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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Sea Urchins Battle to Save Hawaii Coral Reef

Tiny spikey sea urchins in palm of a hand.

Tiny sea urchin released in Kaneohe Bay to combat invasive algae. (NOAA)

Can tiny sea urchins save a Hawaiian coral reef? In Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay, with a little help from scientists, it appears they can.

Kaneohe Bay has been plagued for decades by two species of invasive algae that blanket the native coral reefs, blocking the sun. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners developed two methods to destroy the invaders, vacuuming them up, and releasing hungry native sea urchins to munch them away.

Since the urchin program started in 2011, hundreds of thousands of baby Hawaiian collector sea urchins (Tripneustes gratilla) have been released into targeted areas of the bay to gorge on the algae invaders. Although native to the bay, the collector sea urchin population was too low to battle the invasive algae. Using funds from a ship grounding a decade earlier, officials developed a sea urchin hatchery.

The State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, the Nature Conservancy, and NOAA created the Kaneohe Bay restoration plan from the settlement of the 2005 grounding of the ship M/V Cape Flattery on the coral reefs south of Oahu. The grounding, and response efforts to free the ship, injured 19.5 acres of coral.

Despite the injuries, the reef began recovering on its own. Rather than mess with that natural recovery, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources began restoring the coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay.

NOAA Fisheries has a video on the creation of the sea urchin hatchery, as well as details on the success of the sea urchin releases.

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000; however, this project fell under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damaged reefs in the following articles:

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?


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Clean up spilled oil at all costs? Not always

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Man holding hose spraying water on oiled rocks.

Cleanup worker spraying oiled rocks with high pressure hoses following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. (NOAA)

The images of an oil spill—brown water, blackened beaches, wildlife slicked and sticky—can create such an emotional response that it  leads to the myth that oil is so hazardous it’s worth any and all environmental trade-offs to get it cleaned up.

The outcry to rid oil from the rocky shoreline of Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill led to the use of high-pressure, hot-water washing. While the technique is successful at removing stranded oil, we now know it can damage plants and animals in the treated area directly and indirectly, short-term and long-term.

Activities to clean up oiled coastal salt marshes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, like flushing with water or raking to remove oil, delayed marsh recovery and exacerbated the loss of oysters, though it was not always possible to separate effects of oiling from effects of response actions.

Lessons learned from decades of responding to oil spills have shown that a haste to clean up a spill may cause additional damage. Part of the job of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emergency responders is to step back and objectively evaluate the situation.

The perception of potential environmental harm that a spill may cause may be worse than reality, making it critical for responders to communicate a science-based analysis of a spill’s possible harm with affected parties and organizations, according to Jerry Galt, physical oceanographer and pioneer in oil and chemical spill response and modeling.

Gathering accurate information on what natural resources are in the spill area and forecasting where the oil is likely to go, based on currents and weather conditions, will give a realistic picture of the situation, Galt said.

In an effort to improve spill response methods, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration is continually improving the accuracy of its trajectory models and other response tools. In addition, hundreds of emergency responders attend Science of Oil Spills and Science of Chemical Releases classes to learn the latest in spill response planning and analysis.

Spills are always a serious matter, but the coordinated efforts of multiple federal, state and local responders work to minimize the injury during the event, and then work to mitigate the effects after the spill. While images from news footage can paint a picture of huge and permanent devastation, the reality on the ground can be less dire.


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Rescuing Oiled Birds, Leave it to the Experts

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Yellow gloved hands holding bird's head with suds.

Oiled Northern Gannet is cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (FWS)

By Allison O’Brien, Department of the Interior

Birds, especially those that spend most of their time on the water, are vulnerable to the effects of oiling. Oil can clog feathers and cause them to mat, separate, or lose their natural waterproofing. Birds coated with oil may not be able to fly, may get sick from accidentally ingesting oil while trying to clean their feathers, or may drown from reduced buoyancy.

