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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OR&R Defines the Issues Surrounding Oil Spill Dispersant Use

Oil floating on water's surface.

Oil on the water’s surface. (NOAA)

I recently had the opportunity to attend an interesting seminar on the use of dispersants in oil spill response. On August 8, 2014, OR&R Emergency Response Division marine biologist, Gary Shigenaka, and Dr. Adrian C. Bejarano, aquatic toxicologist, made presentations to a group of oil spill response professionals as part of the Science of Oil Spills class, offered by OR&R in Seattle last week.

Mr. Shigenaka introduced the subject, giving the students background on the history of dispersant use in response to oil spills, starting with the first use in England at the Torrey Canyon spill. Because the first generation of oil dispersants were harsh and killed off intertidal species, the goal since has been to reduce their inherent toxicity while maintaining effectiveness at moving oil from the surface of the water into the water column. He gave an overview of the most prevalent commercial products, including Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, manufactured by Nalco, and Finasol OSR52, a French product.

Aerial view of testing facility with long pool.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Shigenaka reviewed the U.S. EPA product schedule of dispersants as well as Ohmsett – National Oil Spill Response Research Facility in Leonardo, N.J. Ohmsett is run by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. He showed video clips of oil dispersant tests conducted recently at the facility by the American Petroleum Institute.

The corporate proprietary aspects of the exact formulation of dispersants were described by Shigenaka as one of the reasons for the controversy surrounding the use of dispersants on oil spills.

Dispersant Use in Offshore Spill Response

Dr. Bejarano’s presentation, “Dispersant Use in offshore Oil Spill Response,” started with a list of advantages of dispersant use such as reduced oil exposure to workers; reduced impacts on shoreline habitats; minimal impacts on wildlife with long life spans; and keeping the oil away from the nearshore area thus avoiding the need for invasive cleanup. She followed with some downside aspects such as increased localized concentration of hydrocarbons; higher toxicity levels in the top 10 meters of the water column; increased risk to less mobile species; and greater exposure to dispersed oil to species nearer to the surface.

Dr. Bejarano is working on a comprehensive publicly-available database that will include source evaluation and EPA data as well as a compilation of data from 160 sources scored on applicability to oil spill response (high, moderate, low and different exposures).

Her presentation concluded with a summary of trade-offs associated with dispersant use:

  • Shifting risk to water column organisms from shoreline, which recover more quickly (weeks or months).
  • Toxicity data are not perfect.
  • Realistic dose and duration are different from lab to field environment.
  • Interpretation of findings must be in the context of particular oil spill considerations.

Dr. Bejarano emphasized the need for balanced consideration in reaching consensus for the best response to a particular spill.

Following the formal presentations, there was a panel discussion with experts from NOAA, EPA, and State of Washington, and the audience had an opportunity to ask questions. Recent research from the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service/ Montlake Laboratory was presented, focusing on effects of oil and dispersants on larval fish. The adequacy of existing science underlying trade-offs and net environmental benefit was also discussed.

Read our related blog on dispersants, “Help NOAA Study Chemical Dispersants and Oil Spills.”


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How Much do Coastal Ecosystems Protect People from Storms and What is It Worth?

Sand dunes with grass.

Sand dunes along the New Jersey shore. (NOAA)

 This post was written by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Meg Imholt and is based on research done during the summer of 2014 by OR&R intern, Emory Wellman.

Nearly a year ago, one lawsuit spurred the question–how much do coastal ecosystems protect people from storms and what is that worth?  It’s a question NOAA scientists and economists are working to answer.

At NOAA, our job is to protect our coasts, but often, coastal ecosystems are the ones protecting us. When a severe storm hits, wetlands, sand dunes, reefs, and other coastal ecosystems can slow waves down, reducing their height and intensity, and prevent erosion.  That means less storm surge, more stable shorelines, and more resilient coastal communities.

