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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Little “Bugs” Can Spread Big Pollution Through Contaminated Rivers

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

When we think of natural resources harmed by pesticides, toxic chemicals, and oil spills, most of us probably envision soaring birds or adorable river otters.  Some of us may consider creatures below the water’s surface, like the salmon and other fish that the more charismatic animals eat, and that we like to eat ourselves. But it’s rare that we spend much time imagining what contamination means for the smaller organisms that we don’t see, or can’t see without a microscope.

Mayfly aquatic insect on river bottom.

A mayfly, pictured above, is an important component in the diet of salmon and other fish. (NOAA)

The tiny creatures that live in the “benthos”—the mud, sand, and stones at the bottoms of rivers—are called benthic macroinvertebrates. Sometimes mistakenly called “bugs,” the benthic macroinvertebrate community actually includes a variety of animals like snails, clams, and worms, in addition to insects like mayflies, caddisflies, and midges. They play several important roles in an ecosystem. They help cycle and filter nutrients and they are a major food source for fish and other animals.

Though we don’t see them often, benthic macroinvertebrates play an extremely important role in river ecosystems. In polluted rivers, such as the lower 10 miles of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, these creatures serve as food web pathways for legacy contaminants like PCBs and DDT. Because benthic macroinvertebrates live and feed in close contact with contaminated muck, they are prone to accumulation of contaminants in their bodies.  They are, in turn, eaten by predators and it is in this way that contaminants move “up” through the food web to larger, more easily recognizable animals such as sturgeon, mink, and bald eagles.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River. (Portland Harbor Trustee Council)

The image above depicts some of the pathways that contaminants follow as they move up through the food web in Oregon’s Portland Harbor. Benthic macroinvertebrates are at the bottom of the food web. They are eaten by larger animals, like salmon, sturgeon, and bass. Those fish are then eaten by birds (like osprey and eagle), mammals (like mink), and people.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As PCB and DDT contamination makes its way up the food chain through these organisms, it is stored in their fat and biomagnified, meaning that the level of contamination you find in a large organism like an osprey is many times more than what you would find in a single water-dwelling insect. This is because an osprey eats many fish in its lifetime, and each of those fish eats many benthic macroinvertebrates.

Therefore, a relatively small amount of contamination in a single insect accumulates to a large amount of contamination in a bird or mammal that may have never eaten an insect directly.  The graphic to the right was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to illustrate how DDT concentrations biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain.

Benthic macroinvertebrates can be used by people to assess water quality. Certain types of benthic macroinvertebrates cannot tolerate pollution, whereas others are extremely tolerant of it.  For example, if you were to turn over a few stones in a Northwest streambed and find caddisfly nymphs (pictured below encased in tiny pebbles), you would have an indication of good water quality. Caddisflies are very sensitive to poor water quality conditions.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom are indicators of high water quality. (NOAA)

Surveys in Portland Harbor have shown that we have a pretty simple and uniform benthic macroinvertebrate population in the area. As you might expect, it is mostly made up of pollution-tolerant species. NOAA Restoration Center staff are leading restoration planning efforts at Portland Harbor and it is our hope that once cleanup and restoration projects are completed, we will see a more diverse assemblage of benthic macroinvertebrates in the Lower Willamette River.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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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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Mapping the Problem After Owners Abandon Ship

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

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

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

Agency Collaboration

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

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

Keeping Track

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

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

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

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

Reaching Out

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

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

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

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

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska, and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.


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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Abandoned Ships?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more information about how LTJG Drury is working with Washington’s Derelict Vessel Task Force to tackle this growing problem in Puget Sound.

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska, and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.


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As North American Oil Production Explodes, So Do Oil Trains

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background.

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background. (National Transportation Safety Board)

December 30, 2013 turned out to be an explosive day. On that date, a train hauling grain near Casselton, N.D., derailed into the path of an oncoming crude oil train, resulting in several oil tank cars exploding.

