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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Law, New Name

Ship Exxon Mediterranean in Trieste, Italy, July 1991.

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

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

SEC. 5007. LIMITATION.

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

(33 U.S.C. § 2737)

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

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

A Ship Singled Out?

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

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

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

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

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

The End Is Near

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Shigenaka.

Gary Shigenaka.

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


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

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

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

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

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

1968

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

1973

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

1977

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

1981

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

1982

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

1984

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

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

1986

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

1987

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

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

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

1988

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

January 1989

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

March 1989

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

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


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

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

Get the details.


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When the North Cape Ran Aground off Rhode Island, an Unexpected Career Took Off

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Acting Chief of Staff Kate Clark.

January 19, 1996 was a Friday. I was a senior at the University of Rhode Island, pursuing an ocean engineering degree. I had no idea what I would do with it once I got it, but I loved the ocean, I had a tuition waiver since my dad taught there, and, hey, they had a well-known engineering program. I was living with roommates “down the line” in the fishing village of Point Judith in Narragansett, R.I.

When my friends and I returned home from a night out, it was the usual weather I was accustomed to during a coastal Rhode Island winter storm: foggy, rainy, and windy. But what I was not accustomed to was the nauseating smell of gasoline in the air and the helicopter traffic overhead.

Nudist Beach to Oiled Wreck

I woke on January 20 to the news that a ship had run aground, roughly four miles east on Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown. Being Rhode Island–born and Rhode Island–bred (as the fight song goes), I was all too familiar with Moonstone Beach, so called for the numerous ocean-polished silicate rocks that lined the beach. This town beach where I grew up was idyllic for families because the shallow, warm salt ponds that sat right behind the thin strip of sandy beach were perfect for young kids. As a child I spent long summer days there combing the beach for shells and jellyfish.

However, other sections of Moonstone Beach were well known throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a popular nudist beach. When public access to Moonstone Beach was closed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1988 to save habitat for endangered least tern and piping plover, it shut down the East Coast’s last fully staffed oceanic nudist beach.

The tank-barge that grounded on Moonstone Beach during that harsh winter storm in 1996 was called the North Cape. Its hull ripped open and spilled 828,000 gallons of home heating oil into the pounding surf. That strong smell of oil in the air around the southern shores of South Kingstown and Narragansett was soon replaced by the stench of rotting crustaceans, shellfish, and starfish that died from the oil and washed up in droves along the beaches of Block Island Sound.

In the weeks that followed, the local fishing and lobstering economy was brought to its knees as 250 square miles of Block Island Sound was closed to fishing. Families I had grown up with and classmates who went to work fishing after high school struggled to make ends meet.

Lessons for Life

During the spring of 1996, I was in need of a topic for my required senior project. At that time, the chair of the Ocean Engineering Department was interested in using media reports and other sources to do a hindcast investigation into the reported volume of oil spilled. I worked on it for several months that spring and became extremely familiar with the details of the incident. Ultimately, the project was a non-starter and I moved on to a different project. (If you’re doing the math, yes, it took me more than four years to graduate).

A large pile of dead lobsters in the bed of a pickup truck.

Dead lobsters collected from Rhode Island beaches after the North Cape oil spill, which killed 9 million lobsters. (Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management)

While I did this research, I knew nothing about oil spill response or assessing damages to natural resources, but the seed was planted. One thing I learned was that the North Cape spill was unique in the way the heavy surf thoroughly mixed the spilling oil into the water column, pounded it into the substrate, and ultimately carried it offshore to deliver a staggering blow to Block Island Sound’s thriving bottom-dwelling sea life.

Once I joined the work force after graduation, it seems all roads led back to oil spill preparedness, response, and restoration. It began with planting eel grass with funds from the World Prodigy oil spill and continued with consulting on containment and spill prevention for the Department of Defense. As I was finishing up graduate school at Louisiana State University, I came across a job opportunity to work for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) conducting Natural Resource Damage Assessments along the Gulf Coast. That was 12 years ago and I have worked at OR&R ever since.

An Environment for Success

The environmental damages from the North Cape oil spill resulted in $7.8 million for restoration along Rhode Island’s coast, which went to lobster and shellfish restoration, seabird and piping plover habitat protection, water quality improvements, and recreational fishing enhancements. The success of these projects required innovation, teamwork, and perseverance on the behalf of federal and state trustees, local officials, fishermen, and the public.