When the coastal Borough of Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, replenished beaches with sand dunes to offer this ecosystem service, a New Jersey couple, the Karans, sued on the grounds that the newly placed dunes obstructed the ocean view from their home. Initially, the court barred the jury from considering storm protection benefits from the dunes in their decision. The jury awarded the Karans $375,000, but New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the ruling. The jury should consider storm protection benefits, according to the Supreme Court, and when it did, the Karan’s settlement dropped to $1.

Cases like this one spur a lot of questions for both science and the courts.

NOAA has been supporting ecosystem services in court for decades through Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA), but putting a price tag on ecosystem services isn’t easy. Instead, NOAA often determines how ecosystem services were hurt and what it will take to replace them.  Following a spill or chemical release, NOAA is one of a number of mandated state and federal natural resource trustees that assess if and how ecosystem services were injured and typically focuses on habitat and recreation. That assessment is then used to determine how much restoration the responsible party must provide to compensate for the injury.

Destroyed homes along the coast.

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy sped toward the East Coast, eventually sweeping waves of oil, hazardous chemicals, and debris into the coastal waters of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. (U.S. Air Force)

Determining exactly how much storm protection may have been lost is another challenge. We know that already; there are a variety of estimates showing how much coastal ecosystems reduce a storm’s impact. Still, the science of storm protection is complicated. For example, an ecosystem’s type, location, topography, and local tides all impact its ability to protect us from storms. So, determining how much storm protection services were lost, who they benefited, and what type of restoration could compensate depends on all of those factors too.

Ultimately, the decision on how to assess storm protection benefits may be up to the courts.  The next case like Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan may provide some clues, but until then, we’ll keep working on the science.


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Buoys Serve as Latest Gardening Tool for Restoring Eelgrass in San Francisco Bay

Bright red buoys floating on a bay.

“Seed buoys” are dotting the waters of San Francisco Bay. Below the water, they are attached to mesh bags filled with shoots of eelgrass, which spread seeds that will eventually sprout and restore habitat on the bay’s bottom. (NOAA)

Many of us likely have spent some time planting seeds in our yards to grow vegetables or flowers. But how do scientists plant seeds to help restore plants in our bays and coastal waters? If you look out on the waters of San Francisco Bay right now, you can see the answer.

Floating on the surface of the bay is a series of “seed buoys.” Each buoy is connected to a mesh bag containing shoots of the underwater plant eelgrass (Zostera marina). These shoots, which are flowering, were harvested by biologists and will soon be releasing ripening seeds. These buoys will move with the tides, distributing seeds that, by next spring, will develop into new eelgrass seedlings on the bay bottom. The seed buoy is a relatively easy, low-tech way of growing this underwater grass. The traditional method of planting eelgrass—by hand in the bay’s floor using scuba divers—can be dangerous, expensive, and labor intensive.

Mesh bags holding flowering eelgrass plants.

Anchored to various locations on the sea floor, seed buoys perform like flowering eelgrass plants, dispersing seeds as the water current moves these mesh bags. Buoys are placed where underwater soil conditions are optimal for the seeds to germinate into young plants. (NOAA)

By seeding and transplanting eelgrass in this area where none currently exists, we hope to create vibrant eelgrass beds that provide cover and food for fish, juvenile Dungeness crabs, and birds. Eelgrass beds provide important habitat in California’s San Francisco Bay, serving as nurseries for young fish and foraging areas for many species of fish, invertebrates, and birds. They also improve water quality by reducing turbidity, or cloudiness, of the water.

This work is part of a restoration project which has the ultimate goal of compensating for past oil spill impacts in San Francisco Bay as a result of the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan oil spill. It aims to create 70 new acres of eelgrass habitat at several sites throughout San Francisco Bay over nine years. This project is funded by the legal settlement resulting from the cargo ship Cosco Busan striking one of the towers of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and releasing 53,000 gallons of heavy oil into the surrounding waters.

A result of the work of the Cosco Busan Oil Spill Trustee Council, the eelgrass restoration project also is carried out in cooperation with San Francisco State University and Merkel and Associates, Inc.

