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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When Oil Spills, School Kids Take Note

The impacts of an oil spill can be varied: closed beaches, dead fish, oiled birds and wildlife—just to name a few. But the impacts can also be emotional, often drawing out of people feelings like anger, sadness, frustration, or an eagerness to help. Those of us at NOAA who work to minimize the impacts of oil spills on America’s water, coasts, plants, and animals are not immune to these impacts either. But we are glad to know that people care.

Here a few examples of letters written by school kids after they learned about oil spills in Alaska and California—and how these spills affected them.

On April 13, 1989, second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, Calif., let her feelings be known after hearing about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. She addressed her letter, illustrated with her beloved sea otters, to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Hat tip to the National Archive’s excellent Tumblr.)

In November of 2007, middle school students on a science camp field trip to a San Francisco beach were upset instead to find oil on the water, beach, and even the birds. Days earlier, the cargo ship Cosco Busan had crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into the marine waters nearby.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

While they were saddened by the events, the seventh grade students from Old Orchard Middle School in Campbell, Calif., decided to help by writing hand-written and illustrated thank you cards to the people cleaning up the oil spill. According to a press release about their efforts [PDF]:

“Everyone started pitching in and we came up with the idea to write cards,” said seventh grade student Erin.

“We felt helpless that we couldn’t go and help the animals or clean up the beach,” said Alex, another seventh grader from Old Orchard School. “We saw birds staggering and people trying to catch them.”

“These cards did a lot for the morale of our cleanup crew,” said Barry McFarland of the response company O’Brien’s Group, which worked to clean up the spill at Muir Beach and received the students’ cards. “Some of our crew were actually moved to tears.”

You can read more of the thank you notes from the concerned students [PDF].


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Transforming an Oregon Watershed, Once Marred by a Gasoline Spill, into Fish-Friendly Habitat

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

The Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon is a vast, solitary, and beautiful place. Stretching out from the southeastern flanks of Mt. Hood, the reservation is home to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon. The reservation is bisected by one of Oregon’s most scenic roads, Highway 26. Driving down this road on a hot and dry summer day, you’ll see the rich, dark forest transition to sagebrush steppe and high desert. You’ll see hazy mountains in the distance, with creeks meandering across the foreground. Today, you’d never know a tanker truck ran off this idyllic road in 1999, spilling more than 5,000 gallons of gasoline into Beaver Butte Creek, just above where it meets Beaver Creek.

The spill impacted Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and other fish and wildlife that lived in or downstream of Beaver Butte Creek. It killed the plants and contaminated the soil around the creek as well. Cleanup efforts began immediately. A trustee council was formed to assess the environmental damages and plan for restoration. The council included representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Using funds from the settlement with the company responsible for the spill, the Trustees have chosen a range of restoration projects to improve conditions for steelhead trout and Chinook salmon throughout the Beaver Creek watershed. The restoration plan focuses on steelhead in particular because they are an endangered species, already on the brink of extinction.

In addition to the gasoline spill, there are a variety of other factors that have degraded the once-abundant natural resources on the Warm Springs Reservation. Logging and human-caused changes to the natural regime of wildfires have transformed the forests. Roads and development have relocated, and in some cases, blocked streams. Wild horses and cattle have packed down the soils and reduced vegetative cover, increasing erosion along the stream banks.

The first restoration project to offset impacts from the gasoline spill took shape in 2011. Since then, four more projects have been built, ranging from riparian fencing to road removal. There are more to come. With a creative and thoughtful approach, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the other trustees are stretching the settlement dollars by leveraging them with other funding sources to provide the greatest benefit to injured fish and wildlife.  Here are some of the highlights:

Red Lake, Happy Valley, and Quartz Creek Riparian Fencing Projects

The problem: Wild horses and free-roaming cattle. These large animals eat plants along the creeks and stomp down the dirt on the stream banks and floodplains, increasing erosion and degrading water quality.

The solution: Fencing. So far we have installed four miles of fence along stream banks, protecting 150 acres of riparian (stream-side) habitat throughout the Beaver Creek Watershed while also helping ranchers manage their livestock. An added benefit of the fencing projects?  Providing employment to 15 tribal members. That’s what we call a win-win.

S512 Large Wood Project and S501 Road Removal Project

The problem: Simplified streams that don’t provide good habitat for fish. Logging, road building, and other types of development have removed trees from the areas near streams, where the trees normally would fall into the creeks and provide nooks and crannies for fish to hide in and eat bugs.

