NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

Changes Over Time: How NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program is Adapting to the Needs of Coastal Communities

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The following is reposted from NOAA’s Coastal Ocean Science Blog. All links leave this blog unless otherwise noted.

By Gunnar Lauenstein, PhD, Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Creosote piling found throughout the U.S., a source of polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (a potentially cancer-causing pollutant). Credit: NOAA/MWP.


The NOAA Mussel Watch Program (MWP) is focused on applying the science, methods and approaches our researchers have honed over the past 20 years, to answer coastal natural resource management questions. While we began the NOAA MWP focused primarily on monitoring contaminants that are now less prevalent (e.g. DDT), our role at NOAA is to use the approaches and methods we have developed during the course of the NOAA MWP’s history and retool them to meet current coastal managers’ new and emerging contaminant questions.

NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science‘s (NCCOS) Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) is the home of the National Status and Trends Program (NS&T),  the parent of the NOAA MWP and the BioEffects Program.  Traditionally, the NOAA MWP monitored contaminants using organisms such as oysters and mussels, while the BioEffects Program focused on the collection and analysis of water, sediment and bottom dwelling animal samples.  More and more, however, what were two distinctly different programs are now evolving to become a combined program where different approaches and tools from the NOAA MWP and the BioEffects Program are being deployed in concert to answer regional contaminant questions.  This new approach allows CCMA researches to provide much more robust analysis of contaminants within a given ecosystem than ever before.

To date, NS&T scientists have been responsible for tracking the status of contaminants in coastal, ocean and Great Lakes waters to create a baseline assessment of the health of our waters and sea life. The data are provided to natural resource managers across the country who can then assess the ongoing health and condition of their region’s resources. Note that these data are available to all interested individuals at the NOAA NS&T data web portal.

Changes Over Time

Along with contaminants, NOAA MWP sites can also change over time due to natural disasters. Both can lead to the removal of historic sampling sites. This Louisiana Mussel Watch site was destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA/MWP.

Over the past 20 years, contaminants of concern in U.S. coastal waters and the Great Lakes have changed as a result of new environmental policies and restoration efforts, therefore expanding the focus of the research being conducted by NOAA’s NS&T Program.

While contaminants may change over time (e.g. DDT is no longer as prevalent a contaminant due to 1970’s legislation), our approach to answering questions using historical data, methods of detection, and analysis gives us a unique set of tools for finding and reporting contaminants of emerging concern (e.g. contaminants that dissolve in water, such as pharmaceuticals and currently used pesticides) to regional managers responsible for management and decision making for an entire ecosystem.

Site Selection Then and Now:

There were two national mussel watch programs that predated the NOAA Mussel Watch Program (NOAA MWP).  To read more about that history, visit my previous post on the Office of Response and Restoration blog.

The current NOAA MWP was created in 1986.  The initial goal was to continue adding to the existing data sets and add new focuses such as monitoring for new contaminants like tributyltin, a compound that was added to paints used to keep boat hulls free of barnacles and other sea life.  Initial site selection was based on where previous sites had been, and for which resulting contaminant information was available. This allowed us to continue to determine contaminant changes over time at those historical locations. Other site selection criteria also included sites identified by local managers.  This partnership with local managers and stakeholders gave us the opportunity to involve regional partners and at the same time decrease the amount of field time for our staff since much of the collection was voluntary.  We would, of course, oversee the processing and analysis of the samples.  To find out more about that process, check out a story published in The Herald in Washington state [Editor’s note: Featuring several Office of Response and Restoration scientists]. The combined efforts of the trained volunteer collection and our continued staff and partner collections across the country allowed the program to maintain long-term data sets for certain contaminants, such as DDT. With these data sets we would be able to clearly see the changes occurring over time at the NOAA MWP sites.

Historical and current NOAA Mussel Watch Program sites throughout the United States. Image Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/Andrew Mason.

A NOAA Mussel Watch Program Report (report is big so I’m including the project page from the CCMA website where you can download part or all of the report) found that the environmental legislation of the 1970s did have national consequences, indicating that levels of older, banned pesticides dropped in the coastal environment. This success was repeated with the enactment of legislation limiting the use of the aforementioned tributyltin, starting in the late 1980s. But, as the questions being asked are changing, and our understanding of contaminants in our environment is evolving, the NOAA MWP is also changing its approach to site selection.

Based on the changing needs of our coastal managers and what are known as contaminants of emerging concern, the NOAA MWP is also considering regionally focused sites indicated as “Areas of Concern” (AOCs) according to our partners, such as EPA.  Instead of the sites being used to only determine general “Status and Trends” of contaminants, our efforts with our partners, such as the National Park Service and local communities, are becoming more focused on providing contaminant data that will indicate whether mitigation policies being implemented are having a positive impact on a given ecosystem.  By monitoring areas designated as AOCs,  or locations known as “Biological Areas of Special Biological Significance,” designated by the California EPA, we have a historical record for tracking emerging contaminants of concern while also tracking the effectiveness of the EPA’s and states’ mitigation efforts.

Sample Collaboration: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Scientists doing water samples.

NOAA researchers Gunnar Lauenstein and Kimani Kimbrough sampling in the Great Lakes. Credit: NOAA/NCCOS.

A great example of the NOAA MWP’s new approach of collaborating more closely with federal agencies, states and local managers for site selection and research is our 2-year partnership with EPA and international partners through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). NOAA began sampling in the Great Lakes in 1992 after the introduction of the non-native zebra mussel. In 2010, the NOAA MWP began collaborating with the EPA in the Great Lakes under the GLRI. This joint effort was undertaken to use our existing monitoring data together with new data from EPA-designated AOCs to measure the effectiveness of their mitigation efforts in those AOCs. The AOCs are being restored by EPA and its partners, with the NOAA MWP providing Great Lakes baseline data as well as before-and-after data for restored sites. The data our program provides can help determine how successful those mitigration efforts are in the Great Lakes.

My NOAA MWP colleagues leading the Great Lakes research will be blogging specifically on that project, so stay tuned.

Future Work
The NOAA MWP has begun looking at organisms beyond oysters and mussels, and the collection of traditional sediment samples when measuring environmental health. The incorporation of other sea life and different kinds of sediment samples is a direct outgrowth of the work of NOAA’s NS&T BioEffects Program. We are increasingly seeing the use of tools and approaches from both the NS&T branches, which provides more valuable data, and better insight into the health of our coasts and Great Lakes for those communities’ managers.

In 2012, the NOAA MWP continues to expand its partnerships with state and local governments, as well as non-governmental and industry organizations. Some partners of note that have funded continued monitoring include: the Alaska Department of Environmental ConservationWashington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Other partners associated with the ongoing work at the NOAA MWP include the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP), Louisiana State UniversityMote Marine Laboratory (FL), and the Gulf of Maine’s GulfWatch Program.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

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