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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Some Gulf Dolphins Severely Ill, Says Study by NOAA and Partners

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Taking a blood sample from one dolphin.

Veterinary scientists take a blood sample from a dolphin as part of an overall health assessment. Credit: NOAA.

Bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, are showing signs of severe ill health, according to NOAA marine mammal biologists and their local, state, federal, and other research partners.

Barataria Bay, located in the northern Gulf of Mexico, received heavy and prolonged exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

Based on comprehensive physicals of 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011, preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar, and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease.

Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism, and immune function.

Researchers fear that some of the study dolphins are in such poor health that they will not survive. One of these dolphins, which was last observed and studied in late 2011, was found dead in January 2012.

NOAA and its local, state, and federal partners started the Barataria Bay dolphin study in 2011 as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), the process for studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

View a photo gallery of dolphin assessment work.

NOAA is sharing the preliminary results from the study so that stranding responders and veterinarians can better care for live stranded dolphins and look for similar health conditions.

Investigation of Dolphin Strandings in the Northern Gulf Continues

Barataria Bay dolphin carcass being examined to determine cause of death.

January 2012: The carcass of Y12, one of the Barataria Bay dolphins closely studied by NRDA researchers, was recovered on Grand Isle Beach, January 31, 2012. The visible ribs, prominent vertebral processes, and depressions along the back are signs of extreme emaciation. A necropsy was performed and samples were collected to help determine cause of death and potential contributing factors. (NOAA)

Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Franklin County, Florida, to the Louisiana/Texas border)—a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins per year, prompting NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) and investigate the cause of death for as many of the dolphins as possible.

The vast majority of stranded dolphins have been found dead; however, 33 have stranded alive and seven have been taken to facilities for rehabilitation.

In the spring, it is typical to see some newborn, fetal, and stillborn dolphins strand, and there has been an increase in strandings of this younger age class during this UME in 2010 and 2011. Yet all age classes continue to strand at high levels. NOAA is working with a team of marine mammal health experts to investigate the factors that may be contributing to the dolphin mortalities.

Gulf Seafood Safety

Since the 2010 oil spill, the Food and Drug Administration, NOAA, and the Gulf Coast states have used an agreed-upon protocol to test seafood and ensure that it is free of harmful oil and dispersant residues. NOAA opened federal waters to fishing after extensive testing, and the Gulf states continue to use the protocol to routinely test finfish and shellfish to ensure all seafood reaching the consumer is safe.

Some waters in the northern Barataria Basin, a larger area that includes Barataria Bay, remain closed to commercial fishing, as visible oil is still present along the shoreline where the closures are in place. The joint protocol directs seafood safety testing to begin only after visible oil is gone.

NOAA and its state and federal partners are researching multiple ways Gulf dolphins may have been exposed to oil, including through ingestion, inhalation, or externally. Dolphins could have routinely ingested oil from sediments or water while feeding or by eating whole fish, including internal organs and fluids such as liver and bile, which can harbor chemical contaminants. These are not likely routes of exposure for most people.

Read more about the Gulf dolphins.

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More Than Two Decades Later, Have Killer Whales Recovered from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

With input from NOAA’s Alan Mearns, Gary Shigenaka, and Marilyn Dahlheim.

Orca breaching.

Killer whale breaching (NOAA Marine Operations Center).

Does a killer whale instinctively know how to avoid oil spilled on the surface of its watery home? At the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill twenty-three years ago, scientists and oil spill experts presumed that the answer was “yes.”

They thought marine mammals were “smart” enough to steer clear of spilled oil, which possibly could harm their skin and eyes or irritate their lungs with hazardous vapors.

Yet, within 24 hours of the tanker Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef, killer whales were photographed swimming through iridescent slicks of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. No one was quite sure then how this exposure to oil might affect the health of killer whales living there. For most oil spills, we don’t know how well individual species were faring before oil invaded their habitats, complicating our ability to understand health impacts after a spill. This time, however, was different.

“Orcas (killer whales) have been particularly interesting because they have been so well studied and are one of the few critters for which pre-spill information was available,” NOAA biologist Gary Shigenaka says of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which he has worked on extensively.