Fortunately, the burning tank cars caused no injuries, but local residents were evacuated as a precaution. The North Dakota accident is one of a number of high-profile rail accidents in North America over the past year, which included the July 2013 accident in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people. Earlier this week, on January 8, another train accident occurred, this one in New Brunswick near the Maine border. It resulted in several crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas tank cars catching fire.

The growth in U.S. and Canadian oil production has exceeded pipeline capacity and has resulted in a dramatic increase in oil shipments via rail. According to the Association of American Railroads [PDF], in 2008 U.S. railroads moved “just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. In 2012, they originated nearly 234,000 carloads.”

These recent accidents have also raised concerns about the safety of some of these crude oils being transported. Within days of the North Dakota oil train accident, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a warning to emergency responders that “crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” The full safety alert can be found online [PDF].

This rise in transporting oil by rail is one way the growth in the domestic oil industry and changing oil transportation patterns can pose new environmental and safety risks. Unit trains carrying oil are becoming a common sight. (A “unit train” is an entire train carrying the same product to the same destination. A crude oil unit train of 100 tanker cars would carry about 60,000 barrels, or about 2.5 million gallons.) Additional rail terminals have been proposed in Washington state and elsewhere to accommodate growing oil production in the Dakotas and eastern Montana, particularly from the Bakken oil fields.

NOAA and other spill responders are working to understand these emerging risks in order to effectively and safely respond to oil spills. We are currently working with the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment on a project to explore these risks from changes in oil and gas production and transportation. Stay tuned for future blog posts about the progress and findings of this project.


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Swimming Upstream: Examining the Impacts of Nuclear-age Pollution on Columbia River Salmon

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it.

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it. (NOAA)

Flowing freely through southeastern Washington is an approximately 50 mile stretch of the Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. This unique section of river is birthplace and home to many animals at different stages of life, including Chinook salmon, the largest of the river’s Pacific salmon. Yet this same segment of river at one time also served as the birthplace of the nuclear age: at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Today, NOAA, other federal and state agencies, and Indian tribes are still trying to determine the full impact of this nuclear legacy on fish, wildlife, and their habitats.

Beginning in 1943, the Hanford Reach, with its steady supply of water and relative isolation, attracted the attention of the U.S. government during World War II. Searching for a location to erect nuclear reactors for the top-secret Manhattan Project, the U.S. was racing to build an atomic bomb and this work took shape at Hanford.

Two of Hanford's nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Two of Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (NOAA)

The first nuclear reactor built at Hanford—and the first full-scale nuclear production plant in the world—was the B Reactor, which began operating in 1944. This and the other eight reactors eventually constructed at Hanford were located right on the Columbia River, an essential source of water to carry away the extreme heat generated by nuclear fission reactions. In these plants, workers turned uranium (euphemistically referred to as “metal”) into weapons-grade plutonium (known as “product”). The plutonium eventually ended up in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, as well as in nuclear arms stockpiled during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Hanford’s last reactors shut down in 1987.

The River Runs Through It

While the nuclear reactors were operating, however, water was pumped from the Columbia River and aerated at a rate of 70,000 gallons a minute. This was meant to improve its quality as it flowed through a maze of processing equipment—pipes, tubes, and valves—and into the core, the heart of the nuclear reactor. There, in the case of B Reactor, about 27,000 gallons of water gushed through 2,004 process tubes every minute. Each tube held 32 rods of uranium fuel.

The "valve pit" in Hanford's B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor's core passed through.

The “valve pit” in Hanford’s B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor’s core passed through. (NOAA)

Inside the reactor’s core, where the nuclear reactions were occurring, the water temperature would spike from 56 degrees Fahrenheit to 190 degrees in a single minute. Later in the reactor’s lifespan, the operators would be able to leave the water inside the nuclear reactor core long enough to heat it to 200 degrees before releasing the water into lined but leaky outdoor holding ponds. Once in the holding ponds, the reactor water would sit until its temperature cooled and any short-lived radioactive elements had broken down. Finally, the water would return to the Columbia River and continue its path to the Pacific Ocean.