For more information, you can read about:


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NOAA Prepares for Bakken Oil Spills as Seattle Dodges Oil Train Explosion

As federal leaders in oil spill response science, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is grateful for each oil spill which does not take place, which was fortunately the case on July 24, 2014 in Seattle, Washington, near our west coast office. A train passing through the city ran off the tracks, derailing three of its 100 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in the port town of Anacortes, Washington. No oil spilled or ignited in the accident.

However, that was not the case in five high-profile oil train derailments and explosions in the last year, occurring in places such as Casselton, North Dakota, when a train carrying grain derailed into an oil train, causing several oil tank cars to explode in December 2013.

Oil production continues to grow in North America, in large part due to new extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) opening up massive new oil fields in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. The Bakken region lacks the capacity to transport this increased oil production by the most common methods: pipeline or tanker. Instead, railroads are filling this gap, with the number of tank cars carrying crude oil in the United States rising more than 4,000 percent between 2009 (9,500 carloads) and 2013 (407,761).

Just a day before this derailment, Seattle City Council signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, urging him to issue an emergency stop to shipping Bakken crude oil in older model tank train cars (DOT-111), which are considered less safe for shipping flammable materials. (However, some of the proposed safer tank car models have also been involved in oil train explosions.) According to the Council’s press release, “BNSF Railway reports moving 8-13 oil trains per week through Seattle, all containing 1,000,000 or more gallons of Bakken crude.” The same day as the Council’s letter, the Department of Transportation proposed rules to phase out the older DOT-111 model train cars for carrying flammable materials, including Bakken crude, over a two-year period.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is examining these changing dynamics in the way oil is moved around the country, and we recently partnered with the University of Washington to research this issue. These changes have implications for how we prepare our scientific toolbox for responding to oil spills, in order to protect responders, the public, and the environment.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D. (U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

For example, based on our knowledge of oil chemistry, we make recommendations to responders about potential risks during spill cleanup along coasts and waterways. We need to know whether a particular type of oil, such as Bakken crude, will easily ignite and pose a danger of fire or explosion, and whether chemical components of the oil will dissolve into the water, potentially damaging sensitive fish populations.

Our office responded to a spill of Bakken crude oil earlier this year on the Mississippi River. On February 22, 2014, the barge E2MS 303 carrying 25,000 barrels of Bakken crude collided with a towboat 154 miles north of the river’s mouth. A tank of oil broke open, spilling approximately 31,500 gallons (750 barrels) of its contents into this busy waterway, closing it down for several days. NOAA provided scientific support to the response, for example, by having our modeling team estimate the projected path of the spilled oil.

Barge leaking oil on a river.

Barge E2MS 303 leaking 750 barrels of Bakken crude oil into the lower Mississippi River on February 22, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard)

We also worked with our partners at Louisiana State University to analyze samples of the Bakken crude oil. We found the oil to have a low viscosity (flows easily) and to be highly volatile, meaning it readily changes from liquid to gas at moderate temperatures. It also contains a high concentration of the toxic components known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that easily dissolve into the water column. For more information about NOAA’s involvement in this incident, visit IncidentNews.


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In a Louisiana Marsh, an Uncommon Opportunity to Learn about Burning Oil

This is a post by LTJG Kyle Jellison, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator.

“Every day is a new adventure.” I came to believe this phrase while sailing on the high seas, but it proves true as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator as well. There have been many adventures in my time working in the Gulf of Mexico doing emergency response for oil spills and hazardous materials releases.

The most recent oil spill—a pipeline leak in a Louisiana marsh—didn’t seem out of the ordinary, that is, until the Unified Command in charge of the response turned to alternative approaches to quicken and improve the effectiveness of the cleanup.

