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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Restoring Marsh Habitat by Sharing Assessment Techniques

Group of four people stand in a marsh.

Training participants examine a one meter square quadrant transect (rod at bottom) to illustrate how new metrics could be applied for a northeast assessment. (NOAA)

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to environmental assessments for oil spills or hazardous waste events. We must therefore custom-tailor our technical approach for each pollution incident.

We first determine whether impacts to natural resources have occurred and whether it is appropriate to proceed with a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). We collect time-sensitive data, evaluate available research and information about the type of injury, and determine what species and habitats are likely to have been affected. If we determine that habitats, wildlife or human uses have been harmed or could experience significant impacts, we often proceed with a full damage assessment.

This type of scientific assessment is particularly challenging in a marsh environment given potential injury due to both oil persistence and toxicity. For example, a home heating oil released by the North Cape barge in 1996 caused acute injury to lobsters, clams, fish, crabs, and mussels in, and adjacent to, the marshes of southern Rhode Island. The light oil was highly toxic, but quickly dissipated, thereby causing a lot of immediate injury, but less long-term problems. By contrast, a more chronic impact was the result of persistent fuel oil released by the Barge Bouchard 120 in the salt marshes of Massachusetts in 2003. That oil saturated 100 miles of shoreline, impacting tidal marshes, mudflats, beaches, and rocky shorelines. These evolving factors are why we constantly share best practices and lessons learned among our colleagues in the northeast and nationwide.

Members of the Northeast and Spatial Data Branch of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and NOAA’s Restoration Center recently met at Spermaceti Cove, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to participate in a hands-on workshop to improve our salt marsh damage assessment techniques and data compilation.

They were building on previous findings presented at a 2015 salt marsh assessment workshop in Massachusetts, that information learned there should be shared in other locales. Of note were the variety of vegetation and native invertebrates around the coastal United States that necessitate region-specific marsh field training.

Two people standing in shallow water holding a seining net.

Scientists seining salt marsh tidal channel collecting native small fish for injury determination. (NOAA)

To address the study of natural resource damages in a mid-north Atlantic salt marsh environ, this 2016 effort included the count of flora and fauna species within a 2 meter square quadrant along a designated transect (see photo) to provide a measure of diversity and species richness.  Also they used a seine, a lift net, and minnow traps to collect fish adjacent to the marsh for species identification and to measure body size and observe possible abnormalities, both external and internal.

Additionally, NOAA scientists discussed and demonstrated current best practices to perform our work regarding health and safety, sample custody, and data management.

In an actual future marsh injury assessment, the Trustees would develop a conceptual site model for guidance in testing the hypotheses, the specific study design, and the proper site and habitat injury measures.

Ken Finkelstein and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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What Scientists Learned About Cleaning up Oil Spills by Covering a Delaware Beach with Oil — on Purpose

Barrels and workers on a beach.

Delivery of barrels containing Bonny light Nigerian crude oil. Oil was weathered in a separate pool. (NOAA)

Most people don’t want to spill oil onto beaches. But after the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill covered the remote, rocky beaches of Alaska’s Prince William Sound with crude oil, Al Venosa was itching to do exactly that.

As an environmental scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Venosa had been called up to Alaska to help study the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its cleanup. In particular, he was interested in an oil spill cleanup technique that was getting a lot of attention at the time—an approach known as “bioremediation.” It involved adding oil-eating microbes and extra nutrients to an oiled beach to accelerate the natural background process of microbes breaking down, or biodegrading, oil.

But Venosa wasn’t satisfied with the research attempts that came out of that spill. He wanted to set up a more scientifically rigorous and controlled study of how effective bioremediation was under realistic conditions in the marine environment. However, in the United States, getting permission to spill oil into the environment on purpose is a very difficult, and nearly impossible, thing to do.

