NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


A Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

Last year I wrote about NOAA’s work in identifying potentially polluting shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

Several men work to pump oil onto a barge on the ocean.

During November 2013, the Canadian Coast Guard (Western Region) worked with Mammoet Salvage to remove the oil remaining on board the wreck of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski. The Zalinski sank off the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada, and its wreck remains upside down on top of an underwater cliff. (Daniel Porter, Mammoet Salvage)

One of the wrecks that we’ve been watching with interest has been the wreck of the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a World War II U.S. Army transport ship that ran aground and sank in 1946 near Prince Rupert, Canada.  For the past decade the vessel has been the source of chronic oil spills in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, and patches to the hull were only a temporary solution.

Response operations were just completed in late December 2013, and the Canadian government reported that two-month-long operations safely extracted approximately 44,000 liters (about 12,000 gallons) of heavy Bunker C oil and 319,000 liters (84,000 gallons) of oily water from the wreck.  More information on the project is on Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.

Every shipwreck has its own story to tell. One of the interesting bits of trivia about the Zalinski is that the crew of the sinking ship back in 1946 was rescued by the Steam Ship Catala. The Zalinski, lying in Canadian waters, is not in our database of potentially polluting shipwrecks, but the S.S. Catala is, or should I say, was.

The Catala met its end in 1965 when the ship grounded during a storm and was abandoned on a beach on the outer coast of Washington state.  Over time the vessel was buried in sand, but 40 years later, winds and tides had changed the face of the beach, re-exposing the Catala’s rusted-out, oil-laden hull.  In 2007, the State of Washington led a multi-agency effort to remove not only the 34,500 gallons of oil still on board but also the ship’s wreckage and the potential for a major oil spill near a number of state parks and national wildlife refuges on the coast.

Learn more about how NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and Regional Response Teams to prioritize potential threats to coastal resources from the nation’s legacy of sunken ships.


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 Report Identifies Shipwrecks with the Potential to Pollute

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

Over the past couple years I’ve talked about the threat of oil spills from historic shipwrecks, including the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes and the S/S Montebello off southern California. But we know that these wrecks are just the tip of the iceberg.

The past century of commerce and warfare has dotted our waters with shipwrecks, many of which have never been surveyed. Since 2010, my office, working with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the U.S. Coast Guard, has been systematically looking at which of these wrecks might pose a substantial threat of leaking oil still on board. This work is part of NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project.

We used a tiered approach to develop an initial priority list of vessels for risk assessment. This process narrowed down the estimated 20,000 vessels in U.S. waters to 573 that met the initial criteria. The ships had to be over 1,000 gross tons (making them about 200 feet or longer), built to carry or use oil as fuel, and made of a durable material such as steel.

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Additional research revealed the actual number posing a substantial pollution threat was lower because of the violent nature in which some ships sank (many were lost in World War II). This is because, for example, a ship hit and sunk by torpedoes would be less likely to still have intact tanks of oil. And other vessels were taken off our radar because they have fallen apart or were demolished because they were navigational hazards.

We also used computer models to predict the environmental and economic consequences of oil spills from these vessels. Those results then helped us sort out which wrecks might pose the biggest risks.

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

On May 20, we released both an overall report describing this work and our recommendations and 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military.

The national report and the 87 risk assessments are available at

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With Tropical Storm Isaac’s Passing, Crews Resume Cutting Apart Grounded Ship and Protecting Coral at Mona Island, Puerto Rico

Response barges are anchored near the grounded M/V Jireh.

August 20, 2012 — Response barges are anchored near the M/V Jireh (foreground), which grounded on coral reefs in June. (U.S. Coast Guard/Jaclyn Young)

With the passage of the Tropical Storm formerly known as Hurricane Isaac, salvage crews and coral ecologists are once again back on Mona Island, Puerto Rico, working to remove the grounded freighter M/V Jireh while also protecting the island’s corals.

In previous ship salvage cases involving coral habitats, biologists have observed considerable coral damage from not only the physical placement of anchors, cables, and support vessels, but also continued shifting and grinding from the grounded vessel. As a result, crews are working carefully to keep that from happening here.