The last of the successful restoration projects wrapped up well after I started working for OR&R. I was pleased to be involved at times in this damage assessment and restoration work, though certainly not as involved as many of my colleagues. Still, it felt as though I had come full circle. The North Cape oil spill that devastated a local community and its natural resources 18 years ago this month set the course for my career. As the Grateful Dead song goes, “Once in a while you get shown the light. In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

Kate Clark.Kate Clark finally graduated with an ocean engineering degree from the University of Rhode Island and went on to complete a masters degree in oceanography from the Louisiana State University. She is now the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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Protecting the Great Lakes After a Coal Ship Hits Ground in Lake Erie

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie's soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013.

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie’s soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the course of a year, from October 2012 to October 2013, the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to 138 oil spills, chemical accidents, and various other threats to coastal environments and communities. Many of these responses required considerable time from the scientific team to estimate where spills might spread, analyze chemical hazards, and assess whether natural resources are at risk. Sometimes, however, we’re called into some incidents that end well, with minimum help needed on our part and no oil spilled.

Last November, LCDR John Lomnicky received a call from the U.S. Coast Guard with an example of an accident that had the potential to be much worse. LCDR Lomnicky is our Scientific Support Coordinator for the Great Lakes region and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

When Staying Grounded Is a Bad Thing

On November 17, just after 10:00 in the morning, the vessel master of the CSL Niagara reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that his ship had run aground while leaving Sandusky Bay through Moseley Channel to Lake Erie. Aboard the ship were 33,000 metric tons (36,376 U.S. tons) of coal, headed to Hamilton, Ontario, and about 193 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil (a blend of gasoil and heavy fuel oil) and marine diesel. The concern in a situation like this would be that the grounded ship might leak oil. Its stern was stuck in the soft mud at the bottom of Lake Erie. At the time, the vessel master reported there were no injuries, flooding, or visible pollution.

This ship, the CSL Niagara, has a long history of transporting coal in Lake Erie. Launched in April of 1972 for Canada Steamship Lines, Ltd., the new ship was 730 feet long and even then was carrying coal to Hamilton, Ontario. During over 40 years of sailing in the Great Lakes, the Niagara has also carried cargos of grain, coke, stone, and iron ore.

NOAA chart of Lake Erie.

Lake Erie has an average depth of 62 feet, but its western basin, where the CSL Niagara grounded, averages only 24 feet deep. (NOAA Chart)

Even though the vessel hadn’t released any oil, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, who had responders at the scene very shortly after the accident, put in a call to the Office of Response and Restoration’s LCDR Lomnicky for scientific support. As a precaution, they requested that we model the trajectory of oil in a worst case scenario if 145 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil and 48 metric tons of diesel fuel were released all at once into the water. We also provided a prediction of when the lake’s lower-than-usual water level would return to normal so a salvage team could refloat the stuck vessel. After gathering all of this information for the Coast Guard, LCDR Lomnicky continued to stand by for further requests.

In the hours that followed the ship’s grounding, the winds grew stronger, hampering efforts to free the vessel. The wind was causing the water level in the lake to drop and NOAA’s National Weather Service in Detroit predicted a 7.5 foot drop in levels for western Lake Erie. By 8:30 p.m., with 30 knot winds in two-to-three foot seas, the three tugboats contracted by the ship’s owner to dislodge the Niagara were making some progress. By midnight, however, with weather conditions worsening, salvage operations were suspended and scheduled to resume at first light.

But the next morning, November 18, the water level had dropped another two feet, and the three tugs still had had no luck freeing the stern of the Niagara from the lake bottom. The ship’s owner was now working on plans for lightering (removing the fuel) and containing any potentially spilled oil. Fortunately, there were still no reports of damage to the vessel or oil discharged into the water. The ship was just stuck.

By 4:00 that afternoon the water conditions had improved and another attempt to free the vessel was planned. Also, a combined tug-barge was en route should lightering become necessary.

Later that evening, shortly after 10:00, the ship was pulled free by two of the tugs and was back on its way early the next morning.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response. (NOAA)

Keeping the Great Lakes Great

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, with an average depth of 62 feet. Yet its western basin, where this ship grounding occurred, has an average depth of only 24 feet. The lake is an important source of commerce for both the U.S and Canada, who depend on it for shipping, fishing, and hydroelectric power. These industries place environmental pressure on the lake’s ecosystems, which  are also threatened by urban and agricultural runoff.

Happily, quick responders, sound information, and a break in the weather may have prevented this incident from becoming something much worse. A spill into Lake Erie could be devastating, especially considering its shallow waters, but this time, like many other times along the nation’s coasts, an oil spill was avoided.