The solution: Adding large wood to the stream to give fish places to hide, rest, and eat. In some cases we have also decommissioned old, abandoned logging roads and planted them with native trees and shrubs so that, eventually, nature can take over the work.

Quartz Creek Stream Restoration

The problem: Streams that have eroded so badly they now have 20-foot-high banks that are completely disconnected from the floodplain. The eroding stream banks release small landslides of fine dirt into the stream, making the water cloudy and covering the gravel that salmon need to spawn.

The solution: Think like a beaver. This year the Tribe plans to install two beaver dam–mimicking structures on Quartz Creek to help dam up the water and catch eroding dirt as it is moving downstream. Hopefully, actual beavers eventually will move back into the creek and continue this work.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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NOAA Likes Rivers Too

A view of the Hudson River in the fall.

A view of the Hudson River in the fall. NOAA is involved with assessing the environmental impacts to the Hudson River due to industrial pollution from two General Electric plants. (Photo: Roy Saplin, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

June is National Rivers Month. You might think those of us at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are concerned only with water in the ocean or sky. But we’re actually big fans of rivers too. Many rivers flow out to the ocean, creating areas where fresh and saltwater mix called estuaries. These important and unique ecosystems are where many animal species, especially fish and birds, eat, nest, and breed.

NOAA also keeps an eye on rivers when they get polluted, either from oil spills or industrial pollution, and looks out in particular for the interests of aquatic species that spend time both in the ocean and rivers. Just take a look at a few examples of how NOAA protects and preserves America’s rivers:

You can hear more about the importance of rivers—and keeping them healthy—from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Margaret Byrne, an environmental health scientist involved in the Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment:

My work on the Hudson River has taught me about the incredibly diverse and important habitats found in this unique place. The Hudson River has been called “the river that flows in two directions” because the tides of the Atlantic Ocean push water back upstream twice a day. These tides help to create homes for many different kinds of plants and animals …

This month, I celebrate National Rivers Month with a solemn knowledge that the incredible ecological resources of the Hudson River have been extensively contaminated with chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

These toxic chemicals have been found in the water, fish and other wildlife, and sediment of the Hudson River below General Electric Company’s plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward in New York.

We know that PCBs can cause serious harm to wildlife and other natural resources and we are in the process of determining the scope of the injuries caused by this contamination. (Read my colleague’s blog post about studies on Hudson River mink and learn about the difference between the EPA’s Superfund cleanup and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.)

Read the rest of Byrne’s post over at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region blog, and let us know in the comments how you help keep rivers and their inhabitants safe and healthy.


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Wildlife Webcams Bring NOAA Restoration Projects Live to You

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

A photo of A-49, also known as "Princess Cruz," in her nest on Santa Cruz Island. She was the first Bald Eagle chick hatched naturally on California’s Santa Cruz Island in over 50 years. (Photo Credit: Peter Sharpe, Institute for Wildlife Studies)

A-49, also known as “Princess Cruz,” in her nest on Santa Cruz Island. She was the first Bald Eagle chick hatched naturally on California’s Santa Cruz Island in over 50 years. (Photo Credit: Peter Sharpe, Institute for Wildlife Studies)

We want you to take a bird’s eye view of restoration with our wildlife webcams.  In 2006, NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program, established to make up for a toxic DDT and PCB legacy in southern California, installed a live webcam with a close-up view of the first Bald Eagle nest to hatch a chick naturally on California’s Santa Cruz Island in over 50 years. Thousands watched as the eagle parents tended to their chick, affectionately named “Princess Cruz” by webcam watchers. Today, there are a total of five webcams on other nests around the California Channel Islands, highlighting the success of our Bald Eagle Restoration Program.

We also wanted to connect the public to the underwater world of wetlands with an underwater fish webcam. In 2010, our program installed a live webcam in Huntington Beach wetlands, where we completed one of our fish habitat restoration projects. This underwater camera demonstrates the importance of wetlands as a fish nursery and feeding area.

Watch Bald Eagles Live

A photo of a Bald Eagle adult and chicks in the Pelican Harbor nest on Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Kevin White, Full Frame Productions)

A Bald Eagle adult and chicks in the Pelican Harbor nest on Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Kevin White, Full Frame Productions)

What is cute and cuddly and has wings?  You guessed it … a Bald Eagle chick! What is even better is that you can watch these adorable birds on live webcams that are placed near Bald Eagle nests located on Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands in the California Channel Islands right now. Viewers can watch daily as both male and female adults attend to their chicks by feeding them and keeping them warm. One of the most popular nests to watch is the West End nest on Catalina Island that has triplets for the third year in a row.