In such a long and complicated salvage project, it is impossible to prevent all impacts, but crews are continuing to remove and reattach corals at risk from the grounded ship. Nearly 1,000 corals have been moved already. These transplanted corals are expected to have a high survival rate and reduce the overall impacts from the vessel removal operation.

A NOAA-authorized biologist is on site during all coral relocation operations to make sure corals are properly handled and reattached to reefs. Before responders attempt to refloat the vessel, qualified divers will evaluate the corals in the area and determine an exit path for the damaged ship that will have the least impact to the surrounding coral habitat. This may or may not turn out to be the same path the ship took when it entered the reef. Depending on conditions after the vessel’s removal, the coral colonies may be relocated back to their original place on the reef.

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The U.S. Coast Guard and the rest of the response crew have been working carefully to cut up portions of the ship, in order to lighten the vessel enough to refloat and remove it from the reef. Once disassembled, the removed portions of the ship are loaded onto a barge and taken to Puerto Rico for recycling.

Additionally, since the grounding on June 21, crews already have removed 600 tons of oiled cargo and more than 5,000 gallons of oil-water mixture.

Here you can see their plan for removing and disposing of this damaged vessel.

Jireh removal and disposal process.

Jireh removal and disposal process. (Jireh Grounding Unified Command)

Once the ship is refloated, the plan is to scuttle (purposefully sink) the wreck 12 miles away from Mona Island. After it is sunk, the wreckage is not expected to pose any additional risk to corals or other marine life. The difference with this shipwreck is the location.

“Intertidal wrecks are unstable and scour the reefs as they degrade and fall apart, while a wreck far out at sea becomes a stable deep-water habitat over time,” said Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration.

The Coast Guard reports that removing the Jireh from Mona Island is the best solution to protect the sensitive environment and coral reefs surrounding this highly valuable natural reserve. Once this threat is permanently removed, NOAA divers will conduct an assessment of the grounding area and continue to work with local environmental agencies to ensure its full recovery.

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NOAA Hauls 50 Metric Tons of Debris out of Hawaiian Waters

Scientists load onto a small boat marine debris collected at Midway Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Scientists load onto a small boat marine debris collected at Midway Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (NOAA)

With their eyes on the ocean, a team of 17 NOAA scientists recently removed nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris—mostly abandoned fishing nets and plastics—from the turquoise waters of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Part of an annual effort to restore the area’s coral ecosystems, this latest sweep of marine debris also scanned for items which might have been carried there from the 2011 Japan tsunami. However, nothing could be linked directly to the tragedy.

“While we did not find debris with an obvious connection to last year’s tsunami, this mission was a great opportunity to leverage activities that had already been planned and see what we might find,” said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration. “It’s also an important reminder that marine debris is an everyday problem, especially here in the Pacific.”

NOAA divers cut a Hawaiian green sea turtle free from a derelict fishing net during a recent mission to collect marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

NOAA divers cut a Hawaiian green sea turtle free from a derelict fishing net during a recent mission to collect marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Through NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Restoration, and Remediation Program, the Office of Response and Restoration is helping restore coral reefs here after the M/V Casitas grounded on Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in July 2005. Part of the funding for the marine debris removal survey comes from the legal settlement for the Casitas ship grounding, as well as from the NOAA Marine Debris Program and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

This recurring issue of marine debris threatens Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and other marine life in the coral reef ecosystems of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  The scientists on this mission loaded the massive amounts of collected debris on to the 224-ft. NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

NOAA collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, piled on ship's deck.

NOAA collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, shown here with researchers sitting on top of the piles of nets aboard the ship Oscar Elton Sette during a July 2012 survey in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

“What surprises us is that after many years of marine debris removal in Papahānaumokuākea and more than 700 metric tons of debris later, we are still collecting a significant amount of derelict fishing gear from the shallow coral reefs and shorelines,” said Kyle Koyanagi, marine debris operations manager at NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for the mission. “The ship was at maximum capacity and we did not have any space for more debris.”

This year, marine debris was collected from waters and shorelines around the islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island and Laysan Island.

Marine debris removed during this project will be used to create electricity through Hawaii’s Nets to Energy Program, a public-private partnership. Since 2002, it has collected and converted more than 730 metric tons of abandoned fishing gear into electricity—enough to power nearly 350 Hawaii homes for a year.