Many people love birds, and it’s normal to want to help during an oil spill – especially when you’re seeing photos of impacted birds on the news – but it’s a myth that just a bit of dish soap can restore an oiled bird to health. So, before you hit the beach with your scrub brush and your handy-dandy dish soap, read these answers to some frequently asked questions on how to help oiled birds.

What should I do if I see an oiled bird? 

If there is an established oiled wildlife reporting hotline available, then please, call it as soon as possible. If not, then call your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office.

 The bird seemed to be in distress, wouldn’t it be faster for me and my dog to chase it down and transport it in my trunk?

No – birds are wild animals. It’s important to let a trained professional with the appropriate safety gear (think safety goggles, gloves, etc.) handle bird removal. Plus, depending on the species, a permit may be needed to touch or handle it.

I’m actually less concerned with own my safety than with helping this bird. Is there a problem with the dog chase and trunk transport method?

Picture this: You reach into your fridge for a snack and, when you pull out your arm, it’s covered in a gooey, smelly substance. The next thing you know, aliens chase you, grab you, and take you away in the trunk of their spaceship. How would you feel? Confused?  Terrified? Exactly. Please, let a trained professional handle the bird rescue.

Two people hosing a bird in a sink.

An oiled gannet being cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. (FWS)

I saw an oiled bird, but I think it’s dead. Is it still worth calling it in?

Yes, other animals may see that bird as an easy meal and become ill from eating it, so it’s important the oiled bird to be removed by trained workers.

It seems like it would be faster for me to just grab the dead, oiled bird and bring it in – can I do that?

No, not only is a permit needed to handle the carcass, it is considered legal evidence and needs to be handled properly, and an appropriate chain of custody needs to be maintained.

Are there ever opportunities to volunteer to help clean birds?

Yes – Under some circumstances, the response officials may issue a public service announcement to request pre-trained volunteer assistance. A bird rehabilitation center is like a hospital emergency room, so please understand that it’s critical for any volunteers to have the appropriate training.

Is it true that liquid dish soap is used to clean oiled birds?

Yes it is. Specifically, Dawn dish soap (not antibacterial) has been approved for use in cleaning oiled birds.

Allison O’Brien is the Department of the Interior’s Regional Environmental Officer for the Pacific Northwest Region, covering Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. For more information, please visit https://www.doi.gov/oepc/regional-offices/portland.  


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Restoration: The Other Part of Spill Response

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Grass and water at sunset with bridge in background.

From landfill to vibrant tidal marsh, the wetland restoration at Lincoln Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, was funded from multiple oil spill settlements and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This project restored a significant area of coastal wetlands in New York-New Jersey harbor’s Arthur Kill ecosystem. (NOAA)

Typically, during an oil spill or chemical release, media images show emergency responders dressed in protective gear, skimming oil off the ocean’s surface or combing coastal beaches for oiled animals.

As dramatic as they are, those images can leave the impression that cleaning up after a spill is the end of the story. Often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues working on spills years after response efforts have ended, determining how to restore the environment.

OK, it’s not really a myth we’re busting here, maybe a misconception. Let’s chat about the less visible task of long term restoration after an oil spill.

When a spill happens, there are two tasks for those who caused the spill, clean up the spilled oil or chemical released, and restore the environment.

That first responsibility, cleaning up the mess, is the subject of those media photos. It’s the immediate actions taken to scoop up the oil, clear the beaches, and rescue wildlife. It was not long after the Exxon Valdez spill that a television commercial appeared featuring a liquid dish soap used to wash birds covered in oil. That commercial has become so identified with oil spills, it’s practically the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about oil spills.

Now, what happens when I ask you to picture long-term restoration after an oil spill? What do you see? Having a hard time picturing it? That’s because restoring the environment takes time, often years. Restoration doesn’t lend itself to immediate imagery.

It may not be the subject of a soap commercial, or be very visible to the public, but it’s the second half of the story after the emergency crews are gone.