For eagle enthusiasts, there is a Channel Islands Eaglecam discussion forum where you can post or read daily nest observations, chat with other enthusiasts, or read updates from the Bald Eagle restoration team. With over 1 million hits each year, the Bald Eagle webcams have captivated audiences all over the world from January to June as these regal birds raise their young.

Diving with the Fish

If you are more interested in what lurks beneath the ocean then you should check out the live fish webcam that is broadcast from Talbert Marsh in the Huntington Beach wetlands. Since the fish webcam has been live, we have observed over 20 species of fish, diving seabirds, an octopus, nudibranchs (colorful sea slugs), and numerous other cool invertebrates.  We have also seen fish spawning events, territorial displays of fish, and even sharks.

If you want to let us know what you have seen on our webcam, you can fill out our online fish webcam observation sheet. In case our solar-powered camera is down, you can check out this 10 minute clip recorded from the webcam for a snapshot of what you might normally see. The eelgrass swaying side to side is mesmerizing and you can always catch a glimpse of a fish when you log onto the fish webcam. Test your fish identification skills now!

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.


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Baby Mink Jeopardized by Toxic Chemicals in New York’s Hudson River

This is a guest post by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kathryn Jahn, case manager for the Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment. This originally appeared in full on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region blog.

Mink at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Mink at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. (Don Cooper)

In the early 1970s, toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were discovered in the water, fish, and sediment of the Hudson River below General Electric Company’s plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward in New York.

Those PCBs have contaminated the surface water, groundwater, sediments, and floodplains of the Hudson River. We find that living resources at every level of the Hudson River’s food chains are contaminated with PCBs. We believe that serious adverse effects are likely to be occurring to wildlife exposed to this PCB contamination in the Hudson River.

A whole team of people are using their individual and collective expertise to address the problem of PCB contamination in the Hudson River and its effect on wildlife. My favorite part of this job is the teamwork among all the people working on this issue, and the interactions with our experts and the public.

We know that PCBs can cause serious harm to wildlife and other natural resources. Although a cleanup funded by GE is underway for certain sections of the Hudson River, the dredging GE is doing will leave some areas still contaminated with PCBs.

The dredging also cannot compensate for past effects of this PCB contamination on the Hudson River’s natural resources. For example, dredging will not make up for all the years that public use of the Hudson River fishery has been impaired by fish consumption advisories. Dredging will not return that lost use to the public.

In our planning to determine the effects of PCBs on wildlife, we identified mink health as one area to investigate. Mink are vulnerable to the effects of PCBs. Hudson River mink eat PCB-contaminated fish and other small creatures, and they ingest contaminated water, soil, and sediments as they look for food and build their dens. This led us to suspect that Hudson River mink might be harmed by PCBs in their environment.

Read more to find out how PCB contamination might be affecting mink offspring.

[Editor's note: And learn about a past report from the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees, including NOAA, which found that PCBs permeate nearly every part of the Hudson River.]


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$2 Million in Aquatic Restoration Projects Proposed for Polluted Housatonic River in Connecticut

Housatonic River with covered bridge.

The latest round of aquatic restoration projects for the Housatonic River will also indirectly improve water quality, increase buffering during coastal storms, and reduce runoff pollution into the river. (NOAA)

NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Connecticut released a proposal to use approximately $2 million from a 1999 settlement with General Electric Company (GE) to fund projects to increase fish habitat and restore marshes on the Housatonic River. Between 1932 and 1977, GE discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemical wastes from its facility in Pittsfield, Mass, into the Housatonic River, which runs through western Massachusetts and Connecticut. As a result, the Housatonic’s fish, wildlife, and their habitats suffered from the effects of these highly toxic compounds.

Part of an amendment to the 2009 restoration plan [PDF] for the Housatonic site, these latest projects highlight aquatic restoration because the original plan primarily focused on recreational and riparian restoration, with more than half of those projects already complete. The amendment identifies seven preferred restoration projects and three non-preferred alternatives to increase restoration of injured aquatic natural resources and services. These projects aim to more fully compensate the public for the full suite of environmental injuries resulting from GE’s decades of PCB contamination by:

  • Enhancing wetland habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife.
  • Supporting native salt marsh restoration by eradicating nonnative reeds and removing large debris (e.g., plywood and lumber).
  • Restoring migratory fish and wildlife passages by removing dams and constructing bypass channels.
  • Promoting recreational fishing, other outdoor activities, and natural resource conservation.