Coming Together

Meanwhile, Ben Anderson, an oil spill biologist with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, had also been working on the cleanup after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Just a couple months after that iconic spill and shortly after he returned home from Alaska, he had to deal with a spill of hundreds of thousands of gallons of bunker oil when the T/V Presidente Rivera ran aground in the Delaware River. He remembered 1989 as a tough year for oil spills. Anderson began wondering how to improve the efficiency of oil spill cleanup and better protect Delaware’s abundant natural resources.

A few years later, in 1993, Anderson was listening to Ken Lee from Fisheries and Oceans Canada as he presented on bioremediation at the International Oil Spill Conference. At the end of his presentation, Lee mentioned how important—and difficult—it was to do controlled field studies on bioremediation. The comment got Anderson thinking; maybe he could help make this happen in Delaware.

“Anything we can do to improve the aftermath of an oil spill in Delaware,” recalled Anderson.

After the presentation, he approached Lee, who introduced him to Al Venosa. The pair decided to work together to bring Venosa’s meticulous research approach to a study of oil bioremediation on Delaware’s beaches.

“From that time to next summer, I worked on getting a permit with EPA and with the state,” said Anderson. He and his collaborators also reached out to local environmental groups in Delaware and to NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies to build support for the research project, building in as many safeguards as possible to limit any potential environmental impacts.

One issue the research team would have to work around was the fact that each May, Delaware’s sandy shores are crawling with horseshoe crabs, a prehistoric marine creature with armor and a long, pointy tail, which comes ashore to lay its eggs. More than 20 species of birds, as they migrate north to nest in the Arctic each summer, stop along these shores to nourish themselves with a feast of horseshoe crab eggs. To avoid interfering with this ecological phenomenon, Anderson and Venosa would have to start the experiment after horseshoe crab spawning season had passed.

Oil Ashore

With just a few days left before the experiment was to begin on July 1, 1994 and with Venosa and his colleagues at EPA and the University of Cincinnati already on the road from Ohio to Delaware, Anderson finally secured the needed permit.

Permissions in hand, the researchers set up the experiment very carefully. Unlike previous studies, they focused intensely on replication and randomization. They cordoned off five separate blocks of sandy beach on Delaware Bay, so that each block was parallel to the ocean yet would still be within reach of the tides.

Oiled test plots on a beach.

View up beach of the 20 oiled plots. (NOAA)

Within each block, they randomly assigned three oil treatment plots and one control plot, which was sprayed with only seawater. Plots undergoing the three oil treatments, after having weathered crude oil applied at the very beginning, were sprayed daily at low tide with seawater and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), nutrients and oil-eating microbes, or nothing extra (essentially, only oil had been applied). This meant that each treatment and control was replicated five times, reducing the chance that human error or natural variation would skew the results.

“We grew up our microorganisms on the beach in 55 gallon drums using the same seawater, nutrients, and microorganism [species],” recounted Venosa, who served as the lead researcher for the study. “We added them back onto these plots every week, continuously growing and adding them. These [microbes] were adapted to the oil we used and to the climatic conditions at the site.”

As a precaution, the research team strung oil containment boom along the waters surrounding the experimental plots to catch any oil runoff. In addition, they lined up cages of filter-feeding oysters in the surf off of each study block, as well as farther up and down the shoreline, to act as natural oil monitors. NOAA ecologist Alan Mearns helped facilitate this monitoring and multiple toxicity studies to determine the potential toxicity of the various treatments over time.

Bioremediation for the Birds?

Fourteen weeks later, what did they find? According to one of the study write-ups published at the 1997 International Oil Spill Conference, the researchers found that:

“oil was lost naturally because of both physical and chemical processes and biodegradation, that degradation of oil alkanes and PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] in upper intertidal sandy sediments could be enhanced with the continuous addition of dissolved nutrients, that treatment with oil-degrading bacteria provided no additional benefit, and that treatment neither enhanced nor reduced the toxicity of the oil.”

