on Monday, March 24 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. Follow the conversation at #ExxonValdez25 and get the details: http://1.usa.gov/1iw2Y6W.

Gary Shigenaka.

Gary Shigenaka.

Gary Shigenaka is one of the original biological support specialists in the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Even though his career with NOAA has spanned decades, Gary’s spill response experience began with the Exxon Valdez. He has worked countless spills since then, in the U.S. and internationally. He also currently oversees a number of response-related research efforts and represents the U.S. Department of Commerce on the Region 10 Regional Response Team.


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What Are Kids Reading About Oil Spills?

This is a post by Dr. Alan Mearns, NOAA Senior Staff Scientist.

Kids reading books in a book store.

Credit: Carolien Dekeersmaeker/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License

What are your children and their teachers reading? We might want to pay closer attention. The stories we tell our children are a reflection of how we see the world, and we want to make sure these stories have good information about our world.

I occasionally accompany my wife, a preschool teacher, to local children’s bookstores, and more often than not, find books about oil spills and other disasters.  Recently, I took a closer look at the quality of the information found in a sampling of children’s books on oil spills.

An Oil Spill Ecologist Dives into Kids’ Books

So far, the eight or so books I’ve looked at focus on one of the two major oil spills in the American mind: the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A number are heart-warming stories about wildlife speaking about their experience in oil and the nice people who captured, cleaned, and released them. Birds, especially pelicans, and sea otters often play a starring role in telling these stories. Several present case histories of the oil spills, their causes, and cleanup. Some books place oil spills in the context of our heavy reliance on oil, but many ignore why there’s so much oil being transported in the first place.

One book’s color drawings show oil spill cleanup methods so well you can actually see how they work—and which I think could even be used in trainings on oil spill science.

Something that may not be top-of-mind for many parents but which I appreciate is the presence of glossaries, indices, and citations for further reading. These resources can help adults and kids evaluate whether statements about these oil spills are supported by reliable information or not.

Reading Recommendations

When reading a book—whether it is about oil spills or not—with kids you know, keep the following recommendations in mind:

  • Make sure the story informs, as well as entertains.
  • Ask where the “facts” in the story came from.
  • Look for reputable, original sources of information.
  • Ask why different sources might be motivated to show information the way they do.
  • Talk to kids about thinking critically about where information comes from.

Learn more about the ocean, pollution, and creatures that live there from our list of resources for teachers and students.

Dr. Alan Mearns.Dr. Alan Mearns is Ecologist and Senior Staff Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division in Seattle. He has over 40 years of experience in ecology and pollution assessment and response, with a focus on wastewater discharges and oil spills along the Pacific Coast and Alaska. He has worked in locations as varied as the Arctic Ocean, southern California, Israel, and Australia, and has participated in spill responses around the U.S. and abroad.


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Looking Back: What Led up to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the T/V Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989. This spill was a turning point for the nation and a major event in the history of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. It also led to major changes in the federal approach to oil spill response and the technical, policy, and legal outcomes continue to reverberate today.

But before this monumental oil spill happened, there were a series of events around the world building up to this moment. Now, 25 years later, join us for a look at the history which set the stage for this spill.

1968

Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil (which would later become Exxon) confirmed the presence of a vast oil field at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Plans for a pipeline were proposed but held up by various environmental challenges.

1973

The 1973 oil embargo plunged the nation into a serious energy crisis, and Alaskan oil became a national security issue. On November 16, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, which prohibited any further legal challenges. This pipeline would connect the developing oil fields of Alaska with the port town of Valdez, where oil could be shipped out on tankers through the Gulf of Alaska.

1977

On August 1, 1977, the tanker ARCO Juneau sailed out of Valdez with the first load of North Slope crude oil.

1981

How prepared for oil spills was Valdez? Despite complaints from the State of Alaska, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the corporation running the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, decides to disband its full-time oil spill team and reassign those employees to other operations.

