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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Carrying on a Nearly Fifty Year Tradition, Scientists Examine the Intersection of Pollution and Marine Life

As reliably as the tides, each month biologist Donald J. Reish would wash over the library at California State University, Long Beach, armed with stacks of 3×5 index cards. On these cards, Reish meticulously recorded every scientific study published that month on pollution’s effects on marine life. When he began this ritual in 1967, this did not amount to very many studies.

“There was essentially none at the time,” says Reish, who helped pioneer the study of pollution’s impacts on marine environments in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, after a year of collecting as much as he could find in scientific journals, he would mail the index cards with their handwritten notes to a volunteer crew that often included his former graduate students, including Alan Mearns, now an ecologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Like a wave, they would return to the library to read, review, and send summaries of these studies back to Reish. At his typewriter, he would compile the individual summaries into one comprehensive list, an “in case you missed it” for scientists interested in this emerging field of study. This compilation would then be published in a scientific journal itself.

By the early 2000s, Reish handed off leadership of this annual effort to Mearns, an early recruit to the project. Today, Mearns continues the nearly 50 year tradition of reviewing the state of marine pollution science and publishing it in the journal Water Environment Research. Their 2014 review, “Effects of Pollution on Marine Organisms,” comes together a little differently than in the 1960s and 70s—and covers issues that have changed with the years as well.

Signs of the Times

Man and woman at a desk covered with scientific papers.

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration biologists Alan Mearns and Nicolle Rutherford tackle another year’s worth of scientific studies, part of an effort begun in 1967. (NOAA)

For starters, vastly more studies are being published on marine pollution and its environmental effects. For this year’s publication, Mearns and his six co-authors, who include Reish and NOAA scientists Nicolle Rutherford and Courtney Arthur, reviewed 341 scientific papers which they pulled from a larger pool of nearly 1,000 studies.

The days of having to physically visit a library each month to read the scientific journals are also over. Instead, Mearns can wait until the end of the year to scour online scientific search engines. Emails replace the handwritten 3×5 index cards. And fortunately, typewriters are no longer involved.

The technology the reviewers are using isn’t the only thing to change with the years. In the early days, the major contaminants of concern were heavy metals, such as copper, which were turning up in the bodies of fish and invertebrates. Around the 1970s, the negative effects of the insecticide DDT found national attention, thanks to the efforts of biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal book Silent Spring.

Today, Mearns and Reish see the focus of research shifting to other, often more complicated pollutants, such as nanomaterials, which can be any of a number of materials roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. On one hand, nanotechnology is helping scientists decipher the effects of some pollutants, while, on the other, nanomaterials, such as those found in cosmetics, show potentially serious effects on some marine life including mussels.

Another major trend has been the evolution of the ways scientists evaluate the effects of pollutants on marine life. Researchers in the United States and Western Europe used to study the toxicity of a pollutant by increasing the amount animals are exposed to until half the study animals died. In the 1990s, researchers began exploring pollutants’ finer physiological effects. How does exposure to X pollutant affect, for example, a fish’s ability to feed or reproduce?

Nowadays, the focus is even more refined, zeroing in on the molecular scale to discern how pollutants affect an animal’s genetic material, its DNA. How does the presence of oil change whether certain genes in a fish’s liver are turned on or off? What does that mean for the fish?

A Year of Pollution in Review

With three Office of Response and Restoration scientists working on this effort, it unsurprisingly features a lot on oil spills and marine debris, two areas of our expertise.

Of particular interest to Mearns and Rutherford, as oil spill biologists, are the studies of biodegradation of oil in the ocean, specifically, how microbes break down and eat components of oil, especially the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Scientists are examining collections of genes in such microbes and determining which ones produce enzymes that degrade PAHs.

“That field has really exploded,” says Mearns. “It’s just amazing what they’re finding once they use genomics and other tools to go into [undersea oil spill] plumes and see what these critters are doing and eating.”

Marine debris research in 2013 focused on the effects of eating, hitchhiking on, or becoming entangled in debris. Studies examined the resulting impacts on marine life, including sea birds, fish, crabs, turtles, marine mammals, shellfish, and even microbes. The types of debris that came up again and again were abandoned fishing gear and plastic fragments. In addition, quite a bit of research attempted to fill in gaps in understanding of how plastic debris might take up and then leach out potentially dangerous chemicals.

Attitude Adjustment

A group of men and women stand around Don Reish.

Reish often relied on his former graduate students, including NOAA’s Alan Mearns, to help review the many studies on marine pollution’s effects each year. Shown here in 2004, Reish (seventh from left) is surrounded by a few of his former students who gathered to honor him at the Southern California Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting. Mearns is fifth from left and another contributer, Phil Oshida of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stands between and behind Mearns and Reish. (Alan Mearns)

Perhaps the most significant change over the decades has been a change in attitudes. Reish recalled a presentation he gave at a scientific meeting in 1955. He was discussing his study of how marine worms known as polychaetes changed where they lived based on the effects of pollution in southern California. Afterward, he sat down next to a professor from another college, whose response to his presentation was, “Don, why don’t you go do something important?”