While the team did detect a boost in how quickly oil broke down in plots sprayed with nutrients (which fed naturally occurring microbes), it was a pretty minor benefit in the big picture of oil spill cleanup. And adding more microbes didn’t increase the rate of oil breakdown at all.

Delaware Bay’s waters are already rich with nutrients—and oil-eating microbes. “It was probably a lot of runoff from fertilizer from agriculture and wastewater treatment plants,” speculated Venosa. “We had a two to three times increase in the rate of biodegradation.”

However, for an area like Delaware Bay with high background levels of nutrients, Venosa wouldn’t recommend going to the trouble and cost of using bioremediation techniques, unless a spill happened right before something like the annual horseshoe crab spawning and bird migration.

“What we found was you don’t have to do any more nutrient addition,” said Anderson. “Just keep adding ambient water and keep it aerated to get the [biodegradation] benefit. Let nature take its course, but give it a little hand by keeping it wet on the beach face.”

Scientific Success

Overall, the research team considered the experiment a success. They finally had hard data, meticulously gathered, that showed bioremediation to be a “polishing technique,” to be potentially used in oil spills when the local conditions were right and only after other, quicker-acting cleanup methods had been applied first. If an area showed high local levels of nutrients and oil-degrading microbes, bioremediation likely wouldn’t be very effective.

“I was expecting more of a quantifiable effect in biodegradation, but I didn’t realize the nutrients were going to be relatively high in the background,” reflected Venosa. “I was expecting to see somewhat similar increases in the field as in the lab. In the laboratory, it’s different because your controls don’t have any nutrients, so whenever you add nutrients that are in excess of what they need to grow, you’ll see huge increases.”

As a result of this and subsequent studies in Canada, the EPA released guidance documents on implementing bioremediation methods in different environments, such as marine shorelines, freshwater wetlands, [PDF] and salt marshes.

These days, however, bioremediation is starting to mean more than just adding microbes or nutrients, and now includes a range of other products meant to stimulate oil-degrading activity. How well do they work? More research is needed. But not since 1994 on the shores of Delaware Bay has the United States seen another field experiment that has intentionally released oil into the environment to find out. That summer was a unique opportunity for oil spill scientists to learn, as rigorously and realistically as possible, how well a certain cleanup method could work on an oil spill.

For more information read:

Field-Testing Bioremediation Treating Agents: Lessons from an Experimental Shoreline Oil Spill (1997, Alan Mearns et al)

Bioremediation Study of Spilled Crude Oil on Fowler Beach, Delaware

 

This post was written by Dr. Alan Mearns.


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Bay Long Oil Spill in Louisiana

Woman looking out at water with boom floating in it.

Overseeing cleanup operations on Chenier Ronquille Island. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On September 5, 2016, a marsh excavator operated by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company tracked over pipeline while performing restoration activities in Bay Long, a sub-estuary of Barataria Bay, discharging approximately 5,300 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline was shut in and is no longer leaking. The incident occurred at an active restoration site for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The cause of the incident is still under investigation.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been providing scientific support including trajectories and fate of oil, resources at risk, information on tides and currents, and technical guidance towards the response. Other roles provided by NOAA are guidance on Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT), a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill, as well as data management and updates through Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®). OR&R’s Emergency Response Division has a team of six on site.

For more information, read the September 11, 2016 news release from the U.S. Coast Guard.


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Tips for Preventing Small-Vessel Oil Spills

Oily sheen on water in a marsh.

Oily sheen in a marsh. (NOAA)

Though each one is small in volume, oil spills from small vessels add up. In Washington State, when you multiply this volume by the thousands of fishing and recreational boats on the water, they compose the largest source of oil pollution in Puget Sound. How do small oil spills happen? The two most common causes are spillage during refueling and bilge discharge, when oil accumulates along with water in the bottommost compartment of a boat and then gets pumped out..

