NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

Corals and Marine Debris

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Our Marine Debris Program explains the harmful effects of trash and other debris on delicate coral ecosystems for #CoralsWeek.

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Corals week logo.

Coral reefs are diverse and important marine ecosystems, supporting a wide array of marine life. Not only do they provide essential structure for habitats, but corals themselves are a unique and beautiful type of animal. However, these animals are also very delicate and are under threat by a preventable problem: marine debris. Debris can damage these sensitive reef habitats, crushing or smothering the corals that make them up. Derelict fishing gear, or fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned, can be especially harmful.

Luckily, this is a completely preventable problem and we can all help to reduce these impacts! Remember your “3Rs” (reduce, reuse, recycle) to minimize your contribution to marine debris. Make sure you’re responsible with your trash and when fishing, make sure none of your gear gets left behind. If you don’t know how to properly use your gear or dispose of…

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Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Coastal Salt Marsh Habitat

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

Oil in marsh vegetation during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

The 2010 explosion on the DeepwaterHorizon Macondo oil well drilling platform triggered a massive oil release polluting over 1,300 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico. The harm from the spill to coastal salt marsh habitat was extensive, and in some instances, permanent. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration along with other federal and state agencies measured the spill’s effects and created a restoration plan as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).

Why are coastal salt marshes important?

A large variety of open water and estuarine fish, birds and invertebrates, use the salt marsh habitats of the northern Gulf of Mexico for refuge and feeding. Marsh plants and nearshore oysters can dampen wave energy, trap and stabilize soil and adjacent sediment, and provide structure and cover for predators and prey. The salt marshes promote rapid growth of juvenile fish and invertebrates of commercial importance.

Animals affected by exposure to oil include:

  • Periwinkle snails (L. Litoraria)
  • Fiddler crabs (Uca spp.)
  • White and brown shrimp (F. aztecus, L. setiferus)
  • Flounder, drum, and forage fish (P.lethostigma, F. grandis, S. ocellatus)
  • Nearshore oysters (C. virginica)

Because birds, fish, crabs, shrimp, oysters, coastal dolphins, and other wildlife depend on the Gulf’s salt marshes, any loss or degradation of this habitat has broad implications for the ecosystem.

Harm to coastal salt marshes

Oil can affect animals and plants through chemical toxicity and physical smothering. More than 687 miles of coastal wetland shoreline were polluted with oil throughout the Gulf during the 87-day spill. The injury assessment team used field and laboratory studies to demonstrate that oil degraded the health of coastal marsh plants and animals, reduced nearshore oyster cover, and increased erosion of oiled marsh edge habitat.

The amount of oil along the shoreline (and how long it stayed there) was the most useful indicator of harm to nearshore organisms, while plant stem oiling was the best indicator of loss of vegetation. Activities to clean up oiled marshes (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.

Graphic with person raking on drawing of salt marsh layers.

Oil clean-up actions in coastal salt marsh. NOAA

Salt marshes in Louisiana were most intensively polluted by the oil spill. At least 350 miles of coastal marsh shoreline in Louisiana was injured. Even trace oiling of plant stems in Louisiana salt marshes reduced plant cover in the marsh, and affected plant growth, particularly in the marsh edge zone closest to the shoreline. The marsh edge is most productive zone because it provides migrating animals access to flooded marsh surfaces for refuge and foraging.

Oil damage to plants and oysters, as well as oil clean-up measures (see graphic), increased the erosion of marsh shorelines between 2010 and 2013. Increased erosion of oiled vegetated shorelines is estimated to have occurred over at least 108 miles of shoreline throughout the Gulf. Marsh recovery is expected to take more than 10 years for long-lived species such as periwinkle, while eroded shoreline has been permanently lost. All data collected as part of the Deepwater Horizon NRDA are available online.

 

Mary Baker is the OR&R  branch chief for the Northwest and Great Lakes.


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Preserving Natural Resources for All Americans

People standing in boats on river spraying water with hoses.

To clean sediment following the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, Michigan, workers sprayed sediment with water and agitated sediment by hand with a rake. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

By Robin Garcia

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) works with federal, state, and local agencies to prepare for, respond to, and assess the risks to natural resources following oil spills and hazardous waste releases. Often, OR&R also collaborates with Native American tribes to ensure that response, assessment, and restoration efforts fully address the needs of all communities.

In recognition of Native American History Month, here are past oil spills and hazardous waste releases that OR&R worked on with Native American tribes as trustees, or government officials acting on behalf of the public.