Water played such an essential role in the nuclear reactor that engineers had four levels of backup systems to keep water constantly pumping through the core. In addition to being aerated, the water was also filtered and chemically treated. To prevent the core’s plumbing equipment from corroding, chromium was added to the water. Hanford’s D Reactor, in particular, handled large quantities of solid hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer.

The Salmon Runs Through It

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013.

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013. (NOAA)

Fast-forward to 2013. NOAA and its partners are participating in a natural resource damage assessment, a process determining whether negative environmental impacts resulted from the Department of Energy’s activities at Hanford. As part of that, NOAA is helping look at the places where water leaked or was discharged back into the Columbia River after passing through the reactors.

One goal is to establish at what levels of contamination injury occurs for species of concern at Hanford. Salmon and freshwater mussels living in the Columbia River represent the types of species they are studying. Yet these species may face impacts from more than 30 different contaminants at Hanford, some of which are toxic metals such as chromium while others are radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90.

Many of the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout spawn in or migrate through the Hanford Reach. Currently, NOAA and the other trustees are pursuing studies examining the extent of their spawning in this part of the river and determining the intensity of underground chromium contamination welling up through the riverbed. This information is particularly important because salmon build rocky nests and lay their eggs in the gravel on the bottom of the river.

You can learn more about the history of the Hanford Reach and the chromium and other contamination that threatens the river (around minute 8:50-9:03)  in this video from the Department of Energy:

The trustees have many other studies planned, all trying to uncover more information about the natural resources and what they have been experiencing in the context of Hanford’s history. Yet, for the natural resource damage assessment, even if the trustees find salmon experiencing negative impacts, the evidence found needs to be tied directly to exposure to Hanford’s pollution (rather than, for example, the influence of dams or pollution from nearby farms). It is a complicated process of information gathering and sleuthing, but eventually it will culminate in a determination of the restoration required for this critical stretch of habitat on the Columbia River.

For more information, see:


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Transforming an Oregon Watershed, Once Marred by a Gasoline Spill, into Fish-Friendly Habitat

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

The Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon is a vast, solitary, and beautiful place. Stretching out from the southeastern flanks of Mt. Hood, the reservation is home to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon. The reservation is bisected by one of Oregon’s most scenic roads, Highway 26. Driving down this road on a hot and dry summer day, you’ll see the rich, dark forest transition to sagebrush steppe and high desert. You’ll see hazy mountains in the distance, with creeks meandering across the foreground. Today, you’d never know a tanker truck ran off this idyllic road in 1999, spilling more than 5,000 gallons of gasoline into Beaver Butte Creek, just above where it meets Beaver Creek.

The spill impacted Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and other fish and wildlife that lived in or downstream of Beaver Butte Creek. It killed the plants and contaminated the soil around the creek as well. Cleanup efforts began immediately. A trustee council was formed to assess the environmental damages and plan for restoration. The council included representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Using funds from the settlement with the company responsible for the spill, the Trustees have chosen a range of restoration projects to improve conditions for steelhead trout and Chinook salmon throughout the Beaver Creek watershed. The restoration plan focuses on steelhead in particular because they are an endangered species, already on the brink of extinction.

In addition to the gasoline spill, there are a variety of other factors that have degraded the once-abundant natural resources on the Warm Springs Reservation. Logging and human-caused changes to the natural regime of wildfires have transformed the forests. Roads and development have relocated, and in some cases, blocked streams. Wild horses and cattle have packed down the soils and reduced vegetative cover, increasing erosion along the stream banks.