What Happens After Abandoning Ship

Twenty three years after running aground on a reef in Alaska and causing one of the largest spills in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez is back in the news—this time to keep it from being intentionally grounded on a beach in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Exxon Valdez (now called the Oriental Nicety) cannot be grounded and cut apart on the shores of Gujarat until it can be cleaned of residual oils and other contaminants.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal (“ship breaking”) on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Credit: Naquib Hossain, Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

What’s known as “ship breaking” is a dirty business, and many of the world’s tired and obsolete vessels end up being grounded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and cut apart for scrap steel.

In recent years the business of ship scrapping has become a major health and environmental concern. Many ship breaking yards in these developing countries have little or no safety equipment or environmental protections, and toxic materials from these ships, including oils, heavy metals, and asbestos, escape into the environment.

A derelict vessel grounded on a coal reef in Samoa.

A rusted-out derelict vessel still sits grounded on a coal reef in Samoa. (NOAA/Doug Helton)

Obsolete vessels and ship scrapping can also be a problem here in the U.S. Last year, the 431-foot S/S Davy Crockett made the news down on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash.

Mysterious oil sheens on the river were traced upriver to the former Navy Liberty ship that had begun leaking oil due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations.

Next week I will be at the Clean Pacific Conference in Long Beach, Calif., and presenting information on the challenges of dealing with abandoned and derelict vessels in the U.S. I know that the Davy Crockett and the issues it raised will come up.

Vessels are abandoned for all sorts of reasons, including storms (particularly hurricanes/typhoons which may damage large numbers of boats), community-wide economic stress or change (e.g., declining commercial fishing industries), and financial or legal issues of individual owners.  The high cost of proper vessel disposal can lead some folks to just walk away.

Hopefully we can help improve how we respond to these vessels and increase prevention programs to prevent abandonment. If you are interested in this issue, there is more information on NOAA’s Abandoned Vessel Program.

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100 Years After the Titanic and the Dangers of Icy Seas

All links leave this blog.

One of the greatest marine accidents of the 20th century involved an ocean liner hitting an iceberg. The 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking is April 15, and I always cringe when I think of the crew trying and failing to turn the massive, 883 foot-long ship just before hitting the iceberg.

I know how long it can take to turn and stop a large vessel (sometimes as many as 5 miles). But did you know that another great maritime accident of the 20th century came from a ship changing course to avoid ice?

On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez left its namesake port in Alaska, loaded with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude oil bound for Long Beach, Calif. Most people know that hours later the Exxon Valdez grounded at Bligh Reef, spilling some 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.

Just before midnight, Captain Joe Hazelwood called the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center on the radio and said he was changing course and diverting from the designated traffic lanes. But the Exxon Valdez wasn’t just taking a short cut across the Sound. The Captain intentionally turned the ship to “wind my way through the ice.”

The Columbia Glacier is about 30 miles from the port town of Valdez, Alaska, and some of the ice that breaks off the glacier floats out into the shipping lanes.

The traffic center acknowledged and confirmed the Exxon Valdez’s new course. A few minutes later the Exxon Valdez made another course change, but this one was was not reported to the Valdez traffic center. Twenty minutes later the Exxon Valdez ran aground. A lengthy analysis of the events leading up to the grounding can be found at the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council website.


Sea ice consists of frozen sea water and is observed in terms of three basic parameters: concentration, stage of development, and form. (NOAA)

Because of the hazard ice poses to shipping, my NOAA office prepared a booklet guide to sea ice [PDF] to make it easier for captains and pilots to report and share information about ice conditions at sea.

Sea ice comes in a lot of forms and sizes and has some colorful names like “brash” and “growler” and “cake” and “bergy bits.” I think the one that the Titanic hit would be called a “large berg,” which can range in size from 401 to 670 feet.

You can find out more information about the Titanic and NOAA’s role in discovering, studying, and protecting the site of this historic shipwreck, now a tragic symbol of the dangers of ice at sea.


Remembering the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

S/S Edmund Fitzgerald.

The S/S Edmund Fitzgerald. Credit: NOAA.