So what does restoring the environment after a spill look like? Well it can start with scientists taking samples of an oiled fish and conclude with the construction of new wetlands. The Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program restores natural resources injured during an oil spill, release of hazardous materials, or vessel grounding to fully compensate the public for losses.

To ensure that fish, wildlife, and critical habitats like beaches, wetlands and corals impacted by a spill are restored a specific process is followed that includes:

  • Assess the Injury: Quantify injuries to the environment, including lost recreational uses, by conducting scientific and economic studies
  • Plan the Restoration: Develop a restoration plan that identifies projects and outlines the best methods to restore the impacted environment
  • Hold Polluters Accountable: Ensure that responsible parties pay the costs of assessing injuries and restoring the environment
  • Restore the Environment: Implement projects to restore habitats and resources to the condition they would have been in had the pollution not occurred

NOAA’s job is to not only to restore the environment, but to also evaluate and restore the experience the public lost during an oil spill, like fishing or swimming at the beach. For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or, there may be fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the outdoors NOAA and partners may build restoration projects that improve recreational access to waterways, install boat launches, fishing piers, and hiking trails.

During all this work, it’s important to keep the public informed and to ask for comments and ideas on how an injured area should be restored. Several restoration projects are currently open for public review and comment, read more here.


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Debunking the Myths about Garbage Patches

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Garbage floating on water as seen from underneath.

You may have envisioned the garbage patches looking something like this, but that’s pretty far from the truth. (NOAA)

Although most of us have heard the term “garbage patch” before, many may not have a full understanding of what the term really means. In recent years, there has been a lot of misinformation spread about garbage patches and so now, we are here to try to clear up some of these myths.

First, what are garbage patches? Well, garbage patches are areas of increased concentration of marine debris that are formed from rotating ocean currents called gyres and although they may not be as famous as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” there are actually several garbage patches around the world! So let’s address some of the most common questions and misconceptions about garbage patches:

Are garbage patches really islands of trash that you can actually walk on?

Nope! Although garbage patches have higher amounts of marine debris, they’re not “islands of trash” and you definitely can’t walk on them. The debris in the garbage patches is constantly mixing and moving due to winds and ocean currents. This means that the debris is not settled in a layer at the surface of the water, but can be found from the surface, throughout the water column, and all the way to the bottom of the ocean.

Ocean with horizon.

It possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it! (NOAA)

Not only that, the debris within the garbage patches is primarily microplastics, tiny plastic pieces less than five millimeters in size. Many of these microplastics are the result of larger plastic debris that has broken into small pieces from exposure to the sun, salt, wind, and waves. Others, such as microbeads from products like facewashes or microfibers from synthetic clothing, are already small in size when they enter the water. With such small debris items making up the majority of the garbage patches and the constant movement of this debris, it’s possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it.

 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the size of Texas and you can see it from space!

Not so much. Since the garbage patches are constantly moving and mixing with winds and ocean currents, their size continuously changes. They can be very large, but since they’re made up primarily of microplastic debris, they definitely can’t be seen from space.

Why don’t we just clean them up?

Unfortunately, cleaning up the garbage patches is complicated. Since the debris making them up is not only constantly mixing and moving, but also extremely small in size, removing this debris is very difficult. We generally focus removal efforts on our shorelines and coastal areas, before debris has the chance to make it to the open ocean and before they have broken into microplastic pieces, which are inherently difficult to remove from the environment.

Hand holding small white plastic ball.

Since the garbage patches are primarily made up of very small microplastic debris that is constantly mixing throughout the water column, they definitely can’t be seen from space. (NOAA)

It possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it! (NOAA)

However, preventing marine debris is the key to solving the problem. If you think about an overflowing sink, it’s obvious that the first step before cleaning up the water on the floor is to turn the faucet off—that’s prevention. By working to prevent marine debris through education and outreach, and each doing our part to reduce our contribution, we can stop this problem from growing.

Want to learn more about the garbage patches? Check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website where you can find more information as well as our Trash Talk video on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.