I sat down with Aaron Barnett, Washington Sea Grant’s Boating Specialist and the coordinator of Washington’s Small Oil Spills Prevention Program, to find out what boaters can do to prevent small spills. He offered this handy checklist of measures for keeping your vessel in ship-shape and stopping spills before they become a problem.

Small Spills Prevention Checklist

Vessel maintenance

  • Tighten bolts on your engine to prevent oil leaks. Bolts can shake loose with engine use.
  • Replace cracked or worn hydraulic lines and fittings before they fail. Lines can wear out from sun and heat exposure or abrasion.
  • Outfit your engine with an oil tray or drip pan. You don’t need anything fancy or expensive; a cookie sheet or paint tray will do the trick.
  • Create your own bilge sock out of oil absorbent pads to prevent oily water discharge. Here’s a helpful how-to guide from Cap’n Mike (Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough).

At the pump

  • Avoid overflows while refueling by knowing the capacity of your tank and leaving some room for fuel expansion.
  • Shut off your bilge pump while refueling – don’t forget to turn it back on when done.
  • Use an absorbent pad or a fuel collar to catch drips. Always keep a stash handy.

If spills do happen, it’s important that boaters manage them effectively. Spills should immediately be contained and cleaned up with absorbent pads or boomed to prevent their spread. Notify the Coast Guard and your state spill response office, per federal law, and let the marina or fuel dock staff know about the incident, so they can assist.

Man with spill prevention kit.

Seattle recreational boater Greg Mueller placing an absorbent oil spill prevention kit pillow in the engine bilge. (Lauren Drakopulos, Washington Sea Grant)

Lauren Drakopulos is a Science Communications Fellow with Washington Sea Grant and is pursuing her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Washington. Lauren has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and her current research looks at community engagement in fisheries science. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit www.wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This story was written by Lauren Drakopulos of Washington Sea Grant.


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Collecting Data from the Sky for Oil Spill Response

Heavy, thick oil floating on water.

Heavy, thick oil emulsions created in the Ohmsett tank. (NOAA)

What does the oil on the surface of the water look like from the sky? The appearance of oil after an oil spill provides responders with valuable information that helps them determine the severity of a spill and to plan for the most effective response. NOAA scientists use satellites, airplanes, helicopters, and drones to examine oil on the ocean’s surface.

In June of this year, NOAA and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) entered into an agreement to study how remote sensing could be used to look at oil on the surface of the water and develop two related studies to test the use of remote sensing for this work. The first study is a controlled experiment in what is essentially a large, very special swimming pool. BSEE operates a test facility in New Jersey, the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility, or Ohmsett. Ohmsett is an above-ground concrete test tank, one of the largest of its kind, measuring 203 meters long by 20 meters wide by 3.4 meters deep. The tank is filled with 2.6 million gallons of crystal clear saltwater. Ohmsett is located on the New Jersey coast, about an hour south of New York City.

Very long pool of water.

Ohmsett test tank, Leonardo, New Jersey. (BSEE)

Our experiments were designed to look at oil that had been left out in the open (weathered) but also oil battered by waves. Fresh oil is not stable and doesn’t last long in the ocean. With exposure to waves and weather, oil changes. As the oil mixes with water it can form emulsions. An emulsion is not unlike what you get by shaking oil and vinegar together to make salad dressing. After an oil spill at sea, the oil and water emulsions can continue to form and thicken over time. It is important for responders to know characteristics such as thickness of these oils and emulsions to plan their response. Thin oil and sheen can be difficult to clean up, but still cause harm to natural resources. Responders have more options when it comes to thicker oils, as they can be mechanically skimmed, for example.  Our work at Ohmsett helps us to better understand how to characterize extent and relative thickness of oil on the surface ranging from sheens and thin oil to these thicker oils and emulsions.

To begin this experiment we first released 400 gallons of oil into the Ohmsett test tank on Thursday, July 14, 2016.

Oil flowing into pool.