The Spill and Our Options

On May 28, 2014 a plane hired by Texas Petroleum Investment Company was performing a routine aerial survey of their inland oilfield and noticed a slight oil sheen and a dead clump of roseau cane (phragmites). This sparked further investigation and the discovery of 100 barrels (4,200 gallons) of crude oil, which had leaked out of a breach in their pipeline passing through the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, outside of Venice, Louisiana. Pipelines like this one are routinely inspected, but as they age the potential for corrosion and spills increases.

Roseau cane is a tall, woody plant, similar to bamboo, reaching heights of up to 20 feet. The stalks grow very close together and in water depths between two and 30 inches. This creates a complex situation which is very hard to clean oil out from.

The least invasive method for oil cleanup is to flush out the oil with high volumes of water at low pressure, but this is a long process with low amounts of oil recovered each day. Another common practice is to flush with water while cutting lanes into the vegetation, creating pathways for the oil to migrate along for recovery. Though more aggressive and with higher amounts of oil recovered each day, it still would likely take many weeks or months to clean up this particular oil spill using this method.

An Unconventional Solution

What about doing a controlled burn of the oil where it is, a strategy known as in situ burning? It removes a large amount of oil in a matter of days, and when performed properly, in situ burning can help marsh vegetation recover in five years or less for more than 75 percent of cases in one study.

In situ burning, Latin for burning in place, is considered an “alternative” response technology, rather than part of the regular suite of cleanup options, and is only employed under the right set of circumstances. More information about this can be found in the NOAA report “Oil Spills in Marshes,” which details research and guidelines for in situ burning in chapter 3, Response.

To help determine if burning was appropriate in this case, the Unified Command brought in the NOAA Scientific Support Team, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Team, U.S. Coast Guard Gulf Strike Team, and T&T Marine Firefighting and Salvage. After considering the situation, gaining consensus, developing a burn plan, and earning the support of Regional Response Team 6, it was time to light it up!

Where There’s Smoke …

On June 3, 2014, we burned the oil for two hours, with flames reaching 40 feet. The next day, we burned for another six hours. There was a lot of oil to be burned, with pockets of oil spread throughout three acres of impacted marsh. The fire remained contained to the area where enough oil was present to support the burn, extinguishing once it reached the edge of the oiled marsh.

We have an ongoing study to evaluate the impacts of the burn, and preliminary results indicate that there was minimal collateral damage. More than 70 percent of the oil was burned over the two-day period. We considered this to be a very successful controlled burn. The much less remaining oil will be recovered by mechanical methods within a few weeks, instead of months.

Texas Petroleum Investment Company, as the responsible party in this case, will be responsible for all costs incurred for this incident, including cleanup and monitoring (and restoration, if necessary).

To help ensure we learn something from this incident, an assessment team entered the impacted marsh before the burns to collect oil, water, and sediment samples. The team also collected samples after each day of burning and returned a week after the burn to assess the condition of the vegetation and collect samples. This multi-agency team will return to the site in August for more sampling and monitoring.

The long-term monitoring and sampling project is being managed by NOAA, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Texas Petroleum Investment Company. We are conducting the study under the umbrella of the Response Science and Technology Subcommittee of the New Orleans Area Committee, a standing body of response scientists. Jeff Dauzat of Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and I co-chair this subcommittee and are looking forward to the results of this ongoing scientific project.

Was burning the right move? The science will speak for itself in time.

For more information:

Man standing in a marsh with smoke in the background.LT Kyle Jellison is a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He supports Federal On-Scene Coordinators throughout the Gulf of Mexico by providing mission critical scientific information for response and planning to oil and hazardous material releases.


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As Oil Sands Production Rises, What Should We Expect at Diluted Bitumen (Dilbit) Spills?

Pipeline dug up for an oil spill cleanup next to a creek.

This area is where the Enbridge pipeline leaked nearly a million gallons of diluted bitumen (dilbit), a tar sands oil product, into wetlands, Talmadge Creek, and roughly 40 miles of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

I’ve seen a lot of firsts in the past four years.