The 1999 legal settlement with GE included $7.75 million for projects in Connecticut aimed at restoring, rehabilitating, or acquiring the equivalent of the natural resources and recreational uses of the Housatonic River injured by GE’s Pittsfield facility pollution. Settlement funds grew to more than $9 million in an interest-bearing fund. NOAA and its co-trustees are using the majority of the remaining $2,423,328 of those funds to implement these additional aquatic natural resources projects.

Public comments and additional project proposals for this draft amendment to the restoration plan will be accepted through March 11, 2013. Comments should be sent to Robin Adamcewicz, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Eastern District Headquarters, 209 Hebron Road, Marlborough, CT 06447, or emailed to robin.adamcewicz@ct.gov

Learn more about Restoring Natural Resources in Connecticut’s Housatonic River Watershed [PDF].


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Report Reveals Hudson River and Wildlife Have Suffered Decades of Extensive Chemical Contamination

Sign by Hudson River warning against eating contaminated fish.

According to the report, “Fish not only absorb PCBs directly from the river water but are also exposed through the ingestion of contaminated prey, such as insects, crayfish, and smaller fish…New York State’s ‘eat none’ advisory and the restriction on taking fish for this section of the Upper Hudson has been in place for 36 years.” (NOAA)

The Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees, including NOAA, released a report today outlining the magnitude of toxic chemical pollution in New York’s Hudson River. The report, “PCB Contamination of the Hudson River Ecosystem” [PDF], documents six years of data and analysis showing that the Hudson River, for more than 200 miles below Hudson Falls, N.Y., is extensively contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Starting in 1947 and for approximately 30 years, manufacturing plants operated by General Electric Company (GE) discharged PCBs into the upper Hudson River,  with additional releases of PCBs occurring as well.

According to the report, PCBs are a “group of highly toxic compounds that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, growth impairment, behavioral changes, hormonal imbalances, damage to the developing brain, and increased susceptibility to disease in animals.” Hazardous at even very low levels, they make their way up the food chain and become stored in the tissues of wildlife and fish, posing a health threat if people consume them.

Analysis of the river from 2002 to 2008 shows that PCBs permeate nearly every part of the river: surface waters, sediments, floodplain soils, fish, birds, wildlife, and other natural resources. The report further documents decades of high levels of PCBs and likely harmful effects on living organisms exposed to the contamination in the Hudson River. PCB levels in fish were often 10 or more times the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) standards for safe consumption (pp. 10) and in water samples tested “10 to 10,000 times higher than that deemed safe for aquatic life, fish-eating wildlife and human consumers of fish” (pp. 5).

As a result of this pollution, the public has lost the use of these natural resources, for example, due to restrictions and advisories for catching and eating fish and navigational losses due to contamination of the Champlain Canal.

A Hudson River PCB Forum is being held on January 16, 2013 at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The intent of the forum is to provide mid-Hudson communities with an update on the PCB dredging project and restoration planning by the Natural Resource Trustees.


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Looking out for Sea Lions and Salmon Before a Grounded Rig Could Spill a Drop of Oil

This is a post by OR&R’s Alaska Regional Coordinator Dr. Sarah Allan.

conical drilling unit Kulluk sat aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island

Here you can see the rocky coast and habitats near where the conical drilling unit Kulluk sat aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island about 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, in 40 mph winds and 20-foot seas on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Fortunately, when Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore drilling platform, the Kulluk, ran aground on a remote Alaskan island on New Year’s Eve, it did not lead to an oil spill. However, the rig held 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and throughout the response, the potential for a spill remained a concern.

This was especially true because the Kulluk was located in an area with many sensitive natural resources, including harbor seals, marine birds, critical habitat for Steller sea lions, and salmon streams. On top of that, pacific cod and tanner crab harvests take place in that part of Sitkalidak Island, south of Kodiak. Subsistence foragers from the Old Harbor Native village harvest razor clams from a bed near the grounding site.

In light of the potential for an oil spill, restoration specialists from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, collaborating with federal and state natural resource trustees, began planning an assessment of the possible harm to natural resources. What if the oil did spill and impact those natural resources? How would we determine what was injured and how badly?

Spill Today, Gone Tomorrow

One of the first steps in this planning effort was to consider where the diesel might go if it spilled and what natural resources it might impact. Spill responders—those considering oil cleanup options—often see diesel spills as less of a concern than spills that involve thicker, heavier oils. This is due to the way that diesel acts when it is spilled on the ocean surface; most of it evaporates into the air and disperses into the water in a few hours, especially in high winds and waves. In this case, NOAA scientists estimated that almost all of the Kulluk’s diesel would evaporate or disperse in 4–5 hours if it spilled. This means there would be very little oil for cleanup workers to try to recover from the water’s surface.