The first restoration project to offset impacts from the gasoline spill took shape in 2011. Since then, four more projects have been built, ranging from riparian fencing to road removal. There are more to come. With a creative and thoughtful approach, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the other trustees are stretching the settlement dollars by leveraging them with other funding sources to provide the greatest benefit to injured fish and wildlife.  Here are some of the highlights:

Red Lake, Happy Valley, and Quartz Creek Riparian Fencing Projects

The problem: Wild horses and free-roaming cattle. These large animals eat plants along the creeks and stomp down the dirt on the stream banks and floodplains, increasing erosion and degrading water quality.

The solution: Fencing. So far we have installed four miles of fence along stream banks, protecting 150 acres of riparian (stream-side) habitat throughout the Beaver Creek Watershed while also helping ranchers manage their livestock. An added benefit of the fencing projects?  Providing employment to 15 tribal members. That’s what we call a win-win.

S512 Large Wood Project and S501 Road Removal Project

The problem: Simplified streams that don’t provide good habitat for fish. Logging, road building, and other types of development have removed trees from the areas near streams, where the trees normally would fall into the creeks and provide nooks and crannies for fish to hide in and eat bugs.

The solution: Adding large wood to the stream to give fish places to hide, rest, and eat. In some cases we have also decommissioned old, abandoned logging roads and planted them with native trees and shrubs so that, eventually, nature can take over the work.

Quartz Creek Stream Restoration

The problem: Streams that have eroded so badly they now have 20-foot-high banks that are completely disconnected from the floodplain. The eroding stream banks release small landslides of fine dirt into the stream, making the water cloudy and covering the gravel that salmon need to spawn.

The solution: Think like a beaver. This year the Tribe plans to install two beaver dam–mimicking structures on Quartz Creek to help dam up the water and catch eroding dirt as it is moving downstream. Hopefully, actual beavers eventually will move back into the creek and continue this work.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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NOAA Opens Its Doors (and Scientists) in City-wide Celebration of Science

People of all ages were able to learn about NOAA's work, including these kids trying on survival suits, at the 2013 Seattle Science Festival EXPO Day. (NOAA)

People of all ages were able to learn about NOAA’s work, including these kids trying on survival suits, at the 2013 Seattle Science Festival EXPO Day. (NOAA)

Do you know the difference between a seal skull and a sea lion skull?

Have you walked under a bottom trawl net used for fishery science?

Have you ever seen an ocean wave glider used to collect oceanographic data?

Have you ever held a piece of a dock that floated across the Pacific Ocean?

Visitors to the 2nd annual NOAA Open House in Seattle, an event held in conjunction with the Seattle Science Festival, can answer “Yes!” to these questions, and many more. On June 14, NOAA’s Seattle Sand Point campus opened its doors to the public.

Four tours were offered that focused on different aspects of NOAA’s mission: Marine Mammal Science—featuring the bone collection; Fisheries Surveys—showing off the net loft; Physical Science—including ocean engineering, the dive center, and the weather forecasting floor; and a Shoreline Restoration walk emphasizing the connection between aquatic environments and our everyday lives.

NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration highlighted our work in marine debris at the 2013 NOAA Open House, featuring pieces of concrete, metal, and Styrofoam from the two Japanese docks that came ashore in Washington and Oregon after the 2011 tsunami. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration highlighted our work in marine debris at the 2013 NOAA Open House, featuring pieces of concrete, metal, and Styrofoam from the two Japanese docks that came ashore in Washington and Oregon after the 2011 tsunami. (NOAA)

The Open House also featured exhibit booths, a movie room, and a kid’s corner. Over 500 visitors attended, ranging from families with school-aged children to a bus full of retirees.

Visitors had the chance to meet NOAA scientists and managers at exhibit booths highlighting NOAA programs that weren’t featured on the tours, including the work of the NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center whose campus is located 3 miles away.

The 2013 Seattle Science Festival was an 11-day celebration of science and technology that happened in our community from June 6-16, 2013.