During that time, I have been investigating the environmental impacts, through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, of the Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan. In late summer of 2010, a break in an underground pipeline spilled approximately 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen into a wetland, a creek, and the Kalamazoo River. Diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) is thick, heavy crude oil from the Alberta tar sands (also known as oil sands), which is mixed with a thinner type of oil (the diluent) to allow it to flow through a pipeline.

A Whole New Experience

This was my first and NOAA’s first major experience with damage assessment for a dilbit spill, and was also a first for nearly everyone working on the cleanup and damage assessment. Dilbit production and shipping is increasing. As a result, NOAA and our colleagues in the field of spill response and damage assessment are interested in learning more about dilbit:

  • How does it behave when spilled into rivers or the ocean?
  • What kinds of effects does it have on animals, plants, and habitats?
  • Is it similar to other types of oil we’re more familiar with, or does it have unique properties?

While it’s just one case study, the Enbridge oil spill can help us answer some of those questions. My NOAA colleague Robert Haddad and I recently presented a scientific paper on this case study at Environment Canada’s Arctic and Marine Oil Spill Program conference.

In addition, the Canadian government and oil pipeline industry researchers Witt O’Brien’s, Polaris, and Western Canada Marine Response Corporation [PDF] and SL Ross [PDF] have been studying dilbit behavior as background research related to several proposed dilbit pipeline projects in the United States and Canada. Those experiments, along with the Enbridge spill case study, currently make up the state of the science on dilbit behavior and ecological impacts.

How Is Diluted Bitumen Different from Other Heavy Oils?

Dilbit is in the range of other dense, heavy oils, with a density of 920 to 940 kg/m3, which is close to the density of freshwater (1,000 kg/m3). (In general when something is denser than water, it will sink. If it is less dense, it will float.) Many experts have analyzed the behavior of heavy oils in the environment and observed that if oil sinks below the surface of the water, it becomes much harder to detect and recover. One example of how difficult this can be comes from a barge spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which left thick oil coating the bottom of the ocean.

What makes dilbit different from many other heavy oils, though, is that it includes diluent. Dilbit is composed of about 70 percent bitumen, consisting of very large, heavy molecules, and 30 percent diluent, consisting of very small, light molecules, which can evaporate much more easily than heavy ones. Other heavy oils typically have almost no light components at all. Therefore, we would expect evaporation to occur differently for dilbit compared to other heavy oils.

Environment Canada confirmed this to be the case. About four to five times as much of the dilbits evaporated compared to intermediate fuel oil (a heavy oil with no diluent), and the evaporation occurred much faster for dilbit than for intermediate fuel oil in their study. Evaporation transports toxic components of the dilbit into the air, creating a short-term exposure hazard for spill responders and assessment scientists at the site of the spill, which was the case at the 2010 Enbridge spill.

Graph of evaporation rates over time of two diluted bitumen oils and another heavy oil.

An Environment Canada study found that two types of diluted bitumen (dilbits), Access Western Blend (AWB) and Cold Lake Blend (CLB), evaporated more quickly and to a greater extent than intermediate fuel oil (IFO). The two dilbits are shown on the left and the conventional heavy oil, IFO, on the right. (Environment Canada)

Since the light molecules evaporate after dilbit spills, the leftover residue is even denser than what was spilled initially. Environment Canada, Witt O’Brien’s/Polaris/WCMRC, and SL Ross measured the increase in dilbit density over time as it weathered, finding dilbit density increased over time and eventually reached approximately the same density as freshwater.

These studies also found most of the increase in density takes place in the first day or two. What this tells us is that the early hours and days of a dilbit spill are extremely important, and there is only a short window of time before the oil becomes heavier and may become harder to clean up as it sinks below the water surface.

Unfortunately, there can be substantial confusion in the early hours and days of a spill. Was the spilled material dilbit or conventional heavy crude oil? Universal definitions do not exist for these oil product categories. Different entities sometimes categorize the same products differently. Because of these discrepancies, spill responders and scientists evaluating environmental impacts may get conflicting or hard-to-interpret information in the first few days following a spill.