1982

The National Contingency Plan (NCP) is updated from the original 1968 version, which provided the first comprehensive system of accident reporting, spill containment, and cleanup in the United States. The 1982 revisions formally codified NOAA’s role as coordinator of scientific activities during oil spill emergencies. NOAA designated nine Scientific Support Coordinators, or SSCs, to coordinate scientific information and provide critical support to the U.S. Coast Guard, and other federal on-scene commanders.

1984

In May 1984, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) field officers in Valdez write a detailed memo warning that pollution abatement equipment has been dismantled and Alyeska, the pipeline company, does not have the ability to handle a big spill. This document will become part of the Congressional investigation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Later in 1984, Alyeska conducts an oil spill response practice drill that federal and state officials deem a failure. In December 1984, DEC staffers in Valdez write another lengthy memo to their administrators detailing shortcomings in Alyeska’s spill response program.

1986

The T/V Exxon Valdez is delivered to Exxon in December of 1986 and makes its maiden voyage to Alaska. When the Exxon Valdez first arrived at the Port of Valdez later that month, the town celebrated its arrival with a party. “We were quite proud of having that tanker named after the city of Valdez,” recalls former Mayor John Devens.

1987

Captain Joseph Hazelwood becomes master of the Exxon Valdez, which then earns Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988.

In June 1987, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation approves Alyeska’s contingency plan without holding another drill. The plan details how Alyeska would handle an 8.4 million gallon oil spill in Prince William Sound. Alyeska says:

“It is highly unlikely that a spill of this magnitude would occur. Catastrophic events of this nature are further reduced because the majority of tankers calling on Port Valdez are of American registry and all of these are piloted by licensed masters or pilots.”

1988

The big news in Alaska is the lingering low price of oil. Nearly one in 10 jobs disappears from the Alaska economy. Oil output peaks on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at 2.1 million barrels of oil a day.

January 1989

In January 1989 the Valdez terminal has a couple major tests of spill response capacity with two small oil spills, which draw attention to cleanup problems and the condition of their tanker fleet. Alyeska vows to increase its response capacity and decides to buy a high-tech, 122-foot-long skimmer, at a cost of $5 million. The skimmer is scheduled for delivery in August 1990. The company also replaces four 21-foot response boats and arranges to purchase thousands of feet of extra boom for delivery later in the year.

March 1989

On March 22, the Exxon Valdez arrives at the Valdez Marine Terminal, Berth 5 and begins discharging ballast (water used for balancing cargo) and loading crude oil. Loading is completed late on March 23 and a little after 9:00 p.m. the tanker leaves Valdez with 53 million gallons of crude, bound for California.

Early on March 24, 1989, a little over three hours after leaving port, the Exxon Valdez strikes Bligh Reef, spilling approximately 10.9 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.


Join us on March 24, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. Pacific/3:00 p.m. Eastern as we remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill 25 years later.

Use Twitter to ask questions of NOAA biologist Gary Shigenaka and learn about this spill’s impacts on Alaska’s environment.

Get the details.


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When Oil Spills, School Kids Take Note

The impacts of an oil spill can be varied: closed beaches, dead fish, oiled birds and wildlife—just to name a few. But the impacts can also be emotional, often drawing out of people feelings like anger, sadness, frustration, or an eagerness to help. Those of us at NOAA who work to minimize the impacts of oil spills on America’s water, coasts, plants, and animals are not immune to these impacts either. But we are glad to know that people care.

Here a few examples of letters written by school kids after they learned about oil spills in Alaska and California—and how these spills affected them.

On April 13, 1989, second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, Calif., let her feelings be known after hearing about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. She addressed her letter, illustrated with her beloved sea otters, to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Hat tip to the National Archive’s excellent Tumblr.)

In November of 2007, middle school students on a science camp field trip to a San Francisco beach were upset instead to find oil on the water, beach, and even the birds. Days earlier, the cargo ship Cosco Busan had crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into the marine waters nearby.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

While they were saddened by the events, the seventh grade students from Old Orchard Middle School in Campbell, Calif., decided to help by writing hand-written and illustrated thank you cards to the people cleaning up the oil spill. According to a press release about their efforts [PDF]:

“Everyone started pitching in and we came up with the idea to write cards,” said seventh grade student Erin.