Didn’t know that NOAA works in the Great Lakes? Nicknamed “the third coast,” the Great Lakes are a major U.S. water body, with a shoreline that stretches longer than the East Coast and Gulf Coast combined. Learn more about the Great Lakes and NOAA’s efforts there in this Great Lakes regional snapshot.


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How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands.

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

A warming, more acidic ocean. Grounded ships and heavy fishing nets. Coral reefs face a lot of threats from humans. For these tiny animals that build their own limestone homes underwater, oil spills may add insult to injury.

But how does spilled oil reach coral reefs? And what are the effects?

How an oil spill affects corals depends on the species and maturity of the coral (e.g., early stages of life are very sensitive to oil) as well as the means and level of exposure to oil. Exposing corals to small amounts of oil for an extended period can be just as harmful as large amounts of oil for a brief time.

Coral reefs can come in contact with oil in three major ways:

  1. Oil floating on the water’s surface can be deposited directly on corals in an intertidal zone when the water level drops at low tide.
  2. Rough seas can mix lighter oil products into the water column (like shaking up a bottle of salad dressing), where they can drift down to coral reefs.
  3. As heavy oil weathers or gets mixed with sand or sediment, it can become dense enough to sink below the ocean surface and smother corals below.

 

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986.

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986. (NOAA)

Once oil comes into contact with corals, it can kill them or impede their reproduction, growth, behavior, and development. The entire reef ecosystem can suffer from an oil spill, affecting the many species of fish, crabs, and other marine invertebrates that live in and around coral reefs.

As oil spill responders, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has to take these and many other factors into account during an oil spill near coral reefs. For example, if the spill resulted from a ship running aground on a reef, we need to consider the environmental impacts of the options for removing the ship. Or, if an oil spill occurred offshore but near coral reefs, we would advise the U.S. Coast Guard and other pollution responders to avoid using chemical dispersants to break up the oil spill because corals can be harmed by dispersed oil.

We also provide reports and information for responders and natural resource managers dealing with oil spills and coral reefs:

You can learn more about coral reefs, such as the basic biology of corals, how damaged coral reefs can recover from an oil spill or be restored after a ship grounding, and what we’ve learned about oil spills in tropical reefs.

For lessons a little closer to home, be sure to find out five more things you should know about coral reefs and listen to this podcast about threats to coral health from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.



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From Driving Underwater Scooters to Texting, Hawaii Students Learn Skills for Science Under the Sea

This is a post by NOAA Fisheries Biologist Dr. Matthew Parry. The Office of Response and Restoration’s Joe Inslee also contributed to this post.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course. (Jeff Kuwabara/University of Hawaii)

The sparkling, turquoise waters off the coast of Hawaii may seem like the perfect place to work, no matter what you’re doing. But when you’re trying to figure out what happened to that idyllic environment after a ship grounds on a coral reef or spills oil, those attractive waters present a surprising number of challenges.

You can’t just walk up with a clipboard and start taking samples. You have to haul your team and equipment out by boat, be a qualified SCUBA diver, and be able to get around underwater and communicate with your team. And this is all while (carefully and consistently) documenting the species of coral, fish, and other marine life, as well as their habitats, which might have been affected by a misdirected ship or spilled oil.

To help cultivate this unique and valuable skill set in Hawaii’s future scientists, NOAA has partnered with the University of Hawaii to offer a hands-on (and flippers-on) course introducing their students to a suite of marine underwater techniques. This multi-week course gives developing young scientists, all enrolled at the University of Hawaii, the critical technical skills required to succeed in the rapidly growing field of marine sciences. The course focuses on advanced underwater navigation, communication, and mapping techniques that NOAA uses in environmental assessment and restoration cases but which can be applied to almost any marine-related career.

Under the Sea

For the past month, our classroom was located in the Pacific Ocean off the south shore of the Hawaiian island Oahu. Students learned the proper techniques for using:

  • A GPS (Global Positioning System) tracker where GPS normally can’t go. Because a GPS unit doesn’t work underwater, students learned how to tow one in a waterproof bag attached to a float at the surface and which is also tethered to them as they dive. The bobbing GPS unit then follows them as they take photos of what they see in the water. Later, using a program to match the photos to their locations, students can create a map of the habitats on the ocean floor.
  • Underwater text messaging. While underwater, divers need a way to communicate with other dive teams when they are not in sight of each other. We taught the students to use underwater communication devices that use sonar to send very basic, preset messages to others in their group or on the boat. That way, they can coordinate when someone discovers, for example, a damage site, a rare coral, or even a shipwreck. They can also use it to navigate back to the boat.
  • Underwater scooters. For longer sampling surveys, students learned how to hang onto and drive a small underwater scooter. These aquatic vehicles allow divers to venture further out at a time and do so more efficiently, because they aren’t exerting themselves as much and using as much of their limited air supply.
  • High-precision underwater mapping equipment. This system, based on sonar, more accurately maps divers’ locations in real time as they gather data underwater. Surrounded by transmitters attached to fixed float lines, students were able to enter data they collected directly into handheld devices, while also creating maps underwater.