Lessons from the Enbridge Oil Spill

Initially at the Enbridge oil spill, responders used traditional methods to clean up oil floating on the river’s surface, such as booms, skimmers, and vacuum equipment (see statistics on recovered oil in EPA’s Situation Reports [PDF]).

After responders discovered the dilbit had sunk to the sediment at the river’s bottom, they developed a variety of tactics to collect the oil: spraying the sediments with water, dragging chains through the sediments, agitating sediments by hand with a rake, and driving back and forth with a tracked vehicle to stir up the sediments and release oil trapped in the mud.

These tactics resulted in submerged oil working its way back up to the water surface, where it could then be collected using sorbent materials to mop up the oily sheen.

While these tactics removed some oil from the environment, they might also cause collateral damage, so the Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees assessed impacts from the cleanup tactics as well as from the oil itself. This case is still ongoing, and trustees’ assessment of those impacts will be described in a Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan after the assessment is complete.

A hand holds a crushed mussel.

A freshwater mussel found crushed in an area of the Kalamazoo River with heavy cleanup traffic following the 2010 Enbridge oil spill. (Enbridge Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council)

For now, we can learn from the Enbridge spill and help predict some potential environmental impacts of future dilbit spills. We can predict that dilbit will weather (undergo physical and chemical changes) rapidly, becoming very dense and possibly sinking in a matter of days. If the dilbit reaches the sediment bed, it can be very difficult to get it out, and bringing in responders and heavy equipment to recover the oil from the sediments can injure the plants and animals living there.

To plan the cleanup and response and predict the impacts of future dilbit spills, we need more information on dilbit toxicity and on how quickly plants and animals can recover from disturbance. Knowing this information will help us balance the potential impacts of cleanup with the short- and long-term effects of leaving the sunken dilbit in place.


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Follow Along with the State Department’s Our Ocean 2014 Conference

Jellyfish swiming near a harbor bottom.

A brown sea nettle (Chrysaora fuscescens) drifting through Monterey Harbor in California. (NOAA)

You already know how much the ocean does for you and how important it is to both celebrate and protect it. The U.S. Department of State also realizes this importance and, as a result, is hosting the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC from June 16–17, 2014. According to ourocean2014.state.gov:

We will bring together individuals, experts, practitioners, advocates, lawmakers, and the international ocean and foreign policy communities to gather lessons learned, share the best science, offer unique perspectives, and demonstrate effective actions. We aim to chart a way forward, working individually and together, to protect “Our Ocean.”

Watch a message about the conference and find out how you can help from Secretary of State John Kerry:

Marine pollution, a topic NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is very concerned about, is one of three core areas the conference aims to address, along with ocean acidification and sustainable fisheries. When a plastic bag or cigarette butt blows into a river, it can end up flowing to the ocean, where it endangers marine life. The problem is global, but mitigation is local. It’s in our hands to reduce marine debris—our trash in our ocean—at its source. Learn more about the debris filling our seas by reading about the challenges and solutions in this Our Ocean conference document [PDF], by visiting marinedebris.noaa.gov, and by watching the video below:

On the Our Ocean 2014 website, you also can submit your own pledge to protect the ocean, whether that means volunteering to clean up a beach or tracing the sustainability of the seafood you eat. Plus, you can show your support for the ocean by sharing a photo that inspires your dedication to our ocean. (If you’re looking for inspiration, try the images in our Flickr stream.) The State Department says all you have to do to participate is:

Post your photo to your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #OurOcean2014 or add it to the OurOcean2014 group on Flickr.  We will be keeping an eye out for photos using the hashtag and will choose some of the photos to be featured at the Our Ocean conference in Washington on June 16-17.

Check out the program schedule and watch the conference streaming live starting at 9:30 a.m. Eastern on Monday and Tuesday at state.gov/ourocean.

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