The Kulluk was grounded near shore and, in the event of a spill, the wind and waves would have pushed the diesel towards the shoreline. In this scenario, diesel could have impacted nearby ocean areas, beaches, rocky shorelines, and stream outlets. The Unified Command took precautionary measures during the grounding and removal of the Kulluk, which included placing containment boom across the mouths of streams in the area to keep out any potentially spilled diesel.

A Toxic Shock

A life raft belonging to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, sits on the beach adjacent to the rig.

A life raft belonging to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, sits on the beach adjacent to the rig 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Though diesel may not remain for very long in the environment, it is very toxic to many aquatic species. A diesel fuel spill would have had an immediate and negative effect on the environment. In high seas, like those around the grounded Kulluk, as much as 90 percent of the diesel would disperse into the water. The dispersed diesel could affect marine organisms that live in the water column, on the ocean bottom, or along the shoreline.

Past spills of comparable fuels in similar marine environments have killed large numbers of organisms living in the water column or on the ocean bottom in the area where the oil was released: the barge North Cape grounded and spilled oil off Rhode Island during bad weather in 1996, and the ship Tampico Maru grounded and spilled diesel on a remote, rough shoreline in Northern Baja California in 1957.

Diesel is acutely toxic to many zooplankton, bivalve, and crustacean species as well as unhatched and young salmon. Organisms can become “tainted” when they are either exposed to diesel at levels that don’t kill them (sublethal) or when they eat other organisms exposed to those levels. In that case, responders would test seafood for safety, and those of us evaluating environmental damages would assess marine organisms’ exposure levels with additional testing. Even these sublethal exposures can cause toxic effects that need to be considered in a damage assessment.

While initially preparing for a potential damage assessment, we focused on planning for water, sediment, and bivalve (razor clams and blue mussels) sampling as well as on planning shoreline assessments for evidence of injured or dead animals. If we could do this sampling before and/or immediately after a spill, we would have a more accurate assessment of damages to natural resources. Assessing exposure and injury to natural resources is time sensitive, especially in the case of a short-lived contaminant like diesel.

Weather Or Not

However, the far-flung location of the grounding site, as well as the harsh weather conditions, would make sampling in the area challenging. Our planning had to address those logistical challenges. That meant having resources and personnel standing by 40 miles away in Kodiak City, Alaska; arranging for transportation to the site of the rig; securing permission to access the area, and procuring the resources we needed to sample. Given the conditions, accessing the site would have required a helicopter or boat trip to the island and overland transit through grizzly bear habitat, across rough terrain, and private property.

Again, we’re happy that the diesel aboard the Kulluk stayed in its tanks while the rig was grounded and moved off of Sitkalidak Island. But new opportunities for oil drilling, commerce, and tourism in the Arctic are expected to bring more marine traffic through these areas. That creates more opportunities for accidents. It is important for us to be prepared to undertake a natural resource damage assessment in the event of an oil spill. Understanding what is at risk, what to expect from the particular oil spilled, and how it all fits in a specific environment is the first step.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan has been working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division and as the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the Assessment and Restoration Division, based in Anchorage, Alaska, since February, 2012. Her work focuses on planning for natural resource damage assessment and restoration in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.


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A Trip to the Arctic, Where Shrinking Ice Is Creating Bigger Concerns

Barrow, Alaska, monument made of whale bones dedicated to lost sailors

In Barrow, Alaska, stands a monument constructed of bowhead whale bones and dedicated to lost sailors. (NOAA).

It was my first trip to Barrow, Alaska, and I was excited at the possibility of seeing a polar bear for the first time outside of a zoo. Unfortunately I did not get a glimpse of a bear, but as I am telling my friends back in Seattle, perhaps a bear saw me.

In early November, I returned to the Arctic, this time to the northern hub of Barrow (get out your map of Alaska and go straight to the top). Although this was a new destination for me, I came to Barrow with the same intentions when first visiting the Arctic in the city of Kotzebue, Alaska, this spring: to discuss oil spill response and restoration issues with the residents of the North Slope Borough.