Get a better idea of what this was like for the students by taking a look at photos from the class:

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And into Local Jobs

This year’s course was taught as a partnership between the NOAA Restoration Center, the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), and the University of Hawaii Marine Option Program, with collaboration from staff with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The course was supported by PIRO’s Marine Education and Training program.

Efforts such as this one are aimed at keeping young scientists with local ecological skills and experience in Hawaii by allowing them to advance their knowledge of practical underwater techniques. Having this specialization enables them to stay employed in the region and in the field of marine science. Ideally, local students gain the technical skills they need to work in the natural resource management field in Hawaii. After taking the marine underwater techniques course, a number of highly specialized jobs would be open to them, such as conducting:

  • Environmental damage assessments after ship groundings.
  • Academic research.
  • Search and salvage missions.
  • Mitigation surveys for underwater construction projects.

Underwater Expertise in Action

This kind of underwater expertise was called upon in 2005 when the M/V Casitas ran aground in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. NOAA divers reported to the scene of the accident to help determine the damage to corals and other parts of the environment caused by the initial ship grounding and subsequent efforts to remove the ship.

Using several of the techniques we teach in this course, divers were able to accurately determine not only the locations where corals were injured but also how much of the reef was injured (about 18,220 square feet). This information was essential in the process of planning for restoration after the grounding. You can read more about the resulting restoration projects in another blog post.

Dr. Matthew Parry got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2003. He came to work for the NOAA Restoration Center in Honolulu as part of the Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program in 2007. He continues to work at NOAA as a Fishery Biologist specializing in Natural Resource Damage Assessment and teaches the Marine Underwater Techniques course with co-instructors Robert O’Conner, Kara Miller, and Jeff Kuwabara.


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Why You Should Thank a Hydrographer

NOAA's Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

World Hydrography Day is celebrated each year on June 21. But before we start thanking hydrographers, we first should explain: What is a hydrographer?

Basically, a hydrographer measures and documents the shape and features of the ocean floor and coasts. These scientists then create charts showing the ocean’s varying depths and the location of underwater obstructions, such as rocky outcroppings or shipwrecks. As our fellow NOAA colleagues at the Office of Coast Survey (an office full of hydrographers) further elaborate, “hydrographic surveying ‘looks’ into the ocean to see what the sea floor looks like,” with most of the work “primarily concerned with water depth.”

Mariners, unlike drivers on a dangerous road, can’t see the whole picture of the path their ships are taking. Is this harbor deep enough for a large ship to enter safely? Where should they avoid sensitive coral reefs? They rely on NOAA’s nautical charts to show them what is on the sea floor and where there are objects or areas to avoid.

Sometimes, however, ships do run afoul with underwater features—which, for example, could be coral reefs, pipelines, or damaged oil service platforms—leading to oil spills or crushed coral reef habitats. That brings our office into the picture to help minimize the environmental damage and then work to restore it.

This is why we at the Office of Response and Restoration are grateful for the hydrographers who are diligently creating and updating the charts that keep our ocean and its travelers safe. Beyond that, here are a few more reasons why we (and hopefully you) would want to thank a hydrographer.

Modeling Leaking Shipwrecks

Remote sensing data from hydrographic surveys are, in many instances, the first picture we have of a shipwreck and give us some sense of what state the ship is in before NOAA sends down divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). We know that even ships broken into two or three sections can still hold a significant amount of oil (from fuel or cargo). Recently, we worked with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to evaluate the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters for those with the potential to leak oil still onboard. In a report to the U.S. Coast Guard, we highlighted 17 wrecks, in particular, that should be assessed further and possibly have any remaining oil removed.

Coast Survey recently finished surveying one of these wrecks, the freighter Fernstream [PDF], which sank after colliding with another ship near San Francisco Bay in 1952. One of their physical science technicians then created a vibrant three-dimensional model of the wreck, with the colors representing different water depths detected by multibeam sonar. From this kind of information, maritime archaeologists can interpret how the wrecked ship might be oriented on the sea floor and estimate where oil tanks could be located.