  • Industrial activities beginning in the 1890s released polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other toxins into the St. Louis River in Minnesota. Recreational activities are discouraged in the area and recreational fishing has decreased, likely due to visible sheens. NOAA, the Fond du Lac Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, and other trustees have completed an assessment of the site and are developing restoration projects with the responsible parties.
  • Since the early 1900s, activities at a wood treatment facility and a shipyard released toxins including PAHs, mercury, and heavy metals into Eagle Harbor in Washington. About 500 acres of Eagle Harbor were contaminated, and seafood consumption advisories are still in effect. NOAA, the Suquamish Tribe, the Muckleshoot Tribe, and other trustees reached a settlement in 1994 and a restoration plan was finalized in 2009. Projects restored and created habitats for species including Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. While these projects are complete, NOAA is providing input as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers additional cleanup efforts.

    Diver underwater planting eel grass.

    A diver plants eelgrass at the Milwaukee Dock site in Eagle Harbor, Washington. (NOAA)

  • In March 1999, a tanker truck jackknifed on a highway, spilling over 5000 gallons of gasoline onto the reservation of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and into Beaver Creek. The spill occurred in an important spawning and rearing area for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and other migratory fishes. NOAA, the Confederated Tribes, and the U.S. Department of the Interior reached a settlement with the responsible party in 2006 and finalized a restoration plan in 2009. Restoration projects began in 2011, including the restoration of native vegetation and the development of beaver-dam mimicking structures.

Robin Garcia is the Policy Analyst for the Office of Response and Restoration. She supports congressional and partner outreach for the Emergency Response Division, the Assessment and Restoration Division, and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center.


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Point vs. Non-Point Water Pollution: What’s the Difference?

Ocean with black smoke from burning oil.

In July 2010, responders used in situ burns to remove oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

Water pollution comes in many forms, from toxic chemicals to trash. The sources of water pollution are also varied, from factories to drain pipes. In general, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) classifies water pollution into two categories; point source and non-point source pollution.

Point Source Pollution

Point source pollution is defined as coming from a single point, such as a factory or sewage treatment plant. Here are a few examples of point source pollution OR&R worked on.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico — Releasing about 134 million gallons of oil the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest point source of oil pollution in United States history.

Mosaic Acidic Water Release, Florida — On Sept. 5, 2004, acidic water was released during Hurricane Frances from Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC’s storage containment system. The spill polluted nearly 10 acres of seagrass beds and more than 135 acres of wetland habitats, including almost 80 acres of mangroves.

Montrose Hazardous Releases, California — From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of DDT and polychlorinated biphenyl were discharged into ocean waters off the southern California coast. Most of the DDT originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California. In 2001, NOAA and other federal and state agencies reached a settlement with the polluters, establishing the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP).

Non-Point Solution Pollution

Runoff from urban and suburban areas is a major origin of non-point source pollution. Discarded trash can become a component of non-point source pollution runoff. For the last 10 years, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has been tackling non-point pollution of marine debris by leading research, prevention, and removal projects. Here are a few examples of non-point source pollution the Marine Debris Program worked on.

Tijuana River, California — The large amounts of trash and larger debris that wash downstream threaten and degrade the Tijuana River Valley’s valuable ecological, cultural, recreational, and economic resources. A grant from NOAA funds work that includes the removal and disposal of debris that accumulates behind large trash booms designed to block debris from flowing into the ocean.

Netting across river with trash on one side.

As the water flows in the Tijuana River, debris accumulates behind large trash booms that block the debris from flowing into the ocean. (Photo Credit: CA State Parks)

Shuyak Island, Alaska — With the support of a Marine Debris Program grant, the Island Trails Network (ITN) is leading an innovative two-year effort to remove marine debris from a remote island in Alaska. Working with 100 volunteers and trained crew, ITN created a kayak-based cleanup operation to remove about 40,000 pounds of marine debris from Shuyak Island. The island — a remote location with critical habitat for numerous species of birds, fish, and marine mammals — accumulates large amounts of marine debris because of ocean currents and winds.

 


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Let’s Talk Trash this Full Moon!

Check out the latest in Ocean Today’s Every Full Moon series.

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

If you haven’t had a chance to check out our Trash Talk video series (or even if you have), head over to Ocean Today’s website to see Trash Talk featured as this full moon’s highlighted series! Trash Talk is a great way to learn a little about marine debris, or to get the conversation started about this issue. The six-part series talks about what marine debris is, where it comes from, its impacts, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic debris, and what we can do about it. There is also a video that demonstrates educational activities to help kids understand the problem and even some bonus content!