“We felt helpless that we couldn’t go and help the animals or clean up the beach,” said Alex, another seventh grader from Old Orchard School. “We saw birds staggering and people trying to catch them.”

“These cards did a lot for the morale of our cleanup crew,” said Barry McFarland of the response company O’Brien’s Group, which worked to clean up the spill at Muir Beach and received the students’ cards. “Some of our crew were actually moved to tears.”

You can read more of the thank you notes from the concerned students [PDF].


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The Never-ending History of Life on a Rock

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

In 1989 when Dr. Alan Mearns first caught sight of a certain seaweed-encrusted boulder in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, he had little idea he would be visiting that chest-high, relatively nondescript rock year after year … for the next two decades. Or that, along the way, the boulder would eventually bear his name: Mearns Rock.

This particular rock—like many others in the southwest corner of the sound—was coated in oil after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on nearby Bligh Reef and flooded the salty waters with nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in March 1989. For the next ten years, Mearns and other NOAA biologists examined how marine life in these tidal areas reacted to the Exxon oiling. Some of the rocky areas in their study had been oiled; others had later been cleaned of oil using high-pressure, hot-water hoses, while still others, serving as a “control” or baseline comparison, had been untouched by oil or cleaning efforts—as if the Exxon Valdez had never disemboweled its oily innards at all.

Looking Under a Rock

Over the years, Mearns and his fellow biologists were able to observe [PDF] the many faces of “normal” for this intertidal ecosystem—a dynamic habitat on the edge of land and sea and exposed to the rigors of both. In doing so, they and other scientists found that this ecosystem showed signs of recovery from oiling after about three or four years [PDF].

When the ten-year monitoring study ended, the NOAA team shifted to a smaller-scale, experimental phase of research that continues today. As part of this field-based research, Mearns (or occasionally one of his colleagues) still returns to Mearns Rock and up to eight other rocky sites to record an annual snapshot of the ecological processes there. He has observed the ebb and flow of the mussels, barnacles, and various seaweeds populating these boulders, which are set on sections of beach alternately flooded and drained by the Pacific Ocean’s tides.

Photographic Memory

The NOAA-led study team observes Mearns Rock (left of center) in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on June 5, 2012. (NOAA)

This collection of annual snapshots adds up to an ecological photo-journal of sorts, while also serving as a much less labor-intensive method of research. By taking the same photograph around the same time each year, Mearns is able to examine and compare the general year-to-year variability of the plants and animals living on Mearns Rock. You can see the progression of these annual changes occurring on Mearns Rock in a photo slideshow.

But 24 years into this experiment, Mearns decided it was time for this kind of enduring, localized scientific observation to take on new energy. In January 2012 at the annual Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska, he and Office of Response and Restoration colleague John Whitney presented a poster describing the decades of environmental trends at Mearns Rock.

The two hoped to garner the attention of others interested in turning this annual photo-surveillance of Mearns Rock and the other boulders from the original study—nine in all—into a volunteer-led project.

“It worked,” Mearns reported. “Scientists and students stopped by to chat. At one point a half dozen of us gathered at the poster and several offered to visit sites in the summer of 2012.”

But science requires consistency: everything needs to be done the exact same way. Mearns pulled together a reference guide for these volunteers, which would direct them to the study sites; tell them precisely where, when, and how to take photos at each location; and provide samples of past photos for comparison.

Passing the Torch

Locations of Mearns' study sites in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Inset map of relative location of Prince William Sound.

The locations of intertidal boulders in Dr. Alan Mearns’ study in southwest Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in the northeast corner of the sound (not on map). Key: Yellow sites were oiled and cleaned with high pressure, hot-water washing in 1989. Green sites were oiled but not cleaned in 1989. Blue sites were not oiled in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Inset: Relative location of Prince William Sound. Click to enlarge.

On an exceptionally clear and calm morning this past June, Mearns, other NOAA scientists, and a couple Coast Guard staff cruised across the waters of Prince William Sound aboard a 30-foot charter vessel. They visited three different locations around the sound, including Mearns Rock.