Kids learn about marine debris with NOAA at the Seattle Science EXPO Day. (NOAA)

Kids learn about marine debris with NOAA at the Seattle Science EXPO Day. (NOAA)

It featured luminaries from the science world in opening and closing night events, a free Science EXPO Day featuring hands-on activities and special stage programs at the Seattle Center, and a variety of Signature Programs at venues around the region and occurring throughout the Festival.

In addition to our Open House, NOAA had a large presence at the Seattle Science Festival Expo day at Seattle Center where at least 2,000 visitors learned about NOAA through hands-on activities. Almost 100 NOAA staff across all line offices participated in these Seattle Science Festival activities to bring NOAA science to kids of all ages.

In addition to the Pacific Science Center, regional sponsors included the Boeing Company, Aerojet, Amgen, Facebook – Seattle, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Google, Microsoft, and others.


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Ready for a Vacation on the Coast? Thank NOAA for Helping Keep it Clean

The San Miguel Natural Reserve in Puerto Rico is made up of 422 acres of protected coastal lands and was acquired to compensate the public after a barge ran aground, damaging coral and spilling oil. (NOAA)

The San Miguel Natural Reserve in Puerto Rico is made up of 422 acres of protected coastal lands and was acquired to compensate the public after a barge ran aground, damaging coral and spilling oil near San Juan in 1994. (NOAA)

Spending time at the beach is reported to be one of America’s favorite vacation memories [PDF]. So, when our coasts become polluted, the effects can seem both traumatic and personal: damaged habitats; dirtied water; injured birds, fish, wildlife, and plants; and blemished places where we boat, fish, and play. But thanks to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, we help reverse these impacts—whether from an oil spill, toxic chemicals, or marine debris—through our scientific solutions for protecting and restoring our favorite natural places.

To celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week (May 4-12), we have gathered a few examples of the places you can visit that our office is helping protect and restore.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and turquoise waters—Puerto Rico is the quintessential tropical vacation destination. Besides surfing, snorkeling, and swimming at its more than 270 miles of beaches, this Caribbean island offers jungle adventures, resort relaxation, and Spanish colonial history. But on an island only 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, the ocean is never far away.

On January 7, 1994, just before dawn, a barge the length of a football field plowed into the picturesque surf near San Juan, Puerto Rico. When it grounded, the Tank Barge Morris J. Berman damaged coral reefs and spilled 800,000 gallons of a thick, black fuel oil into the deep blue waters off Puerto Rico’s Atlantic coast. After the grounding, the barge continued to leak, spilling more than 85,000 gallons of oily water as it was towed offshore and scuttled (intentionally sunk) 23 miles northeast of San Juan. About 169 miles of ocean and bay shorelines were affected by the spilled oil, disrupting beachgoers, boaters, and sportfishers for up to three months in some areas. The oil also crept onto the shoreline of several historic sites, including San Juan National Historic Site, a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in the end, nearly 111,000 square feet of coral reef were damaged from the grounded barge and subsequent response measures.

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NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration was involved in a variety of activities from the start: forecasting the oil’s spread, performing aerial surveys of the spill, assessing impacted shorelines, and advising the Coast Guard on potential environmental impacts of sinking the leaking barge. Our involvement carried beyond spill cleanup and extended to evaluating and determining how the spill injured natural resources, which included people’s use of them. To compensate the public for the spill’s impacts, we helped implement a suite of projects focused on restoring damaged reefs, recreational beach use, and lost tourism at San Juan National Historic Site.

To begin restoring the coral ecosystems, NOAA and our partners built the Condado Coral Reef Trail, comprised of three underwater educational trails adjacent to a public beach. Along each trail, we placed ten pre-made artificial cement reefs, intended to establish similar reef habitat to that damaged by the barge grounding. This project wrapped up in the fall of 2008 and provides an incredible first-hand opportunity to learn about coral reefs and restoring natural resources in Puerto Rico.