Oil being released into the Ohmsett test tank. (BSEE)

We let the oil sit on the water and weather, the way the oil would naturally age if it was released into the environment. After five days we turned on the wave machine. Ohmsett is equipped with a sophisticated wave-making machine and water cannons that allow researchers to apply the real-world conditions of waves and currents to represent what we would face in the field.

Over the next week, the team collected water and oil samples as well as oil thickness measurements taken within 30 minutes of satellite overpasses.

Hand holding a plexiglas plate with oil on it.

Oil thickness measurement using a Plexiglas “dip plate”. (NOAA)

In addition to these on-water collections, helicopters, airplanes, and drones collected a variety of remote sensing data of the same oil slick.

Drone flying over pool.

Octocopter drone flying over the Ohmsett tank with oil. (NOAA)

All of the image data as well as the oil and water chemistry data collected will be examined together to identify how we can use these tools to support our existing response and assessment programs. The chemistry data will tell us what the satellites and other sensors can “see”. When we can measure and know how thick oil is being “seen,” then we can use the sensors to “look” for oil and help us figure out how to best clean it up as well as to help us predict where the oil is going to go.

We can see and measure these thin oils and emulsions with remote sensing. We know these techniques work but we are trying to determine the most effective way to use them. Using remote sensing can potentially save response time and keep spill responders out of harm’s way.

Over the next several weeks, the project team will be reporting on our findings from the first study and preparing to conduct a similar effort in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which represents the goal of the second study. Projects like this provide federal oil spill responders with an understanding of how to use these tools and technologies and in turn, to solve the real problems of rapid response and comprehensive assessment of damages caused by oil spills.





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Mallows Bay by Kayak: A Tour of Maryland’s First National Marine Sanctuary and the First in Chesapeake Bay

Parts of wooden ships visible above the water line.

Mallows Bay fleet visible on the water in Mallows Bay. (NOAA)

On the Maryland side of the Potomac River, just east of Washington D.C. and west of Chesapeake Bay, the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere sits partially sunken and decomposing. Following World War I, hundreds of U.S. vessels were sent to Mallows Bay to be scrapped—and to this day, the remains of dozens can still be seen in the shallow waters.

The story of the ships at Mallows Bay begins when the U.S. entered World War I. In April 1917, the country had an adequate number of warships but a shortage of transport vessels, which led President Woodrow Wilson to approve the greatest shipbuilding program in history, with an order for a thousand 300-foot wooden steamships to be built in only 18 months!

Germany would surrender on November 11, 1918.  At this time, the government had already approved funding and paid for 731 of these wooden transport vessels. Despite the war being over, the ship building continued. By September 1919, contractors had delivered 264 steamships to the government but only 195 had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. By this time, the war had ended and the U. S. had no use for the ships.

Four old vessels in water listing.

Wooden ships owned by Western Marine & Salvage tied together in 1925, likely on the Potomac or at Mallows Bay. (Library of Congress: National Photo Company Collection)

In September of 1922, 233 vessels (representing the bulk of the fleet) were sold for $750,000 to the Western Marine and Salvage Company. This was a remarkable price, considering the cost of constructing just one ship had been $1,000,000. The company towed the fleet to an authorized mooring area near Widewater, Virginia to recover the scrap metal.

Poster showing an eagle, ships, and "send the eagle's answer--more ships."

U.S. government poster from World War I time period.

As described by John H. Lienhard in The Wooden Ships of Mallows Bay (University of Houston, College of Engineering):  “By late 1919, 264 wooden steamers were in operation. Most had crossed the Atlantic, but they were slow and leaky. They’d been made obsolete by the new Diesel engines. The idea was to strip them of hardware, burn them down to the waterline, haul them off to a nearby marsh, then burn what was left. Once more it all went wrong—civic protests, problems with blocked shipping lanes, and finally the Great Depression.”

