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 Ghost Fishing Is Haunting Our Ocean

No, ghost fishing has nothing to do with ghostbusters flicking fishing rods from a boat.

But what is ghost fishing? It’s a not-at-all-supernatural phenomenon that occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear remains in the ocean and continues doing what it was made to do: catch fish. These nets and traps haunt the many types of marine life unlucky enough to become snared in them. That includes species of turtles, fish, sharks, lobsters, crabs, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Fortunately, the NOAA Marine Debris Program isn’t scared off by a few fishing nets that haven’t moved on from the underwater world. For example, through the Fishing for Energy partnership, NOAA is funding projects to study and test ways to keep fishers from losing their gear in the first place and lower the impacts lost gear has on marine life and their homes.

You can learn more about these four recent projects which are taking place from the South Carolina coast to Washington’s Puget Sound. A project at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at The College of William and Mary will pay commercial fishermen to test special biodegradable panels on crab pots. After a certain amount of time underwater, these panels will break down and begin allowing creatures to escape from the traps. If successful, this feature could help reduce the traps’ ghost fishing potential. The researchers also will be examining whether terrapin turtles, a declining species often accidentally drowned in crab pots, will bypass the traps based on the color of the entrance funnel.

Another, unrelated effort which NOAA and many others have been supporting for years is focused on fishing out the thousands of old salmon nets lost—sometimes decades ago—in Washington’s Puget Sound. These plastic mesh nets sometimes remain drifting in the water column, while other times settling on the seafloor, where they also degrade the bottom habitat.

According to Joan Drinkwin of the Northwest Straits Foundation, the organization leading the effort, “They become traps for fish, diving birds, and mammals. Small fish will dart in and out of the mesh and predators will go after those fish and become captured in the nets. And as those animals get captured in the nets, they become bait for more scavengers.”

You can watch a video about this ongoing project produced by NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant to learn more about both the problem and the solutions.

Scuba diver next to huge mass of fishing nets underwater.

This “super net” was first reported in September 2013 at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In 2014 scuba and free divers removed this mass of fishing gear that was more than 28 feet long, 7 feet wide, and had a dense curtain that extended 16 feet deep. (NOAA)

Thousands of miles away from the Pacific Northwest, ghost nets are also an issue for the otherwise vibrant coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Every year for nearly two decades, NOAA has been removing the lost fishing nets which pile up on the atolls and small islands. This year, divers cleared away 57 tons of old fishing nets and plastic debris. One particularly troubling “super net” found this year measured 28 feet by 7 feet and weighed 11.5 tons. It had crushed coral at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and was so massive that divers had to cut it into three sections to be towed individually back to the main NOAA ship. During this year’s mission, divers also managed to free three protected green sea turtles which were trapped in various nets.

But the origins of this huge and regular flow of old fishing nets to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands remain a mystery. The islands lay hundreds of miles from any city but also within an area where oceanic and atmospheric forces converge to accumulate marine debris from all over the Pacific Ocean.

“You’ll go out there to this remote place and pull tons of this stuff off a reef,” comments Jim Potemra, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, “that’s like going to Antarctica and finding two tons of soda cans.”

You can learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts related to ghost fishing and why certain types of marine life may be more likely to get tangled up in discarded nets and other ocean trash.


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Untangling Both a Whale and Why Marine Life Get Mixed up With Our Trash

Tail-view of humpback whale tangled in rope and nets underwater.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear swims near the ocean’s surface in 2005. (NOAA/Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:

“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.

Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”

Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:

Net Results

While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].

They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.

One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.

But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?

Location, Location, Location

The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.

For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.

Just Behave

Monk sleep sleeping on nets on beach.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal snuggles up on a pile of nets and other fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the population declined to one-third of its size due at least in part to entanglement in trawl nets and other debris that drift into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from other areas (e.g., Alaska, Russia, Japan) and accumulates along the beaches and in lagoon reefs of atolls. (NOAA)

While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.

Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.

Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.

While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:


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The Earth Is Blue and We’d Like to Keep It That Way

Pod of dolphins swimming.

Spinner dolphins in the lagoon at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A pod of over 200 spinner dolphins frequent Midway Atoll’s lagoon. (NOAA/Andy Collins)

Often, you have to leave a place to gain some perspective.

Sometimes, that means going all the way to outer space.

When humans ventured away from this planet for the first time, we came to the stunning realization that Earth is blue. A planet covered in sea-to-shining-sea blue. And increasingly, we began to worry about protecting it. With the creation of the National Marine Sanctuaries system in 1972, a very special form of that protection began to be extended to miles of ocean in the United States. Today, that protection takes the form of 14 marine protected areas encompassing more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.