Today, November 10, is the anniversary of the wreck of the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest shipwreck in the Great Lakes. The ship and entire crew of 29 men were lost in a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. I remember listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit song [leaves this blog] about the wreck, and it still catches my attention when I hear it playing.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship measuring 729 feet long and 26,000 tons, is one of the most well-known disasters in the history of Great Lakes shipping. The ship’s remains lie just over the border in Canadian waters at a depth of 530 feet.

Over the years many ships have sunk in the Great Lakes, and the region is home to a number of maritime museums. NOAA’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary [leaves this blog] in Lake Huron helps preserve and protect the maritime history of the lakes and is home to dozens of shipwrecks, some of which you can now explore online in 3-D [leaves this blog].

My connection to the Edmund Fitzgerald comes from my work on historic ships that may still pose a threat of oil pollution. The ship was designed to carry taconite (iron ore) pellets, but it carried fuel oil for its engines.

Based on the condition and damage of the ship’s hull and the large heaps of taconite around the wreckage, it is unlikely to contain much oil, but we have the ship in our database of potentially polluting wrecks.

The Edmund Fitzgerald is a reminder that our maritime history is not limited to the marine waters. The Great Lakes are very much a coastline (and shipping hub) of the United States, and just like along our salt water shorelines, NOAA is active in charting, weather, research, and coastal management there as well.


Shipwrecks and Rats No Match for the “Galapagos of the North”

This is a post by Jennifer Boyce of the NOAA Restoration Center.

Ancient Murrelet

An Ancient Murrelet adult and chick. Credit: Jake Pattison, Laskeek Bay Conservation Society.

On the remote, windswept islands of British Columbia, Canada, a unique species of seabird, the Ancient Murrelet, nests in burrows among tree roots, logs, and rock crevices set in the breathtaking Haida Gwaii region. Unfortunately for this threatened relative of the puffin, however, mysterious oil spills in California were coating and killing the murrelet and thousands of other seabirds from at least the 1990s through 2002.

This devastation to the rare murrelet, which migrates south to California in the winter, and to other threatened and endangered species such as sea otters and snowy plovers went on for years. Finally in 2002, U.S. federal and state officials identified the sunken oil tanker Jacob Luckenbach (wrecked in 1953) as the culprit and the source of several mystery oil spills cropping up during winter storms off the coast of California.

The owners of the vessel no longer exist, but the U.S. government created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, managed by the U.S. Coast Guard, to provide cleanup operations and support for restoration projects resulting from these kinds of oil spills. The same year, the Coast Guard used the Trust Fund to remove oil from the Luckenbach and seal it from future leaks.

To make up for the damage to wildlife from the oil, a trustee council that includes NOAA summarized the injuries to natural resources and, as a result of the assessment, received $22.7 million toward restoration projects for the impacted seabirds and otters. The money came from the National Pollution Fund Center.

As a result, an innovative partnership has sprung up between nonprofits, governments, state and federal agencies, and foundations to restore critical breeding habitat—located in Canada’s Haida Gwaii region—for colonies of the Ancient Murrelet. However, that offers its own challenges.

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site are home to many of the Haida Gwaii region’s 1.5 million nesting seabirds. A marine archipelago, the region is renowned for its rugged coastline, temperate rainforests, and distinct flora and fauna, which evolved through 14,000 years of isolation from the mainland. It is so disproportionately rich in rare and unique species that it is often referred to as the “Galapagos of the North.”

The Bischof Islands in Gwaii Haanas

The Bischof Islands, part of Gwaii Haanas National Park, looking south to Juan Perez Sound in British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Andrew S. Wright.

Yet Gwaii Haanas’s biodiversity is threatened by a range of biological, climate, and human-induced impacts. One of the most significant is from introduced species. Rats, first introduced to Haida Gwaii via maritime shipping in the late 1700s, have been found on at least 18 islands throughout the archipelago.

Because island systems have been isolated for long periods of time, they are especially vulnerable to the impacts of introduced species because native island species often lack the evolutionary defenses to deal with the newcomers. Rats have devastating effects on populations of nesting seabirds, forest songbirds, and native small mammals. Recent research shows that rats can also affect invertebrate populations, and as a consequence, unleash a cascade of far-reaching effects in ecosystems, such as changes to soil fertility and plant composition. With funds from the Luckenbach settlement and Parks Canada and the Haida Nation, a partnership has been created to eradicate rats on the islands in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in the hopes of restoring seabird populations.