The two killer whale pods unlucky enough to swim in or near Exxon oil were from two different eco-types of killer whales, known as “resident” and “transient.”  Eco-types differ in several aspects of morphology (shape and structure), ecology, behavior, and genetics.  For example, resident whales primarily feed on fish while transient killer whales feed on marine mammals.

Since the 1989 oil spill, scientists have followed closely the killer whale populations of Southeast Alaska. They have examined both the two pods of whales exposed to the oil in Prince William Sound as well as the other resident and transient pods which were not in the oiled areas at the time. The differences are stark.

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

In the year and a half after the Exxon Valdez spill, both groups of killer whales swimming through Prince William Sound at the time experienced an unprecedented high number of deaths. The pod of resident killer whales lost 33% and the pod of transients 41% of their populations, according to a 2008 study by researcher Craig Matkin [PDF]. In general, killer whales tend to have very stable populations, usually losing only very young or very old whales when they lose any.

But in this case, the pods were losing a number of immature whales and breeding females as well. Missing these key members, the populations in the oiled areas were slow to bounce back, if they bounced at all. One pod of resident killer whales still hasn’t reached its pre-spill numbers, while the oil-exposed transient pod’s numbers have dropped so much that NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has listed them as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Meanwhile, the other killer whale populations in Southeast Alaska have been growing since the mid-1980s.

Graph of killer whale populations exposed to oil after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Population trends in killer whales before and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill: AB Pod is the group of resident whales while AT1 is the transient group exposed to oil in Prince William Sound. Courtesy of Craig Matkin.

Still, because researchers were unable to examine either live or most of the dead whales after the spill (and thus confirm oil-related injuries), any direct link between the spill and killer whale health has been circumstantial. Even so, Shigenaka personally believes that this indirect evidence “stands the test of time.”

The crux of it lies in the fact that two pods of very different killer whale groups crashed suddenly and simultaneously after only one obvious disturbance to their environment—the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Fast forward twenty-one years to April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. Taking these lessons about killer whales and oil from the Exxon Valdez, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration quickly partnered up with the NOAA Fisheries Service to do reconnaissance during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, especially in oiled areas. Twenty-one species of marine mammals live in the Gulf, and bottlenose dolphins in particular potentially could be suffering some significant impacts from this spill.

Since February 2010 (before the oil spill), nearly 700 bottlenose dolphins and other species of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico have been stranded. These marine mammals are experiencing what’s known as an “unusual mortality event,” defined as “a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response.” Federal and state agencies have been investigating this large die-off and any possible connections to its overlap with the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

These investigations are ongoing and the possible role of infection in these dolphins adds a twist that leaves us with plenty of questions still to answer. Nevertheless, every piece of information we learn helps create a fuller picture of how oil spills affect marine mammals, whether we’re looking at killer whales in Prince William Sound or bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information on killer whales and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, check out:

Matkin, C.O., Saulitis, E.L., Ellis, G.M., Olesiuk, P., Rice, S.D. 2008. Ongoing population-level impacts on killer whales Orcinus orca following the ‘Exxon Valdez’ oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 356:269-281.

Loughlin, T. R. Ed. Marine Mammals and the Exxon Valdez. Academic Press, San Diego, 1994.

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Solid Returns: NOAA Prepares for Future Oil Spills in the Arctic

Polar bear on Arctic sea ice.

Polar bear on Arctic sea ice (NOAA).

In recent years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has turned its focus to the remote Arctic region of Alaska due to proposals to increase oil and gas exploration and production there.

The environment above the Yukon River and beyond the vast Brooks Range is warming rapidly. Scientists estimate that by 2020-2030, the Arctic Ocean will be free of multi-year ice in the summer, increasing opportunities for maritime transportation, tourism, and oil and gas exploration.

The likelihood of hazards will also increase as access to Arctic oil reserves becomes easier.

Shoreline erosion and the long-term effects of climate change will also affect the stability and safety of communities in the Arctic region. Oil pipelines and other infrastructure located in permafrost will become less stable, also increasing the risk of spills. The potential expense—in terms of damage to fisheries, to wildlife, and to the formerly pristine environment—could be staggering.