But unlike in the past, the crew wasn’t alone in their efforts. Mearns and Whitney had successfully recruited volunteers to help photograph the other six study areas in the sound.

In fact, the first volunteer, David Janka, skipper of Auklet Charters in Cordova, Alaska, had already taken photos the month before at three NOAA sampling sites on the northern end of Knight Island, which was heavily oiled during the Exxon Valdez spill. Janka was no stranger to this project; he had taken the annual snapshot of Mearns Rock several times in the past when Mearns was unable to venture out there himself.

First for Mearns and his crew on that June day, however, was stopping at an unoiled rocky site at Eshamy Bay Lodge, near Whittier, Alaska. It had been several years since their team had been able to photograph a site that had escaped the Exxon oiling, and Mearns was anxious to re-establish this one. While there, they worked on recruiting the manager of the nearby lodge to photograph that boulder in the future. Afterwards, they sped off to a second study site and finally to Snug Harbor, location of Mearns Rock.

A few weeks later, Dr. Thomas Dean, a marine biologist from San Diego working in Prince William Sound, joined the effort and, using Mearns’ reference guide, was able to photograph the seventh site, one on Knight Island’s Herring Bay. With only two study sites left to visit in 2012, Dr. Rob Campbell of the Prince William Sound Science Center pitched in to check off the eighth site. While out doing herring surveys, he stopped by the study site in Shelter Bay long enough to snap photos of two boulders the NOAA team had nicknamed “Bert” and “Ernie.”

Finally, thanks to a tip from Dr. Campbell, Mearns reached out to Kate McLaughlin, a scientist and educator living in Chenega Bay, a Native village only a mile from the untouched Crab Bay control site on Evans Island. She happily agreed to help, and in July, she and her dog made a couple trips to that corner of Prince William Sound to secure the last photos.

An Unexpected Legacy

Yet Mearns and his research have managed to inspire an even larger effort which would expand on this type of coastal monitoring in Alaska. John Harper at Coastal and Ocean Resources, Inc. in Victoria, British Columbia, is leading an initiative to engage citizen scientists around the Gulf of Alaska.

One of the goals of this initiative, known as the Three Amigos Intertidal Sampling Program, is “to collect information on the condition of rocky intertidal communities and changes that occur over time.” Supported by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, Harper and his colleagues in this endeavor are developing a protocol and model for community-based environmental monitoring and admitted that their proposed approach for this program is inspired directly by Mearns Rock—an exciting legacy for an otherwise average boulder patiently setting at the ocean’s edge, year after year.

Dr. Alan Mearns contributed to this blog post.


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Do Bigger Oil Spills Require More Restoration?

This is a post by NOAA intern Franziska Economy.

Quick, can you name ten major oil spills?

Having a hard time? Until recently, I would have been scratching my head after:

  1. Deepwater Horizon/BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010)
  2. Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska (1989)
  3. … ?

Maybe some of you managed to come up with a couple of the other major spills from the last few decades, but this seems to be a tall order for the average person.

Oil spills actually happen just about every day, but most don’t make the news. I was surprised to learn that there are nearly 14,000 oil and chemical spills reported to the National Response Center every year.

Even crazier to me was the discovery that sometimes the best recovery option for small oil spills is actually taking “No Action.” This can be the case when cleaning up the oil would cause more harm to a sensitive ecosystem than just leaving it there to break down naturally. Sometimes, however, an oil spill can be relatively large and present real dangers to the plants and animals in the area without attracting much attention from the greater public.

Learning all of this prompted me to delve into the treasure trove of information on the oil spill cases NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration handles. As the lead science agency for oil spills, NOAA is asked to respond to about 100–200 of the more significant marine and coastal spills every year to provide scientific support to help with the cleanup. A much smaller subset of those spills require a legal assessment of environmental monetary damages to restore those natural resources. This is known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA.

When studying these NRDA spill cases, I focused on two particularly interesting factors: the size of the oil spill and the “restoration cost,” or how much money the oil spiller has to pay to restore the public’s injured natural resources. Take a look at the top ten oil spill cases in each category and see how they compare:

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources.