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Chemical Pollution in the Great Lakes

Sunset over Lake Erie.

Sunset over Lake Erie. (Anna McCartney NOAA Pennsylvania Sea Grant)

By Anna McCartney, Pennsylvania Sea Grant

Sailors that discovered the Great Lakes called them Sweetwater Seas because they contained drinkable water. Today, that water is under threat from chemical pollution. A recent report from the International Joint Commission, a U.S. – Canadian panel that monitors Great Lakes water quality, states the efforts to clean up the lakes over the past 25 years are “a mix of achievements and challenges.”

The five Great Lakes, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior have a total coastline of almost 11,000 miles. Together with the rivers, channels, and smaller lakes that feed or drain them, they make up the largest surface freshwater system on Earth.

While the Great Lakes system spreads across more than 94,250 square miles (244,106 square kilometers), it drains a much larger watershed that includes parts of eight states and two Canadian provinces. Nearly 40 million people, including 11 million Canadians depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, recreation, transportation, power and economic opportunities. According to Environment Canada, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region supports 56 million jobs shared by Canada and the United States.

As the population has increased, human activities have taken their toll on the Great Lakes ecosystem. The environmental impacts of urbanization, trade, industrialization, agriculture, climate change, toxic contaminants and other pressures, are obvious. Concentrations of historic pollutants are still a concern, mercury levels in some species of Great Lakes fish are stable but are increasing in others.

New pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and plastic waste are equally troubling. Chemicals like fire retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are present in the water, air, sediment, wildlife, and people who live near the Great Lakes.

This is deeply concerning because these chemicals are persistent (never break down), toxic, and bioaccumulative, absorbed by the body. Exposure to PBDEs has been linked to thyroid disorders, birth defects, infertility, cancer, and neurobehavioral disorders.

The commission is seeking public comments on the report until April 15, 2017 at ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org or at participateijc.org.

Here are recent stories about the Office of Response and Restoration’s work in the Great Lakes:

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

With Eye Toward Restoring Ecosystems, NOAA Releases New Pollution Mapping Tool for Great Lakes

Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

What Was the Fate of Lake Erie’s Leaking Shipwreck, the Argo?

Anna McCartney is the communications and education specialist at Pennsylvania Sea Grant.


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Zoos and Aquariums Training for Oil Spill Emergency Response

Bird covered in oil on beach.

An oiled loon on Horseneck Beach from the 2003 Bouchard Barge 120 oil spill. (NOAA)

When an oil spill occurs and photos of injured birds and other wildlife start circulating, there is often an immediate desire to want to help impacted animals.

One group that feels that desire strongly are the people who work at the nation’s accredited zoos and aquariums. For instance, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was one of the largest organizations to mobilize volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico. Lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon experience, both good and bad, led the association to launch a large-scale training program to certify members in hazardous response training.

“By participating in a credentialed training program, it provides that extra expertise to our zoo and aquarium professionals that will enable AZA members to become more coordinated and more involved when future environmental disasters arise in their community and throughout the nation,” said Steve Olson, AZA’s vice president of federal relations. “AZA members are uniquely qualified to assist in an oil spill animal response and recovery. They bring a wealth of animal care experience that is unmatched. Not only do they have a passion for helping animals, they bring the practical handling, husbandry and medical experience that would make them invaluable to any response agency. “

The AZA spill response training, taught by the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska and the University of California Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network, includes certification in Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with specific standards for worker safety. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also recently presented information on oil spill response at one of AZA’s training sessions at the Detroit Zoo.

Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, is one of the AZA accredited members, which has hosted oil spill response training in the past two years.  “As one of the first trainees I feel very strongly that we have the ability, and now the training, to make a difference,” said Diane Olsen, assistant curator at Moody Gardens.

To date, the AZA training program has credentialed over 90 AZA member professionals from over 50 accredited institutions. Those zoo and aquarium professionals are located throughout the country allowing for rapid local or national deployment if a spill occurs.