San Francisco, California

According to the San Francisco Travel Association, more than 16.5 million visitors traveled to San Francisco, Calif., in 2012. Known as the “City by the Bay,” San Francisco is closely connected to its maritime heritage and marine resources. Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular northern waterfront area home to the city’s fleet of fishing boats, many of whose owners have been fishing there for three generations and bringing in the fresh seafood both locals and tourists savor. The Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most iconic bridge, links San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean and its bustling maritime commerce.

Point Bonita is in the foreground, looking across sheens of oil (lighter colored) from the Cosco Busan spill and eastward to Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Point Bonita is in the foreground, looking across sheens of oil (lighter colored) from the Cosco Busan spill and eastward to Golden Gate
Bridge and San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

But on the typically foggy morning of November 7, 2007, the 900-foot cargo ship Cosco Busan slammed against the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and caused one of the largest oil spills in the bay’s history. Scraping a 100-foot-long gash into the vessel’s side, the crash released 53,000 gallons of a thick fuel oil, which quickly dispersed into the surrounding waters and onto sensitive coastline both in the bay and along the outer coast. Similar to our efforts after the barge grounding in Puerto Rico, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided forecasts of the oil’s path, aerial oil surveys, oiled shoreline assessment, and other scientific support for the spill response.

In the foreground, the Bay Bridge tower that was hit by the M/V Cosco Busan, spilling oil into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. November 9, 2007 (NOAA)

In the foreground, the Bay Bridge tower that was hit by the M/V Cosco Busan, spilling oil into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Photo: November 9, 2007 (NOAA)

NOAA and our partners determined that, as a result, the incident oiled more than 3,300 acres of shoreline habitat, killed an estimated 6,849 birds and thousands of herring, and lost an estimated 1,079,900 possible recreational days for individuals. In addition, it temporarily closed a dozen urban beaches [PDF], and even shoreline along Alcatraz Island, a National Park and home to the infamous prison, suffered heavy oiling after the spill. More than $30 million was awarded from the company responsible to restore injured birds, fish, eelgrass vegetation, habitat, and lost outdoor recreation.

The bulk of these funds (tentatively $18.8 million) is allocated for a slew of improvements benefiting Bay Area recreational activities, such as picnicking, hiking, surfing, kiteboarding, fishing, and boating. These projects will take place in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, and other areas of the East Bay and San Mateo and Marin County. They range from improving beach and fishing access and enhancing trails and shorelines to repairing waterfront park infrastructure and supporting lifeguard and educational programs. Restoration is expected to begin in the summer of 2013, helping turn back the harmful effects of this oil spill on the City by the Bay.

Olympic Coast, Washington

A landscape view of the rugged Washington coast, with cleanup workers dismantling the dock and removing plastic foam to the right. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

A landscape view of the rugged Washington coast, with cleanup workers dismantling the dock and removing plastic foam to the right. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

Visitors flock each year to Washington’s breathtaking Olympic Peninsula to go hiking, camping, kayaking, and harvesting clams and oysters (just for starters). Driving the 350 miles along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, you can access an impressive amount of diversity along this state’s coast. From foggy sea stacks poking out of the Pacific Ocean to giant red cedars standing sentinel in old-growth forests to tide pools populated with vibrant orange and purple starfish, this coast abounds with natural wonders.

In December of 2012, however, a remote portion of the Olympic Coast received an unusual “visitor”: a 185 ton, 65-foot floating dock. Swept away from the Port of Misawa during Japan’s 2011 tsunami, it ended up beached within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park. The dock was built out of plastic foam housed in steel-reinforced concrete, which had been damaged as changing tides and waves continued to shift the dock’s placement in the surf. A threat to the environment, visitors, and wildlife, its foam was escaping to the surrounding beach and waters, where it could have been eaten by the coast’s whales, seals, birds, and fish.

