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 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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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


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A River Reborn: Restoring Salmon Habitat along Seattle’s Duwamish River

Industrial river with part of a boat in the view.

Cutting through south Seattle, the Duwamish River is still very much an industrial river. (NOAA)

Just south of Seattle, the airplane manufacturer Boeing Company has created one of the largest habitat restoration projects on the Lower Duwamish River. Boeing worked with NOAA and our partners under a Natural Resource Damage Assessment to restore habitat for fish, shorebirds, and wildlife harmed by historical industrial activities on this heavily used urban river. We documented and celebrated this work in a short video.

What Kind of Restoration?

In this video, you can learn about the restoration techniques used in the project and how they will benefit the communities of people, fish, and wildlife of the Duwamish River. The restoration project included activities such as:

  • Reshaping the shoreline and adding 170,000 native plants and large woody debris, which provide areas where young salmon can seek refuge from predators in the river.
  • Creating 2 acres of wetlands to create a resting area for migrating salmon.
  • Transforming more than a half mile of former industrial waterfront back into natural shoreline.

Watch the video:

Why Does this River Need Restoring?

In 1913, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excavated and straightened the Duwamish River to expand Seattle’s commercial navigation, removing more than 20 million cubic yards of mud and sand and opening the area to heavy industry. But development on this waterway stretches back to the 1870s.

Ninety-seven percent of the original habitat for salmon—including marsh, mudflats, and toppled trees along multiple meandering channels— was lost when they transformed a 9-mile estuary into a 5-mile industrial channel.

As damaged and polluted as the Lower Duwamish Waterway is today, the habitat here is crucial to ensuring the survival and recovery of threatened fish species, including the Puget Sound Chinook and Puget Sound Steelhead. These young fish have to spend time in this part of the Duwamish River, which is a Superfund Site, as they transition from the river’s freshwater to the saltwater of the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean. Creating more welcoming habitat for these fish gives them places to find food and escape from predators.

Fortunately, this restored waterfront outside of a former Boeing plant will be maintained for all time, and further cleanup and restoration of the river is in various stages as well.

UPDATE 6/17/2014: On June 17, 2014, Boeing hosted a celebration on the newly restored banks of the Lower Duwamish River to recognize the partners who helped make the restoration a reality. Speakers at the event included NOAA, Boeing, the Muckleshoot Tribe, and a local community group. This also gave us the opportunity to share the video “A River Reborn,” which was well received.


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Watch Bald Eagle Restoration Come Alive in California’s Channel Islands

On the heels of Endangered Species Day, we take a look at the incredible recovery story of the Bald Eagle, which teetered on the edge of extinction in the second half of the twentieth century, in part due to impacts from people releasing the pesticide DDT into the environment.

By the early 1960s Bald Eagles had disappeared from southern California’s Channel Islands after chemical companies near Los Angeles discharged into the ocean millions of pounds of the toxic chemicals DDT and PCBs [PDF], both of which stay in the environment for a very long time. Once DDT worked its way up the marine food chain to the eagles, it weakened the shells of their eggs, causing the parent eagles to crush the eggs before they could hatch.

However, thanks to the efforts of NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and our partners, including the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Bald Eagles have made a comeback in southern California’s Channel Islands.

Learn more about this notable conservation work in this Thank You Ocean Report video podcast:

“This program has been 30 years in the making and after that amount of time we have finally started to see natural hatching out on the islands,” says bird biologist Annie Little of the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. “I think it shows the persistence of these types of chemicals in the environment and that restoration doesn’t happen overnight.”

But it does happen with a lot of hard work and dedication. Between 2006 and 2013, a total of 81 Bald Eagle chicks have hatched in the Channel Islands. You can watch the eagles’ recovery in real time as they build nests and hatch chicks on the islands via the Bald Eagle web cams.

Also from Thank You Ocean, here’s an everyday action you can take to protect the ocean and the animals dependent on it: “Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and keep trash and chemicals out of storm drains. Polluted water from storm drains flows into the sea and can harm marine life and the environment.”


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How Will You Celebrate World Ocean Day?

Red-footed booby landing near edge of ocean atoll.

Red-footed booby at the Three Sisters at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (NOAA)

World Ocean Day is June 8, and we’re only a month away. What will you do to celebrate and protect that big blue body of water that sustains our planet?

We have a few ideas to get you ready:

Look for even more ways to keep the ocean healthy and free of pollution, a small way of saying thanks for everything the ocean does for us.


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Sign up for 2014 NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

Registration for this summer’s NOAA Science Camp at our Seattle campus is now open. Each year, this week-long, hands-on camp for 7th and 8th graders immerses kids in the wide range of scientific activities going on at NOAA. For example, campers get the chance to solve an environmental mystery with our toxicologists and observe the impacts of oil on (simulated) beaches and wildlife with our oceanographers and biologists. And that’s only the beginning:

Get the details:

  • Who: Youths entering 7th and 8th grades in the fall of 2014.
  • Where: NOAA’s Sand Point Facility on Lake Washington—7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington.
  • When: Two camp sessions (both weeks have the same content focus)—July 7 – 11 and July 14 – 18, 2014. The Junior Leadership Program is two weeks long, and will run July 7-18.
  • Cost: $250. Camper scholarships to cover half of the registration fee are available.
  • Too old for NOAA Science Camp? Check out the Junior Leadership Program for teens entering 9th-12th grades in the fall of 2014.

Learn more and register on the NOAA Science Camp Web page.


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National Research Council Releases NOAA-Sponsored Report on Arctic Oil Spills

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy broke ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda on their way to Nome, Alaska, in January of 2012 to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Responding to a potential oil spill in the U.S. Arctic presents unique logistical, environmental, and cultural challenges unparalleled in any other U.S. water body. In our effort to seek solutions to these challenges and enhance our Arctic preparedness and response capabilities, NOAA co-sponsored a report, Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment, directed and released by the National Research Council today.

Several recommendations in the report are of interest to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), including the need for:

  • Up-to-date high-resolution nautical charts and shoreline maps.
  • A real-time Arctic ocean-ice meteorological forecasting system.
  • A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research program.
  • Regularly scheduled oil spill exercises to test and evaluate the flexible and scalable organizational structures needed for a highly reliable Arctic oil spill response.
  • A decision process such as the Net Environmental Benefit Analysis for selecting appropriate response options.

In addition, the report mentions NOAA’s ongoing Arctic efforts including our Arctic Environmental Response Mapping Application (ERMA), our oil spill trajectory modeling, and our innovative data sharing efforts. Find out more about OR&R’s efforts related to the Arctic region at response.restoration.noaa.gov/arctic.

Download the full National Research Council report.

This report dovetails with NOAA’s 2014 Arctic Action Plan, released on April 21, which provides an integrated overview of NOAA’s diverse Arctic programs and how these missions, products, and services support the goals set forth in the President’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF].

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] in March of 2014, which examined U.S. actions related to developing and investing in Arctic maritime infrastructure. The report outlines key issues related to commercial activity in the U.S. Arctic over the next decade.

Get a snapshot of the National Research Council report in this four minute video, featuring some of our office’s scientific models and mapping tools:

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