As World War II approached, the threat of war saw the price for scrap metal skyrocket. The U.S. government allocated $200,000 to Bethlehem Steel in the early 1940s to recover over 20,000 tons of iron thought to still be in the wrecks of Mallows Bay. The effort turned out to be cost ineffective. By 1943, Bethlehem Steel terminated the program with little iron recovered and over 100 ship hulks languishing in the bay. So there the vessels sat, rotting away for decades.

In March of 1993, the State of Maryland awarded a grant to a group of researchers to study the effects of these derelict vessels on the environment, and to inventory what vessels remained for historical and archaeological purposes. Over the next two years, the researchers identified 88 wooden ships left over from the original program. Researchers also discovered that the bay was used by Western Marine for more than just these wooden steamships; twelve barges were discovered, as well as a Revolutionary War-era longboat, several 18th century schooners, miscellaneous workboats, and even automobile ferries like the S.S. Accomac. The researchers also discovered that the vessels had created a unique ecosystem in the Bay that supported numerous fish and birds species.

In 2014, Mallows Bay, including the derelict vessels, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Mallows Bay-Widewater Historical and Archaeological District. A community partnership committee was formed to draft the national marine sanctuary nomination when the nomination process was revitalized. The Mallows Bay nomination included support from nearly 150 organizations, agencies, and private citizens. The nomination to have the bay designated as the first National Marine Sanctuary in 20 years was announced by President Obama in 2015.

On July 19, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector Maryland North Capitol Region hosted a kayak tour of Mallows Bay in anticipation of its Sanctuary designation. Dr. Susan Langley, the State of Maryland’s Historical Preservation Officer, led the tour. Prior to the start of the tour, Dr. Langley provided an overview of the history of Mallows Bay and explained its unique features and ecological importance.

The primary purpose of the event was to give the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA staff an opportunity to see firsthand how sensitive the environment is, and the risk a potential oil spill could pose to the site. For example, how and where would booms be deployed, where is there access to this site, where could a staging area be established, what would the response priorities be, and how could wildlife be protected?

Brendan Bray and Sammy (Paul) Orlando of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Frank Csulak from the Office of Response and Restoration accompanied the Coast Guard and Dr. Langley on the tour. According to Csulak, “Being able to see these derelict vessels up close and actually touch them was impressive. In addition to the vessels, we enjoyed viewing the large diversity of wildlife, including adult and juvenile American Bald Eagles, herons, egrets, hawks, osprey, turtles, snakes, fish, crabs and submerged aquatic vegetation. Who would have thought such a unique ecological area was just a few river miles downstream of the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.? Hopefully, there will never be an oil spill that would impact Mallows Bay, but as a result of our tour, the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA are better prepared to respond to such an event.”

ruins of aship above the surface of the water with a kayak passing by.

NOAA’s Frank Csulak and LT David Ruhlig from USCG Sector Maryland North Capitol Region (NCR) kayak near one of the Mallows Bay vessels. (NOAA)

Frank Csulak is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration. Based in New Jersey, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the Mid-Atlantic region, covering New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

 


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Abandoned Vessels of Florida’s Forgotten Coast

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis of the Office of Response and Restoration.

Derelict vessel with osprey nest on top of broken mast.

Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a pair of osprey had built a nest on an abandoned vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard called in NOAA for assistance as they were trying to remove fuel from that boat with minimal impact to wildlife. (NOAA)

There is a stretch of the Florida Panhandle east of the more heavily developed beach destinations of Destin and Panama City that some refer to as the “Forgotten Coast.” This area has vast tracts of pine forest including large stands of longleaf pine and savanna, towering dunes and nearly undeveloped barrier islands, seemingly endless coastal marsh, and miles and miles of winding shoreline along its expansive bays and coastal rivers.

It is no coincidence that much of the area is undeveloped; reserves, wildlife refuges, and other federal and state protected lands and waters occupy a large percentage of the area.