Trash Talk was originally released in June 2015 as a collaboration between the NOAA Marine Debris Program and NOAA’s Ocean Today. It can be viewed either as a full-length (about 15 minutes) mini-documentary, or as six…

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1976: A Winter of Ship Accidents

Ship broken in two in water.

The tanker Sansinena exploded in Los Angeles harbor on Dec. 17, 1976, spilling 1.3 million gallons of heavy oil. USCG

The winter of 1976-77 was a bad time for oil spills in the United States. I was still in middle school, but I remember doing a science report on oil spills. In a short time period there were multiple major oil spills, including these:

  • The tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on Dec. 15, 1976 and later broke apart off Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, spilling 7.6 million gallons of heavy fuel oil.
  • The tanker Sansinena exploded in Los Angeles Harbor, California, on Dec. 17, 1976, spilling 1.3 million gallons of heavy oil. Nine crew were killed and 46 people were injured.
  • Christmas Eve 1976 was not all quiet, when the tanker Oswego Peace spilled 5,000 gallons of bunker fuel into New London Harbor, Connecticut.
  • The tanker Olympic Games ran aground in the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia Pennsylvania, on Dec. 27, 1976, spilling 145,000 gallons of crude.

The rash of incidents continued into the New Year.

  • On Jan. 4, 1977, the tanker Universe Leader, loaded with 21 million gallons, ran aground in the Delaware River, New Jersey. It was refloated without a spill.
  • Also on Jan. 4, 1977, the tanker Grand Zenith, loaded with 8 million gallons of oil, was lost with all hands off the coast of New England. Only a few pieces of debris and an oil slick were found.
  • On Jan. 10, 1977, the tanker Chester A. Poling broke in half and sank off Gloucester, Massachusetts. It had just discharged its cargo and was only carrying ballast, but still spilled 14,000 gallons of diesel. One crew member was killed.

The large number of tanker accidents and loss of life alarmed the public and Congress. Hearings were quickly held in the District of Columbia in January, 1977. The hearing transcripts provide an insight into shipping and pollution concerns of the time. These concerns included the risk of spills from the still-under-construction Trans-Alaska Pipeline System that would open in a few months. The hearings concluded, but the rash of spills that winter did not.

  • On Jan. 17, 1977, the tanker Irene’s Challenger, loaded with 9.6 million gallons of crude oil, broke apart and sank near Midway Island in North Pacific Ocean. Three crew were lost.
  • On Feb. 2, 1977, the tank barge Ethel H spilled 480,000 gallons of crude oil into New York Harbor.
  • On Feb. 26, 1977, the tanker Hawaiian Patriot broke apart and sank off Hawaii, spilling 31 million gallons of crude oil. All but one of the crew were rescued. This little known incident is still considered the largest tanker spill in United States waters.

This winter marks the 40th anniversary of NOAA’s spill response program — a program that began, not surprisingly, in the wake of all of these incidents. In December, the Office of Response and Restorations (OR&R) will post a series of stories on NOAA’s leading role in oil spill response.


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Transportation of Crude Oil Along the West Coast

Boats on water

Oil spill cleanup demonstration at Clean Pacific 2015, Vancouver B.C. Credit Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force.

By Sarah Brace

The Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force has updated its West Coast crude oil transport map. The map depicts the routes of crude traveling by rail, tanker vessel, pipeline and barge across the western states and British Columbia. It also captures the locations of current and proposed facilities, refineries and terminals. The rapid growth in crude by rail transport has highlighted response and preparedness gaps along the rail line.

The task force also tracks the volumes of crude transported across the region. This data is collected on an annual basis and summarized in a report available to the public. The task force continues to track the volumes of crude movement annually to assist in oil spill prevention, preparedness and response across the West Coast.

Map drawing of crude oil routes.

Map of current rail routes, interstate
pipelines and barges transporting crude across the West Coast.

Recently, the task force partnered with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to incorporate its oil spill data into NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

Since 2002, the task force has been collecting data on oil spills in Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii, providing information on the size of spill, location, type of material and substrate (on land or water).

The Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force was formed in 1988 by the governor of Washington and premier of British Columbia, after the oil barge Nestucca collided with its tug along the Washington coast. The following year, the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound led to Alaska, California, and Oregon joining the Task Force. Hawaii became a member in 2001, creating a broad coalition of western Pacific states and British Columbia, united in their efforts to prevent and respond to oil spills across the West Coast.

Sarah Brace is the Executive Coordinator of the Task Force. She leads the Task Force projects, studies and outreach activities focused on spill prevention, preparedness and response across the western States of AK, CA, HI, OR and WA and British Columbia.