In 2014 attitudes generally skew to the other end of the spectrum when it comes to understanding human impacts on our world and how intertwined these impacts often are with human well-being.

And while there is a lot of bad news about these impacts, Mearns and Reish have seen some bright spots as well. Scientists are starting to observe slow declines in the presence of toxic chemicals, such as DDT from insecticides and PCBs from industrial manufacturing, which last a long time in the environment and build up in the bodies of living things, such as the fish humans like to catch and eat.

The end of the year is approaching and, reliably, Mearns and his colleagues are again preparing to scan hundreds of studies for their annual review of the scientific literature. Reflecting on this effort, Mearns points out another benefit of bringing together such a wide array of research disciplines. It encourages him to cross traditional boundaries of scientific study, enriching his work in the process.

“For me, it inspires out-of-the-box thinking,” says Mearns. “I’ll be looking at wastewater discharge impacts and I’ll spot something that I think is relevant to oil spill studies…We can find out things from these other fields and apply them to our own.”


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How Ghost Fishing Is Haunting Our Ocean

No, ghost fishing has nothing to do with ghostbusters flicking fishing rods from a boat.

But what is ghost fishing? It’s a not-at-all-supernatural phenomenon that occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear remains in the ocean and continues doing what it was made to do: catch fish. These nets and traps haunt the many types of marine life unlucky enough to become snared in them. That includes species of turtles, fish, sharks, lobsters, crabs, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Fortunately, the NOAA Marine Debris Program isn’t scared off by a few fishing nets that haven’t moved on from the underwater world. For example, through the Fishing for Energy partnership, NOAA is funding projects to study and test ways to keep fishers from losing their gear in the first place and lower the impacts lost gear has on marine life and their homes.

You can learn more about these four recent projects which are taking place from the South Carolina coast to Washington’s Puget Sound. A project at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at The College of William and Mary will pay commercial fishermen to test special biodegradable panels on crab pots. After a certain amount of time underwater, these panels will break down and begin allowing creatures to escape from the traps. If successful, this feature could help reduce the traps’ ghost fishing potential. The researchers also will be examining whether terrapin turtles, a declining species often accidentally drowned in crab pots, will bypass the traps based on the color of the entrance funnel.

Another, unrelated effort which NOAA and many others have been supporting for years is focused on fishing out the thousands of old salmon nets lost—sometimes decades ago—in Washington’s Puget Sound. These plastic mesh nets sometimes remain drifting in the water column, while other times settling on the seafloor, where they also degrade the bottom habitat.

According to Joan Drinkwin of the Northwest Straits Foundation, the organization leading the effort, “They become traps for fish, diving birds, and mammals. Small fish will dart in and out of the mesh and predators will go after those fish and become captured in the nets. And as those animals get captured in the nets, they become bait for more scavengers.”

You can watch a video about this ongoing project produced by NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant to learn more about both the problem and the solutions.

Scuba diver next to huge mass of fishing nets underwater.

This “super net” was first reported in September 2013 at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In 2014 scuba and free divers removed this mass of fishing gear that was more than 28 feet long, 7 feet wide, and had a dense curtain that extended 16 feet deep. (NOAA)

Thousands of miles away from the Pacific Northwest, ghost nets are also an issue for the otherwise vibrant coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Every year for nearly two decades, NOAA has been removing the lost fishing nets which pile up on the atolls and small islands. This year, divers cleared away 57 tons of old fishing nets and plastic debris. One particularly troubling “super net” found this year measured 28 feet by 7 feet and weighed 11.5 tons. It had crushed coral at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and was so massive that divers had to cut it into three sections to be towed individually back to the main NOAA ship. During this year’s mission, divers also managed to free three protected green sea turtles which were trapped in various nets.

But the origins of this huge and regular flow of old fishing nets to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands remain a mystery. The islands lay hundreds of miles from any city but also within an area where oceanic and atmospheric forces converge to accumulate marine debris from all over the Pacific Ocean.

“You’ll go out there to this remote place and pull tons of this stuff off a reef,” comments Jim Potemra, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, “that’s like going to Antarctica and finding two tons of soda cans.”

You can learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts related to ghost fishing and why certain types of marine life may be more likely to get tangled up in discarded nets and other ocean trash.


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Untangling Both a Whale and Why Marine Life Get Mixed up With Our Trash

Tail-view of humpback whale tangled in rope and nets underwater.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear swims near the ocean’s surface in 2005. (NOAA/Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:

“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.

Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”

Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:

Net Results

While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].

They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.

One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.

But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?

Location, Location, Location

The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.

For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.

Just Behave

Monk sleep sleeping on nets on beach.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal snuggles up on a pile of nets and other fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the population declined to one-third of its size due at least in part to entanglement in trawl nets and other debris that drift into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from other areas (e.g., Alaska, Russia, Japan) and accumulates along the beaches and in lagoon reefs of atolls. (NOAA)

While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.

Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.

Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.

While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:


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In Oregon, an Innovative Approach to Building Riverfront Property for Fish and Wildlife

This is a post by Robert Neely of NOAA’s Office of Response Restoration.

Something interesting is happening on the southern tip of Sauvie Island, located on Oregon’s Willamette River, a few miles downstream from the heart of Portland. Construction is once again underway along the river’s edge in an urban area where riverfront property typically is prized as a location for luxury housing, industrial activities, and maritime commerce. But this time, something is different.

This project will not produce a waterfront condominium complex, industrial facility, or marina. And as much as it may look like a typical construction project today, the results of all this activity will look quite different from much of what currently exists along the shores of the lower Willamette River from Portland to the Columbia River.

Indeed, when the dust settles, the site will be transformed into a home and resting place for non-human residents and visitors. Of course, I’m not referring to alien life forms, but rather to the fish, birds, mammals, and other organisms that have existed in and around the Willamette River since long before humans set up home and shop here. Yet in the last century, humans have substantially altered the river and surrounding lands, and high-quality habitat is now a scarce commodity for many stressed critters that require it for their survival.

On the site of a former lumber mill, the Alder Creek Restoration Project is the first habitat restoration project [PDF] that will be implemented specifically to benefit fish and wildlife affected by contamination in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The project, managed by a habitat development company called Wildlands, will provide habitat for salmon, lamprey, mink, bald eagle, osprey, and other native fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor.

Mink at a river's edge.

The Alder Creek Restoration Project will benefit Chinook salmon, mink, and other fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor. (Roy W. Lowe)

Habitat will be restored by removing buildings and fill from the floodplain, reshaping the riverbanks, and planting native trees and shrubs. The project will create shallow water habitat to provide resting and feeding areas for young salmon and lamprey and foraging for birds. In addition, the construction at Alder Creek will restore beaches and wetlands to provide access to water and food for mink and forests to provide shelter and nesting opportunities for native birds.

Driving this project is a Natural Resource Damage Assessment conducted by the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council to quantify natural resource losses resulting from industrial contamination of the river with the toxic compounds PCBs, the pesticide DDT, oil compounds known as PAHs, and other hazardous substances. The services, or benefits from nature, provided by the Alder Creek Restoration Project—such as healthy habitat, clean water, and cultural value—will help make up for the natural resources that were lost over time because of contamination.

Young Chinook salmon on river bottom.

Fish and wildlife species targeted for restoration include salmon (such as the juvenile Chinook salmon pictured here), lamprey, sturgeon, bald eagle, osprey, spotted sandpiper, and mink. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Wildlands purchased the land in order to create and implement an early restoration project. This “up-front” approach to restoration allows for earlier implementation of projects that provide restored habitat to injured species sooner, placing those species on a trajectory toward recovery. The service credits—ecological and otherwise—that will be generated by this new habitat will be available for purchase by parties that have liability for the environmental and cultural losses calculated in the damage assessment.

Thus when a party reaches an agreement with the Trustee Council regarding the amount of their liability, they can resolve it by purchasing restoration credits from Wildlands. And Wildlands, as the seller of restoration credits, recoups the financial investment it made to build the project. Finally, and most importantly, a substantial piece of land with tremendous potential value for the fish, birds, and other wildlife of the lower Willamette River has been locked in as high-quality habitat and thus protected from future development for other, less ecologically friendly purposes.

Robert NeelyRobert Neely is an environmental scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has experience in ocean and coastal management, brownfields revitalization, Ecological Risk Assessment, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. He started with NOAA in 1998 and has worked for the agency in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, DC; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s been working with his co-trustees at Portland Harbor since 2005.


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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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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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Celebrate and Protect the Ocean with us on World Ocean Day

Family exploring tidepools in Santa Cruz.

Learn about, explore, and protect your ocean — our ocean. (NOAA)

At NOAA’s National Ocean Service, we’re honoring all things ocean the entire month of June, but if you have only one day to spare, make it this weekend. Sunday, June 8 is World Ocean Day. As we commemorate this interconnected body of water which sustains our planet, consider how each of us can be involved in both celebrating and protecting the ocean.

To celebrate it, we suggest you learn something new about the ocean and share it with at least one friend (perhaps by sharing this blog post). Then, tell us which actions you’re taking to protect the ocean. We have a few examples to get you ready for both.

Learn to Love the Ocean

Did you know that …

You can learn even more about the ocean and coastal areas by visiting a National Marine Sanctuary or National Estuarine Research Reserve and getting a hands-on education.

Act to Protect the Ocean

Plastic water bottle floating in the ocean.

Don’t let this be your vision of World Ocean Day. Be part of the solution. (NOAA)

Now that you’re hopefully feeling inspired by our amazing ocean, you’re ready to do something to protect it from its many threats, such as ocean acidification (global warming’s oceanic counterpart), pollution, and habitat degradation. Here are some ways you can help:

The more we all know and care about the ocean, the more we will do to take care of it. Do your part this World Ocean Day and every day.

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