Starting October 23, 2014, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is celebrating this simple, yet profound realization about our planet—that Earth is Blue—on their social media accounts. You can follow along on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and now their brand-new Instagram account @NOAAsanctuaries. Each day, you’ll see an array of striking photos (plus weekly videos) showing off NOAA’s—and more importantly, your—National Marine Sanctuaries, in all of their glory. Share your own photos and videos from the sanctuaries with the hashtag #earthisblue and find regular updates at sanctuaries.noaa.gov/earthisblue.html.

You can kick things off with this video:

Marine sanctuaries are important places which help protect everything from humpback whales and lush kelp forests to deep-sea canyons and World War II shipwrecks. But sometimes the sanctuaries themselves need some extra protection and even restoration. In fact, one of the first marine sanctuaries, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off of southern California, was created to protect waters once imperiled by a massive oil spill which helped inspire the creation of the sanctuary system in the first place.

Japanese tsunami dock located on beach within Olympic National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

To minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies removed the Japanese dock that turned up on the Washington coast in late 2012. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock was also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

At times NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is called to this role when threats such as an oil spill, grounded ship, or even huge, floating dock endanger the marine sanctuaries and their incredible natural and cultural resources.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

In March 2013, we worked with a variety of partners, including others in NOAA, to remove a 185-ton, 65-foot Japanese floating dock from the shores of Washington. This dock was swept out to sea from Misawa, Japan, during the 2011 tsunami and once it was sighted off the Washington coast in December 2012, our oceanographers helped model where it would wash up.

Built out of plastic foam, concrete, and steel, this structure was pretty beat up by the time it ended up inside NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park. A threat to the environment, visitors, and wildlife before we removed it, its foam was starting to escape to the surrounding beach and waters, where it could have been eaten by the marine sanctuary’s whales, seals, birds, and fish.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

In an effort to protect the vibrant marine life of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA’s Restoration Center began clearing away illegal lobster fishing devices known as “casitas” in June 2014. The project is funded by a criminal case against a commercial diver who for years used casitas to poach spiny lobsters from the sanctuary’s seafloor. Constructed from materials such as metal sheets, cinder blocks, and lumber, these unstable structures not only allow poachers to illegally harvest huge numbers of spiny lobsters but they also damage the seafloor when shifted around during storms.

A spiny lobster in a casita on the seafloor.

A spiny lobster in a casita in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA is removing these illegal lobster fishing devices which damage seafloor habitat. (NOAA)

Also in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, our office and several partners ran through what it would be like to respond to an oil spill in the sanctuary waters. In April 2005, we participated in Safe Sanctuaries 2005, an oil spill training exercise that tested the capabilities of several NOAA programs, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. The drill scenario involved a hypothetical grounding at Elbow Reef, off Key Largo, of an 800-foot cargo vessel carrying 270,000 gallons of fuel. In the scenario, the grounding injured coral reef habitat and submerged historical artifacts, and an oil spill threatened other resources. Watch a video of the activities conducted during the drill.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Even hundreds of miles from the main cluster of Hawaiian islands, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument does not escape the reach of humans. Each year roughly 50 tons of old fishing nets, plastics, and other marine debris wash up on the sensitive coral reefs of the marine monument. Each year for nearly 20 years, NOAA divers and scientists venture out there to remove the debris.

This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi are documenting the effort aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. You can learn more about and keep up with this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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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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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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OR&R Responds to Large Molasses Spill in Honolulu Harbor

Matson Terminal in Honolulu Harbor

Matson Terminal in Honolulu Harbor. (CreativeCommons.org/Ryan Ozawa)

On Tuesday, September 10, the Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division provided support to the Hawaii Department of Health in response to a large molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor, Hawaii. The Matson Shipping Company reported losing approximately 1,400 tons of molasses the evening of Sunday, September 8.

On Monday and Tuesday an extensive subsurface brown plume was observed extending from the Matson Pier on the Sand Island side of Honolulu Harbor westward into Ke’ehi Lagoon almost to the Reef Runway. Fish and other marine life have been found dead in the affected area, and fish have been observed gasping for air.

Dead fish picked up on the beach at Ke'ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Dead fish picked up on the beach at Ke’ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Dead fish in Ke'ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Dead fish in Ke’ehi Lagoon. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

The State of Hawaii Department of Health Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office (HEER) is currently the lead response agency for this incident.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 13, 2013: The plume of molasses is likely to persist and cause a localized reduction in water quality. OR&R’s Emergency Response Division recommended monitoring of dissolved oxygen levels and other water quality parameters.

NOAA is sending a Scientific Support Coordinator to Honolulu to advise the response team on reducing impacts to marine organisms and other natural resources.

This post was developed by the lead NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for this incident, Ruth Yender. Elizabeth Miles, who contributed all but the top photograph, lives on a sailboat in Ke’ehi Lagoon and has been taking photos since the spill occurred.

Ke'ehi Lagoon, near Honolulu Harbor. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

Ke’ehi Lagoon, near Honolulu Harbor. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Miles)

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