Staging the dock's plastic foam for transport, when it was transferred off the coast via helicopter. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

Staging the dock’s plastic foam for transport, when it was transferred off the coast via helicopter. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

According to the Washington Department of Ecology website, “the intertidal area of the Olympic Coast is home to the most diverse ecosystem of marine invertebrates and seaweeds on the west coast of North America … Leaving the dock in place could [have] result[ed] in the release of over 200 cubic yards of foam into federally protected waters and wilderness coast.”

Fortunately, in March 2013, the National Park Service and NOAA worked with a local salvage company to dismantle and remove this hazard to the coast, using both federal money and a generous donation from Japan to fund the project and ensuring the Olympic Coast’s visitors can enjoy its healthy habitats for years to come.

To learn more about NOAA’s work protecting the coastal places we love to visit, go to response.restoration.noaa.gov.


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Small Boat Confirmed as First Japan Tsunami Debris to Reach California

Examining the Japanese skiff that washed up near Crescent City, Calif., on April 7, 2013. This is the first verified item from the Japan tsunami to appear in California. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

Examining the Japanese skiff that washed up near Crescent City, Calif., on April 7, 2013. This is the first verified item from the Japan tsunami to appear in California. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

The Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco has confirmed to NOAA that a 20-foot-long skiff found near Crescent City, Calif., is the first verified piece of Japan tsunami debris to turn up in California. Crescent City, a coastal town surrounded by redwoods, is only a twenty-mile drive from Oregon down the iconic, coastal Highway 101.

Once the skiff was found, the U.S. Coast Guard and the local sheriff’s office worked quickly to remove it from the shoreline. Help translating the Japanese writing on it came from further down the coast, from staff at California’s Humboldt State University. They traced the skiff to Takata High School, located in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, an area devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. A teacher from the school reportedly identified the vessel as belonging to them, which the Japanese Consulate has now confirmed.

A close up of the boat's hull reveals the many small gooseneck barnacles, a common open-ocean species. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

A close up of the boat’s hull reveals the many small gooseneck barnacles, a common open-ocean species. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

To date, 26 other marine debris items with a confirmed connection to the 2011 tsunami have washed up in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada’s British Columbia.

And like so many of them, the small, flat-bottomed boat that washed up in California was thick with gooseneck barnacles, a common and widespread filter feeder that attaches itself to floating objects in the open ocean. While unusual-looking, these barnacles are not invasive and have a fascinating historical myth purporting that a type of goose developed from gooseneck barnacles because they had similar colors and shapes (a typical-if-faulty basis for classifying life in earlier eras).

However, the influx of sea creatures aboard tsunami marine debris also brings the concern that aquatic species hitching a ride to North America may make themselves at home, possibly to the detriment of marine life and commerce communities here in the United States.

A submerged compartment in the back of the Japanese boat that washed up in Long Beach, Wash., provided a refuge for five striped beakfish. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

A submerged compartment in the back of the Japanese boat that washed up in Long Beach, Wash., provided a refuge for five striped beakfish. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

This issue was highlighted in the unusual case of another small Japanese boat lost in the 2011 tsunami. The Sai-shou-maru came ashore near Long Beach, Wash., on March 22, 2013, but the inside of it looked like a miniature aquarium. Five live fish were swimming about in a submerged compartment at the back of the boat. They were striped beakfish, a species native to coral reefs mainly in Japanese waters, sometimes found in Hawaii, but certainly not in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest coast.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology website, “Besides the five striped beakfish found in the open well of the boat when it washed ashore, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates 30 to 50 species of plants and animals were also on the Sai-shou-maru – including potential invasive species. State officials quickly removed the Sai-shou-maru from the beach and collected samples of potential invasive species including the fish, algae, anemones, crabs, marine worms and shellfish.”

However, most of the species arriving on marine debris are not invasive—even if they are hitchhikers.

Keep up with NOAA’s latest efforts surrounding the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/faqs.html.

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