However, this flattened landscape of wild greens and blues is occasionally punctuated by the unnatural texture of human influence of a certain type: rusting hulls, broken masts, boats half-submerged in the muddy waters. It was one of these abandoned and decaying vessels that brought me to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

Birds-Eye View of a Problem

The U.S. Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats sprinkled throughout this region. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety.

Half-sunken boat surrounded by oil containment boom.

Even a small release of marine fuel in sensitive environmental areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Many abandoned vessels still have fuel and other hazardous materials on board. (NOAA)

As a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I provide assistance to the Coast Guard in their pollution response efforts. This support often involves analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment.

In this case, the Coast Guard called me with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. Their nest of sticks was perched atop the ship’s mast, now bent at a precarious 45 degree angle. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed.

As a federal agency, the Coast Guard must adhere to federal statutes that protect wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Essentially, these statutes require the Coast Guard (or other person or organization) to consider what effect their actions might have on protected species, in this case, osprey.

This is where we Scientific Support Coordinators often can provide some assistance.  A large part of our support in this area involves coordinating with the “trustee” agencies responsible for the stewardship of the relevant natural resources.

My challenge is evaluating the scientific and technical aspects of the planned action (disturbing the chicks and their parents or possibly moving the osprey nest in order to remove the vessel), weighing possible effects of those actions against threats posed by no action, and communicating all of that in an intelligible way to trustees, stakeholders, and the agency undertaking the action in question.

Fortunately, the pollution assessment and removal in the case of the osprey-inhabited vessel proved very straightforward and the abandoned vessels project got off to a good start.

Abandoned But Not Forgotten

Aerial view of abandoned vessels with osprey nest on mast, located in Florida waterway.

NOAA’s Adam Davis helped the U.S. Coast Guard with a project spanning more than 230 miles of Florida coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. (NOAA)

Over the course of eight weeks, I was fortunate to contribute in a number of ways to this project. For example, I joined several aerial overflights of the coast from Panama City to St. Marks, Florida, and participated in numerous boat rides throughout the Apalachicola Bay watershed to identify, assess, and craft strategies for pollution removal from abandoned vessels.

Ultimately, the project spanned more than 230 miles of coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. Most of the fuel was removed from vessels located in highly sensitive and valuable habitats, such as those located along the Jackson and Brother’s Rivers.

Portions of both of these rivers are located within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and are designated as critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon, a federally threatened species of fish that, like salmon, migrates between rivers and the ocean.

Even a small release of marine fuel in areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Impacts can be even more severe if they occur during a time when species are most vulnerable, such as when actively spawning, breeding, or nesting.  In addition, spills in these otherwise pristine, protected areas can have negative consequences for important commercial and recreational activities that rely upon the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

People on boats on a Florida coastal river.

When NOAA supports the Coast Guard with abandoned vessels work, our efforts often involve analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment. These Coast Guard boats are equipped to remove fuel from abandoned vessels. (NOAA)

While we’d like to be able to remove the entire vessels every time, which can be navigation hazards and create marine debris, funding options are often limited for abandoned vessels. However, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 enables us to remove the hazardous materials on board and reduce that environmental threat.

I find working in the field directly alongside my Coast Guard colleagues to be invaluable. Inevitably, I come away from these experiences having learned a bit more and increased my appreciation for the uniqueness of both the people and the place. Hopefully, that makes me even better prepared to work with them in the future—and in the beautiful and remote wilds of the Forgotten Coast.

NOAA's Adam Davis, left, on a Coast Guard boat removing oil from a derelict vessel.Adam Davis serves as NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 8 and NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham before entering the United States Army where he served as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist. Upon completing his tour in the Army, Adam returned home and completed a second degree in environmental science at the University of West Florida. He comes with a strong background in federal emergency and disaster response and has worked on a wide range of contaminant and environmental issues. He considers himself very fortunate to be a part of NOAA and a resident of the Gulf Coast, where he and his family enjoy the great food, culture, and natural beauty of the coast.