Coast Guard Ice Breaker Healey cuts through Arctic ice.

The icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Healey (left) cuts through Arctic ice (U.S. Geological Survey).

“The Arctic’s remoteness, its gale-force winds, lengthy periods of darkness, and lack of infrastructure combine to make any efforts to manage its resources and protect the environment extra challenging,” says Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “It’s essential that we develop the right technologies and techniques to reduce risk and proceed cautiously in the largest expanse of wilderness currently under our care.”

For this reason, OR&R is working with the oil and gas industry, international governments, the University of Alaska, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island, and the Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute to understand and prepare for any future spills in the Arctic.

The stakes are high, says Margaret Williams, managing director for the World Wildlife Fund-US Arctic Program. “The Exxon Valdez spill has been the best studied oil spill in history and scientists have found that even 20 years later, the damage from the spill continues,” she says. “Fishermen’s livelihoods were destroyed, many wildlife and fish populations still haven’t recovered, and the Alaskan economy lost billions of dollars.”

“We have a slogan, ‘Our role is stewardship, our product is science,’ that pretty much explains what OR&R is doing in the Arctic and elsewhere,” says John Whitney, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for Alaska. “We take our work seriously, regardless of the size or severity of the spill, and the results speak for themselves.”

Find out more about our office’s work in the Arctic, from oil spill preparedness to marine debris removal, at [leaves this blog].

For more information on how this office helps protect and revitalize economic interests through environmental response and restoration, read the first part of this series, Solid Returns: Response and Restoration Efforts Create Big Economic Benefits to Coastal Communities.

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A Massive Watershed Fix for the Delaware River

Duck in the Delaware River.In addition to the cleanup of the 2004 Athos I oil spill, numerous improvements are in the works for the environment — and the economy — of the Delaware River watershed.

Blackbird Reserve Wildlife Area (DE)
Ecological benefits: Resting and foraging areas for migratory geese
Economic benefits: Hunting; wildlife viewing; preservation of open space

Oyster Reef Creation (DE, NJ)
Ecological Benefits: Habitat for oysters and other reef dwellers; improved water quality
Economic Benefit: Boost to local economy during reef-building

Freshwater Tidal Wetland Restoration, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (PA)
Ecological Benefits: Restored tidal exchange; enhanced wildlife habitat
Economic Benefits: Recreational boating; education; wildlife viewing

Preferred Athos oil spill restoration sites on the Delaware River.Dam Removals and Stream Habitat Restoration, Darby Creek (PA)
Ecological Benefits: Fish and wildlife habitat improvements
Economic Benefits: Fishing; outdoor education; flood protection; boost to local economy during construction

Marsh, Meadow and Grassland Restoration, Mad Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area (NJ)
Ecological Benefits: Feeding, roosting and nesting habitat for birds
Economic Benefits: Wildlife viewing; hunting; boost to local economy during construction

Shoreline Restoration, Lardner’s Point (PA)
Ecological Benefits: Restored habitat for fish, birds and mammals
Economic Benefits: Wildlife viewing; fishing; open space

Plus recreational projects, including boat ramp restoration at Stow Creek (NJ), rock jetty restoration in Augustine (DE) and trail improvements on Little Tinicum Island (PA).

For more information on restoration, as well as response activities, along the Delaware River in the wake of the Athos I oil spill, read the first part of this series, Solid Returns: Response and Restoration Efforts Create Big Economic Benefits to Coastal Communities.


Solid Returns: Response and Restoration Efforts Create Big Economic Benefits to Coastal Communities

NOAA responder assessing oiling on shoreline.

After the tanker Tintomara collision, a NOAA responder evaluates the level of oiling along the shores of the Mississippi River. (NOAA)

Shortly after midnight on July 23, 2008, the tanker Tintomara collided with a tug and the barge it was transporting, near downtown New Orleans. The collision resulted in a spill of more than 9,000 barrels (380,000 gallons) of fuel oil near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Within hours, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) workers were on the scene, joining members of the U.S. Coast Guard and field staff from the State of Louisiana in efforts to contain the spill and limit the possible harm to humans and the environment.