In September of this year, I was fortunate enough to visit this stunningly beautiful and culturally rich region to witness the restoration project as the NOAA representative on the Luckenbach Trustee Council. Traveling with Parks Canada, Island Conservation, and Coastal Conservation (the latter two are the non-profits implementing the on-ground efforts), we were able to visit the islands kicking off the rat eradication project.

Strategically placed bait stations have been situated throughout each island and armed with the pesticide brodifacoum. Infrared cameras capture any nocturnal visitors to the stations and ensure that only rats can access the bait. Initial signs are positive. These bait stations will be monitored for the next two years to confirm that all rats have been removed before the islands can be declared officially rat-free.

In addition, scientists will use automated acoustic listening devices to measure seabird populations on affected islands, studying the frequency and distribution of seabird calls and determining what bird species are present. Hopefully in the years to come, these devices will record both the return of the Ancient Murrelet to its historic numbers—and the sound of success.

Jennifer Boyce

Jennifer Boyce in Gwaii Haanas, Canada.

Jennifer Boyce works for the NOAA Restoration Center, based in Long Beach, California. Jennifer serves as the NOAA trustee on several oil spill restoration Trustee Councils throughout California and is the Program Manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

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Solving the Oily Mystery of the Wrecked S/S Montebello

This is a post by Jordan Stout, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Scientific Support Coordinator based in Alameda, Calif.

Underwater image of the Montebello wreck.

An underwater photo of fishing net draping the wreck of the S/S Montebello, taken by the remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Credit: Robert Schwemmer.

In a refreshing change for those of us who deal with oil spills, the mystery of the S/S Montebello, a U.S. oil tanker sunk only two weeks after Pearl Harbor, has finally been solved and it’s good news: There is no sign of the more than 3 million gallons of crude oil on board the ship when it went down nearly 70 years ago.

Given the data discovered and records available, a long-term model says it’s likely that most of the oil remained offshore and headed south, while some would have evaporated within the first few days. The remainder may have washed ashore but may have been so widely scattered it went unnoticed. We will probably never know exactly what happened to the oil.

Submersible dives indicated the Japanese torpedo that sunk the Montebello missed the cargo tanks where the oil was held. Originally, some people speculated that the oil might have leaked out the vent pipes. Others thought the oil had solidified in the cold bottom waters off the coast of San Pedro, Calif., and was still inside the ship.

But with limited information, the best we could do was make educated guesses about how and when an oil spill might occur from this ship. What we really needed was to look inside the tanks for oil and, if we found any, assess the wreck’s overall condition. Even with the cargo tanks in relatively good condition, the Montebello was degrading over time, and any oil still on board could pose a threat of an uncontrolled oil release, which can be an expensive, difficult, and potentially hazardous endeavor.

In recent years, there has been a growing concern about potential pollution from the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters. A number of wrecks in the Pacific Basin have undergone some kind of focused assessment and oil removal, which helped us with these operations.

The S/S Montebello was different, however, because it was not actively leaking oil at the time, and the assessment would be performed entirely by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). In addition, we used some innovative and very specialized technologies, including:

  • ultrasonic thickness gauges (to figure out how thick the ship’s hull is).
  • neutron backscatter detectors (to determine the likelihood of oil being in the tanks, without damaging them).
  • a specialized ROV-mounted drill bit that drilled a small hole in the ship, grabbed an oil sample, and then sealed the hole when the tool was extracted (a tool specially built for this project).

Carefully and methodically applying these tools gave us convincing answers while limiting the number of holes created in the ship.

Of course, the more we looked for oil in the S/S Montebello, the less we found. And, in truth, I found that to be a bit anti-climactic. Even so, a long-standing mystery has finally been solved, and I’m proud of our efforts.

Jordan Stout

Jordan Stout.

Jordan Stout currently serves as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in California where he provides scientific and technical support to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency in preparing for and responding to oil spills and hazardous material releases.  He has been involved in supporting many significant incidents and responses in California and throughout the nation and was on-scene for the S/S Montebello assessment operation.


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