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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Preparing for the Worst at the International Maritime Organization

Next week I’ll be traveling to London to participate in a meeting at the International Maritime Organization. The IMO is a specialized agency of the United Nations and is responsible for improving maritime safety and security and for preventing pollution from ships.

Doug Helton testifying at a past IMO meeting.

Doug Helton testifying at a past IMO meeting. Credit: NOAA

I am one of the U.S. delegates to the Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation/Hazardous and Noxious Substances technical work group (this is where preparing for the worst comes in). Basically, this group develops tools and protocols for oil and chemical spill prevention and response, with a special focus on supporting less developed countries.

In previous sessions we have discussed best practices on how to deploy booms and other equipment to collect oil and analyzed lessons learned from recent incidents from around the world.

Typically 30-40 countries and 10-15 maritime organizations attend the meetings. That makes for a wide perspective on issues and a chance to meet colleagues from around the world. We have a chance to improve response efforts in other countries, which benefits everyone since ships that transit our waters also call on ports around the world.

And you never know when those international contacts may come in handy: I’ve run into international colleagues in places like Dutch Harbor, Alaska, when a foreign ship ran aground in that port.

And it is always interesting to be in London.  The IMO headquarters are just across the River Thames from the Parliament and Big Ben.

I will try to post something next week about some of the issues before the work group. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about how we’re trying to prevent oil spills around the world.

IMO Headquarters.

My destination, the International Maritime Organization. Credit: Doug Helton/NOAA.

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A Canadian Sailing Race Gets Rigged by the Gulf of Mexico

A couple weeks ago I wrote about getting ready for my adventure sailing in the Van Isle 360 race around Vancouver Island, Canada, and I mentioned that the sailing race followed the “inside passage” to Alaska. While sailing northwest along this passage between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada, I saw a lot of fishing boats, cruise ships, and barges, and one leg of the race was even delayed for a bit because a tugboat towing a large raft of logs blocked part of the starting line. I would expect to see those sorts of things while on the water in the Pacific Northwest.

What I didn’t expect to see was a Gulf Coast oil rig loaded on the deck of a specialized heavy lift ship in the port of Nanaimo, Canada! I guess it was too much to ask for a complete vacation from work.

A drilling rig owned by Escopeta Oil being transported between the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

The Gulf of Mexico oil rig being transported between Texas and Alaska, via Nanaimo, Canada. Credit: Doug Helton.

This is a “jack-up” rig, designed to drill in relatively shallow waters. The legs extend down like an old fashioned tire jack, but the legs are only 150 feet or so long. Most of the waters in British Columbia are much deeper than the Gulf of Mexico, and I wasn’t aware of any active oil exploration in this region. So I wondered, Why was it here? Where was it going?

Two weeks later when I was back in Nanaimo, the ship was gone, but the rig was tied up to the pier.

When I got back to the NOAA offices in Seattle, I did a little research and found out that the Chinese heavy-lift vessel Kang Sheng Kou was passing through British Columbia en route to Cook Inlet, Alaska. The ship had stopped in Nanaimo to repair damage during its two-month voyage from Texas. Too wide to transit the Panama Canal, the ship had to go around South America.

The ship had initially called on Prince Rupert, near the Alaska border, but that town lacked the necessary repair facilities. The ship then tried to go to the Port of Vancouver, but the rig was too tall to clear the Lion’s Gate Bridge, so the ship ended up in Nanaimo.

The rig was a reminder that we have a global economy that’s always moving, and we need to be on stand-by, even when I’m trying to get away—literally, away in a sailboat—from work.

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From Community Rescuers to Co-Workers: Reflections on World Oceans Day

Within my first couple of hours on the job at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I realized how much my life had already crossed paths with this organization. I grew up in Eagle Harbor, located in Puget Sound, Washington, and my house looked straight across at an old creosote plant that polluted my piece of the ocean.

A ferry in Eagle Harbor, Washington

A ferry pulls into Eagle Harbor, Wash., which was essentially my backyard growing up. Credit: Joe Inslee.

Little did I know then that I would someday work for the office that evaluated the marine environmental damage from activities conducted at this very plant. The office also restored beaches in the harbor that I still use when I return home.

After high school, I headed north to Bellingham, Wash., where the memory of a tragic pipeline explosion was fresh in the minds and hearts of the community. As a result of a pipeline leak, over 200,000 gallons of gasoline flowed into a creek that ran through downtown Bellingham. After igniting, the explosion severely damaged the creek’s ecosystem and tragically killed three community members.

Very early in my new job at NOAA, I was amazed to learn how closely my office was involved in dealing with that incident. My co-workers acted quickly to provide scientific support to response agencies and are still involved in returning the creek environment to its pre-spill state through such actions as restoring salmon habitat and improving public access to the creek.

Why do these experiences and realizations carry such significance to me as I sit in my cube in D.C. years later? Quite simply, they are my ultimate motivators.  I know first-hand how the multiple communities I have lived in have benefited from my co-workers’ efforts. I completely understand how environmental restoration projects can help a community recover from environmental damage.

It can be easy for us who sit in cubicle-land to slowly become removed from the natural resources we are charged to protect and restore. Fortunately, my personal connections with this office help me maintain this connection today and every other day.