As a result of climate change, the Arctic environment is changing rapidly, and the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean opens new doors for human activity in the region by creating new paths to places previously inaccessible. The all-but-certain increases in ship traffic and offshore oil and gas exploration are setting up a situation where the likelihood of oil spills increases drastically. It was under these circumstances that I found myself sitting in the locally famous Pepe’s North of the Border Mexican restaurant in Barrow on a night in November. I was chatting with my fellow NOAA colleagues and University of New Hampshire Coastal Response Research Center staff about the workshop starting the next morning.

The goals of this two-day workshop revolved around community involvement in responding to oil spills and in assessing and restoring resulting damages to natural resources. The workshop also included discussions about how to integrate local community and traditional knowledge into our new Arctic planning and response tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (Arctic ERMA®). Most importantly, the workshop was an opportunity to enhance relationships between local communities and government agencies.

Directional sign in Barrow, Alaska.

A sign in town points out the remoteness of Barrow, Alaska, from the rest of the world. (NOAA)

During the course of the meeting, community members from Barrow expressed their concerns about oil spill response capabilities and how a spill would affect their subsistence lifestyle.  As this was only the second time my feet had ever walked above the Arctic Circle, I was humbled to hear whaling captains and other residents speak about the remarkably unique natural resources of the Arctic.

During meeting breaks I spoke with several residents who commented on a video playing in the lobby of the meeting center. The video showed numerous local walrus and whale hunts. The residents pointed out features of the ice and how they always had to be prepared at a moment’s notice to deal with the changing ice conditions.

How can we restore environments injured by spilled oil in an amazing setting like this—vast, remote, and mostly undeveloped? While there are no easy answers, we must work together now so we are better prepared if an oil spill occurs and we need to restore the environment.

For NOAA and other government personnel to figure out how much an oil spill has hurt Arctic marine environments and then fix them, we will require the help of local residents who hold generations of knowledge about the landscape. Workshops like these can be an introduction to each other, but we really look forward to sustaining these relationships.

Want to hear more about the challenge of Arctic oil spill response and restoration from the perspectives of Arctic residents? Recently a workshop report from our spring meeting in Kotzebue [PDF] has been released. Staff from our office also just returned from Kotzebue where they attended a meeting about a great new project to map subsistence use of natural resources (e.g., hunting, fishing, etc.) in the Northwest Arctic Borough.

UPDATED 3/29/2013: The workshop report and presentations from the Barrow workshop are now available.


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Submit Your Comments: Projects to Improve Bird and Sea Turtle Nesting Habitats Injured in Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill

A hatchling loggerhead sea turtle takes to the beach.

A hatchling loggerhead sea turtle takes to the beach on Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. One proposed project focuses on reducing artificial lighting impacts on nesting habitat for these sea turtles. (Paul Tritak/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The public has until December 10, 2012, to submit comments on $9 million in early restoration projects [PDF] related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

This draft early restoration plan includes two projects aimed at restoring injuries to bird and sea turtle nesting habitats around the Gulf of Mexico. In the wake of the 2010 well blowout, the pollution response operations disturbed these sensitive habitats.

The natural resource trustees, including NOAA, hope to have the habitat improvements in place for the spring 2013 nesting season.

Part of BP’s $1 billion funding for early restoration in the Gulf, this second round of projects includes the following proposals:

  • A comprehensive program for enhanced management of avian (bird) breeding habitat injuries by response in the Florida panhandle, Alabama and Mississippi. This project proposes to protect nesting habitat for beach-nesting birds from disturbance in order to restore habitat impaired by disturbance from oil spill response activities. It is to be conducted on sandy beaches in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties, Florida; Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Baldwin and Mobile counties, Alabama, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GUIS) – Mississippi District.
  • Improving habitat injured by spill response: Restoring the night sky. This project proposes to reduce artificial lighting impacts on nesting habitat for sea turtles, specifically loggerhead turtles, to restore habitat impaired by disturbance from oil spill response activities. It is to be conducted on sandy beach public properties in Baldwin County, Alabama; and Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties, Florida.

You can submit your comments on these projects in the following ways:

The trustees considered projects based on criteria laid out in federal and state regulations and in the agreement with BP. This is the second in a series of draft early restoration plans developed outlining projects agreed to by the trustees and BP and presented for public input. These draft plans will be finalized to ultimately form a Final Early Restoration Plan.

To access both Phase I and II  Draft Early Restoration Plans and Environmental Reviews, as well as additional details on the proposed projects, please visit NOAA’s Gulf Spill Restoration website.

The long-term damage assessment will continue while early restoration planning is under way. BP and the other responsible parties ultimately will be obligated to compensate the public for the entire injury and all costs of the natural resource damage assessment.

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