To curtail the damage from spilled oil, the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico was closed to vessel traffic, and water supplies to four parishes were temporarily halted. Without such immediate attention, the spill could have closed commercial fisheries, severely degraded wildlife habitats, and destroyed recreational opportunities — causing damages estimated in the millions of dollars.

“Among other things, it was our collective responsibility to ensure that the Mississippi River would remain open to commercial vessel traffic,” NOAA oil spill expert Charlie Henry recalls. “As it turned out, the river was closed for only one day, followed by a few days of partial closures. Economists have estimated that a closure of the river could cost from $300 million to $700 million per day, depending on the level of commercial activity,” he says.

Oil spills affect our natural resources in a variety of ways. They can directly impact our natural resources through, for example, the oiling of seabirds and marine mammals. They can diminish the ecological services provided by coastal and marine ecosystems, damaging or destroying critical nursery habitat for shrimp, juvenile salmon, and other wildlife. And they can affect how we use natural resources, limiting fishing, boating, beach-going, and wildlife viewing activities.

A sheen of oil on the Delaware River.

A sheen of oil on the Delaware River is visible after the tanker Athos I began leaking oil in November 2004. (NOAA)

OR&R plays a pivotal role in ensuring that any such negative effects have been addressed, not only while a spill is occurring but also in the months after a spill has been contained. A large part of OR&R’s mission is to guarantee that any losses are adequately compensated for.

In the instance of the M/T Athos I oil spill on the Delaware River — an event that, in 2004, fouled 3,600 acres of shoreline and affected nearly 12,000 birds — the cost of restoring habitats was established at $27.5 million. With funds collected from the Athos I‘s owner, OR&R, along with state and federal partners, is now actively engaged in efforts to restore affected areas within the Delaware River watershed. These projects will benefit coastal communities and economies by improving habitat, providing green jobs during construction and creating new opportunities to enjoy the river and its wildlife.

“We try to take actions that reduce the impacts from a spill and that allow a more rapid recovery,” says Tom Brosnan, environmental scientist and communications manager with OR&R. “We provide scientific expertise to various cleanup agencies before, during and after spills,” he explains. “Once we’ve conducted injury studies in the field and the lab, we work with experts in NOAA’s Restoration Center to choose the type and amount of restoration needed to offset any losses. Then, we work with our attorneys in the Office of General Counsel to require that responsible parties implement restoration projects or pay us to implement the restoration.”

The Tintomara and Athos I incidents were not unique for OR&R. This NOAA office exists as a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments, including oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, and marine debris. Since its creation in the 1990s, it has protected natural resources at more than 500 hazardous waste sites and responded to thousands of spills.

Marshland along the Delaware River.

After the tanker Tintomara collision, a NOAA responder evaluates the level of oiling along the shores of the Mississippi River. (NOAA)

Through its diligence and countless hours of hard work, OR&R has recovered nearly $600 million for restoration of marshes, shorelines, oyster reefs, and other habitats that wildlife, fish, and people depend upon. Such projects also benefit coastal communities and economies by providing green construction jobs and creating new opportunities for outdoor recreation.

“It’s the intent of the law to bring affected waters and damaged or destroyed trust resources, including habitats, back to their pre-injured conditions,” says Perry Gayaldo, Deputy Chief of NOAA’s Restoration Center. “But, whenever possible, we strive to go beyond that. Through our Community Based Restoration Program, we can look across the damaged landscape and target opportunities for enhancing certain features for public benefit. Working with environmental groups, the oil and gas industry, and partners like Ducks Unlimited, we’ve incorporated features for hunting, fishing, bird watching, boating, and other popular activities.”

When an injury occurs, the majority of the costs of restoration are not on the taxpayers’ shoulders, according to Gayaldo. Indeed, through such strategic partnerships with non-governmental organizations, tribes and local governments, the returns can be two to five times that of initial federal investments. In the United States, hunting and fishing industries are valued at approximately $80 billion per year. Thus, an investment in coastal restoration can significantly boost both regional and national economies, making NOAA a major force in shaping the future of our country.