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Sailing the Sea on World Oceans Day

Here's Blue, the Olson 911SE yacht I'll be sailing around Vancouver Island, Canada. Credit:

Here's Blue, the Olson 911SE yacht I'll be sailing around Vancouver Island, Canada. Credit:

June 8 is World Oceans Day. How will you be celebrating? Starting Saturday, June 4, I am participating in Van Isle 360, a sailing race around Vancouver Island, Canada. The 580-nautical-mile race (667.5 miles on land) stops in 10 communities around Vancouver Island. The race starts and ends in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and will take about two weeks. I’m sailing on the nearly 30-foot-long yacht Blue, and we’ll have a satellite transponder so you can track how I’m doing during the race at

On World Oceans Day, in particular, I’ll be racing from Hardwicke Island to Telegraph Cove. There is not much of a town at Hardwicke Island, but we’ll tie up for the night at a salmon processing plant. The town of Telegraph Cove, population 20, is near the northern end of Vancouver Island, and much of the town is built on stilts, with buildings raised above the water on pilings and linked by historic wooden boardwalks. Even when I am ashore that night I will still be surrounded by water.

Vancouver Island and the route I'll be taking through Johnstone Strait. Credit: Google Maps.

Vancouver Island and the route I'll be taking through Johnstone Strait. Credit: Google Maps.

Johnstone Strait, along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, is also famous for wildlife, and hopefully we’ll see whales during the day.

Vancouver Island and the City of Vancouver (which is actually not located on Vancouver Island) are named for Captain George Vancouver, the captain of the 1792 British expedition that explored this region. He is also known for developing the first nautical charts of the region, such as this one of Vancouver Island. While I’m thankful for his work, I’m glad I’ll have up-to-date charts on the boat.

So what is the connection to my work on oil spills and this blog? For one thing, even though this is a remote part of Canada, it is very much part of our marine transportation system between the lower 48 states and Alaska. The race follows the “inside passage” between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada, which is the route that cruise ships and commercial vessels take to avoid the rougher open ocean route on the outer edge of the island. That means I’ll be sharing the “road” with big ships as they travel through the same maze of islands I’ll be navigating.

I’m also hoping all those oceanography skills we use to forecast how oil drifts with tides and winds will come in handy when trying to sail through some of the toughest tidal currents in the world. The currents at Seymour Narrows near Campbell River, British Columbia, can exceed 15 knots—that is 17 miles per hour!

Keep an eye on this blog because I’ll try to upload some pictures and updates here during the race. Let me know in the comments how you hope to be celebrating the ocean on World Oceans Day, whether you’ll be sailing in a remote corner of the sea or showing your appreciation thousands of miles from the ocean.

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CSI: Hanford, Complete with Nuclear Superheroes

Like a character out of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, I investigate legal cases—but mine are cases of pollution, oiling, and chemical mayhem, which are a little less grisly than those featured on CSI. When polluters contaminate our nation’s wildlife, rivers, and ocean, my colleagues and I are there on the scene.

As a scientist with NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division in Seattle, Wash., I work alongside teams of scientists to piece together the story of what happened, determining the short- and long-term damage from releases of pollution, and then developing plans to restore what was lost. Sometimes I feel my job is part crime scene investigator, part restoration specialist, and part negotiator. And I love it—it’s always a challenge.

Nuclear explosion

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.

For example, my current case is located at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington. Yes, I said it: nuclear. You may know of Hanford as part of the site of the “Manhattan Project,” where America manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, as well as for the one detonated over Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. After decades of plutonium and uranium processing, tons of chemicals and radiation have spilled onto the land and into the nearby Columbia River. Some of this has even traveled about 300 miles downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

Can you imagine what decades of pollution have done to the fish, wildlife, and habitat of the Columbia River? Many people have imagined the worst, and there are lots of urban legends, movies, and comic book heroes related to all things Hanford. That includes far-fetched ideas of glowing fish, three-headed monsters, the superhero “Doctor Manhattan,” as well as alleged experiments on alligators and beagles, and even reports of jars of nuclear-laden jam from Hanford fruit trees being sent to Congressional representatives as “gifts” (the jam story is true).

The Columbia River as it travels along the Hanford Nuclear Site.

The Columbia River as it travels along the Hanford Nuclear Site in eastern Washington. Credit: Department of Energy.

But for all the contamination and controversy surrounding this nuclear site, the land and the river still support fish and wildlife. Fifty-one miles of the Columbia River flow along the site, and each fall, Chinook salmon return to spawn in the waters adjacent to Hanford. Sturgeon, too, can still be found in the deep pools of the river.

Despite all the hype and, at times, high levels of contamination, we seek out “just the facts,” hoping to sort out the real story of what happened at Hanford.

We’ll use the best possible science to accomplish that: studying genetics, looking at fish tissue health, comparing fish growth and reproduction, and even using the latest technology to discover if contamination is leaking into the river near salmon eggs or into the deep pools where sturgeon hang out.

As part of NOAA’s team of investigators, we have just begun trying to piece together exactly what contamination entered the river over the past several decades and then figure out what the fish do each year because of that pollution.

It will be difficult to sort out what has happened over so much time: How do we determine if animals are surviving just fine there, or if they are being replaced with new wildlife that move in each year? Our biggest challenge will be to reach into the past to figure out what was polluted and affected each year, and then pull it all together into a complete story, a scientific case.

Ultimately, we will go before the public—and sometimes a judge—with our cases and present that story, complete with evidence and “Exhibit A.” Our story must be logical, reasonable, and as complete as possible.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In future posts I hope to discuss how we search for clues, I’ll ponder what it means to present and future fish generations and habitat, and we’ll even dare to explore restoration options for Hanford.