Figure 1. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources. Note: each color in this graph corresponds to a spill found on both Figure 1 and Figure 2; gray spills are only found on one graph. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons.

Figure 2. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Right off the bat, it is easy to spot that bigger oil spills don’t always result in the highest restoration costs, and even if the restoration cost of a spill is relatively high, it is not necessarily related to the size of the spill. The Cosco Busan and Athos place first and second among oil spill settlements by restoration cost (Figure 1), but they are not big enough to land in the top ten by spill size (Figure 2; they are 12 and 23, respectively).

Furthermore, before the Deepwater Horizon/BP incident, the spill Barge Morris J. Berman was the largest spill that OR&R had responded to; yet it ranked only the fifth highest among restoration settlements, not even one-third the amount of the highest settlement, the Cosco Busan. In general, only half of the spills on each graph appear on the other, showing a lower correlation between these two variables than I originally thought.

So, why do you think that is? I’ve been brainstorming what factors could influence why gallons of oil spilled do not necessarily result in the most money required to restore natural resources. A single variable—such as the amount or type of oil spilled—isn’t by itself an accurate indicator of how much money it takes to respond to, clean up, and restore the environment after an oil spill. We have to examine a variety of factors to understand the bigger picture.

Other factors which might affect the restoration cost of an oil spill include:

  • the properties of the oil spilled (was it thick like tar that would sink to the bottom? Or was it light and likely to evaporate quickly from the water’s surface?)
  • the type and effectiveness of cleanup methods (was very little oil able to be recovered?)
  • the type of ecosystem affected (was it an estuary full of sensitive marsh grass and bird nesting sites or in an lower quality industrial area with a bulkheaded shoreline?)
  • the cultural and economic values of nearby cities and towns (was the spill close to a population with strong ties to the outdoor environment?)

What other issues do you think might play a role in how much restoration is required to offset the impacts of an oil spill on the environment?

Franziska Economy is an American University graduate with a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and Environmental Science. She is working as a Constituent and Legislative Affairs intern for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and enjoys sharing the interesting facts she has learned and statistics she has uncovered. She hopes to help break down the acronym-filled, complicated world of responding to oil spills, assessing damages, and restoring broken ecosystems.


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What Happens After Abandoning Ship

Twenty three years after running aground on a reef in Alaska and causing one of the largest spills in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez is back in the news—this time to keep it from being intentionally grounded on a beach in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Exxon Valdez (now called the Oriental Nicety) cannot be grounded and cut apart on the shores of Gujarat until it can be cleaned of residual oils and other contaminants.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal (“ship breaking”) on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Credit: Naquib Hossain, Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

What’s known as “ship breaking” is a dirty business, and many of the world’s tired and obsolete vessels end up being grounded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and cut apart for scrap steel.

In recent years the business of ship scrapping has become a major health and environmental concern. Many ship breaking yards in these developing countries have little or no safety equipment or environmental protections, and toxic materials from these ships, including oils, heavy metals, and asbestos, escape into the environment.

A derelict vessel grounded on a coal reef in Samoa.

A rusted-out derelict vessel still sits grounded on a coal reef in Samoa. (NOAA/Doug Helton)

Obsolete vessels and ship scrapping can also be a problem here in the U.S. Last year, the 431-foot S/S Davy Crockett made the news down on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash.

Mysterious oil sheens on the river were traced upriver to the former Navy Liberty ship that had begun leaking oil due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations.

Next week I will be at the Clean Pacific Conference in Long Beach, Calif., and presenting information on the challenges of dealing with abandoned and derelict vessels in the U.S. I know that the Davy Crockett and the issues it raised will come up.

Vessels are abandoned for all sorts of reasons, including storms (particularly hurricanes/typhoons which may damage large numbers of boats), community-wide economic stress or change (e.g., declining commercial fishing industries), and financial or legal issues of individual owners.  The high cost of proper vessel disposal can lead some folks to just walk away.

Hopefully we can help improve how we respond to these vessels and increase prevention programs to prevent abandonment. If you are interested in this issue, there is more information on NOAA’s Abandoned Vessel Program.

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