Mapping Environmental Responses

Bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data is one of the primary data sets we use as a base layer in ERMA®, our online mapping tool for environmental planning and response. We often display high resolution bathymetry data in ERMA to better understand areas of interest, such as the site of a ship spilling oil. ERMA can readily pull in bathymetry data feeds from NOAA and university partners to help our scientist refine models of the water column and classify aquatic habitat. High resolution bathymetry data was particularly useful for visualizing the area surrounding the damaged wellhead for the Deepwater Horizon wreckage and has aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast.

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

During the response to an oil spill or ship grounding, we sometimes work with hydrographers who may be able to do new underwater surveys of the affected area. In addition, with access to huge databases of bathymetry data, they can offer much more detailed information than what is on the average nautical chart, helping us guide response decisions, such as where response vessels can be anchored safely. For example, when Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Dec. 31, 2012, a Coast Survey specialist, using detailed nautical charts and data, helped us identify nearby Kiliuda Bay as a suitable safe harbor to relocate the rig.

Detecting Submerged Hurricane Debris

After a hurricane, lots of debris from on land, including oil drums, shipping containers, and chemical tanks, can get swept into the ocean. This has been a notable issue following Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. Currently, Coast Survey is collecting hydrographic data to update their charts from North Carolina to Connecticut, the states affected by Hurricane Sandy. We will be focusing in particular on the data they gather for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and whether they find items on the sea floor larger than one cubic meter in size (about 35 cubic feet). That survey data then will be processed by the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center. Their analyses will inform our Marine Debris Program’s future efforts to prioritize and remove the submerged debris items detected in these surveys.

Thanks also go to the Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton, Michele Jacobi, and Jason Rolfe and the Office of Marine Sanctuaries’ Lisa Symons for contributing to this post.


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NOAA Lifts 14 Metric Tons of Fishing Nets and Plastics from Hawaiian Coral Reefs

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

The sea life around Hawaii’s remote Midway Atoll is swimming easier after NOAA recently removed 14 metric tons of debris from its waters (a metric ton equals about 2,204 pounds). The removal team, consisting of members of the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, spent 19 days collecting debris both from along the shoreline and in the water around Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As usual, the bulk of the items recovered were abandoned fishing gear and plastics.

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

Notably, the team also removed a 23-foot-long derelict vessel weighing close to three-quarters of a metric ton. This vessel was confirmed as having been lost from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. (Learn more about marine debris from the tsunami.)

This current round of marine debris removal efforts began in 2011 when a plan was put in place to help restore the environment injured after the research ship M/V Casitas ran aground on the coral reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 2005. This atoll is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in what is now the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Our office, along with our partners, undertook a Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this ship grounding. This process resulted in a legal settlement which provided NOAA with funds to conduct marine debris removal projects over several summers, starting in 2011. The 2011 efforts removed 15 metric tons of marine debris while the 2012 cruise brought in 52 metric tons. Since 2011, NOAA has collected a total of 81 metric tons or 178,000 pounds of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

Marine debris, particularly discarded and lost fishing gear, is a substantial source of coral damage in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. NOAA and our partners determined that removing nets from coral reefs in this area would prevent similar injuries to corals as those that occurred during the M/V Casitas grounding and subsequent response.

Learn more about efforts to restore coral reefs after this ship grounding [PDF].


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Removal Operations Continue for Navy Mine Ship on Philippine Coral Reef

USS Guardian salvage operations

Aerial view of the vessels aiding in the dismantling process of the mine countermeasures ship Ex-Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef Jan. 17. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine authorities to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy/Anderson Bomjardim)

You may recall that in January the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines, inside Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. The Navy removed the approximately 15,000 gallons of fuel aboard the ship and decided that the safest way to extract the Guardian from the reef was to deconstruct and carry it away in smaller sections.

Here are some interesting photos showing how the removal of the grounded “Ex-Guardian” (formerly USS Guardian) is progressing.

First, the superstructure (Wheelhouse and above deck structures) was removed as you can see in the top photo. Now the hull is being cut into sections and removed. Earlier this week the bow section, weighing approximately 250 tons, was lifted off the reef and placed onto an awaiting barge (bottom photo).

A crane vessel removes the bow of the mine countermeasure ship Ex-Guardian.

A crane vessel removes the bow of the mine countermeasure ship Ex-Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef, Jan. 17. The U.S. Navy and contracted salvage teams continue damage assessments and the removal of equipment and parts to prepare the grounded ship to be safely dismantled and removed from Tubbataha Reef. (U.S. Navy/Kelby Sanders)

The U.S. Navy has been working closely with the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy, and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park during the process.

For more information on the removal operations, check out http://www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/010081

You can also find out more about how NOAA works to protect and restore coral reefs after ship groundings in some of our previous blog posts:

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