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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See What Restoration Looks Like for an Oiled Stream on an Isolated Alaskan Island

This is a post by NOAA Restoration Center’s Erika Ammann.

Location of Adak Island among Alaska's Aleutian Islands (red arrow).

Location of Adak Island (red arrow) among Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Earlier this year, NOAA Oil Spill Coordinator Ian Zelo shared the story of a 2010 diesel spill on Adak Island in the central Aleutian Islands of Alaska: a tanker overfilling an underground storage tank; the fuel entering the salmon stream Helmet Creek and nearby Sweeper Cove; the nightmarish logistics of getting to the remote, sparsely populated island; and assessing environmental injury to both the stream and marine habitats amid blizzards, possible unexploded ammunition, and the dark of night.

In the wake of the spill, dead fish were collected from Helmet Creek, where diesel was observed both in the creek’s waters as well as in the habitat along its banks. As a result, pink salmon and Dolly Varden trout eggs, riparian (stream-side) habitat, and aquatic insects likely were affected in the creek and adjacent riparian area. The spill also may have affected marine mammals in Sweeper Cove and as many as eight marine birds may have died due to oil exposure and subsequent hypothermia.

Fortunately, however, the story does not end there.

After considering the environmental injuries caused by the diesel spill in Helmet Creek, the natural resource trustees, including NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation, and Fish and Game, developed restoration projects intended to compensate for injuries to fish, the stream, and surrounding habitat.

On July 8, 2013, NOAA Restoration Center, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and representatives from the fuel facility responsible for the spill traveled to Adak Island to undertake restoration work for the harm done to fish, wildlife, and their habitat by the oil spill.

During this trip, we restored fish passage to the creek and improved habitat and water quality by removing creosote pilings and grates over culvert openings which had created barriers and changes to the stream profile, re-grading the stream bed, restoring the main flow channel, and removing at least a dozen 55-gallon drums from the creek bed and banks.

Erika Ammann in a fishing boat.Erika Ammann is a Fisheries Biologist with NOAA’s Restoration Center. Based out of Anchorage, Alaska, she works on habitat restoration efforts, oil spill restoration, and marine debris throughout the state of Alaska.


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Embarking on the GYRE Expedition: A Scientific and Artistic Study of the Trash on Alaska’s Shores

During part of the GYRE Expedition in June of 2013, a group of educators, scientists, and artists removed 4 tons of debris that had been previously collected by the National Park Service from Hallo Bay in Alaska's Katmai National Park. Because there was no place to dispose of it locally, the debris had to be transported to Seward, a common problem for dealing with debris on remote shorelines.

During part of the GYRE Expedition in June of 2013, a group of educators, scientists, and artists removed 4 tons of debris that had been previously collected by the National Park Service from Hallo Bay in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Because there was no place to dispose of it locally, the debris had to be transported to Seward, a common problem for dealing with debris on remote shorelines. (NOAA)

Our oceans—the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Indian, and Antarctic—are actually all part of one, interconnected body of water. This is one reason Alaska’s 33,904 miles of shoreline, which are frequently secluded and have very few people nearby, can still turn up surprisingly high levels of trash arriving from faraway places.

In order to study and raise awareness about this problem on Alaska’s shorelines, an international group of scientists, artists, and educators, including the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Peter Murphy, recently embarked on the GYRE Expedition. Organized by the Anchorage Museum and Alaska SeaLife Center, this scientific and creative collaboration spent a week in June aboard the research ship Norseman. They traveled around 500 miles down the coast bordering the Gulf of Alaska, making several stops to survey and collect marine debris along the way.

“As we stop at debris aggregation beaches at Gore Point, Shuyak Island, and Hallo Bay,” wrote Peter Murphy of the NOAA Marine Debris Program before embarking, “we in the science team will collect data on debris densities and composition while artists collect debris and capture their impressions for works.”

According to the Anchorage Museum website, these marine debris works of art, “on view February through September 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will tell a global ocean debris story through the work of more than 20 artists from around the world. The 7,500-square-foot exhibition will include a section specific to Alaska featuring the 2013 expedition’s resulting scientific discoveries, as well as art created from the marine debris gathered on Alaska’s beaches during the journey.”

The project is called the GYRE Expedition in reference to the ocean’s massive, swirling, whirlpool-like phenomena known as “gyres,” which tend to gather and move around large amounts of marine debris. These gyres, including the North Pacific Gyre along the Gulf of Alaska, are associated with what are (misleadingly) known as the “garbage patches.”


Here is part of Murphy’s first dispatch of the expedition, posted from Gore Point East Beach, Alaska, on June 8, 2013:

Friday we left Seward, Alaska, for our first stop at Gore Point, a “catcher” beach that extends into the Alaska coastal current and sees some of the highest debris densities recorded in Alaska.  Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) cleaned the beach in 2007–2008 and removed over 20 tons of debris from less than a mile of shoreline. On Saturday, Chris Pallister, the head of GoAK, arranged to be at the beach with some of his crew to show us the site and how it’s changed over the six years that he’s been cleaning it.  From his initial survey, he thought that the debris was significantly less than in 2012. What we saw in logs pushed far up the beach and broken tree branches were evidence of just how strong the weather and ocean forces are that bring debris ashore here. As we spent the day on-site, a small team of us set up our monitoring system, while others collected impressions and debris.

Over the course of the day, we worked together to conduct a full monitoring survey, following the NOAA shoreline protocol to select transects and catalog debris.  This sort of snapshot monitoring data is very helpful in putting numbers to the impressions that people have of a place and the debris they see there—“a lot of foam” can become “___% of debris was foam.”  When you collect data at the same site over time, it can also answer the important question of change, since differences in the composition (what) and the quantity (how much) of debris at a site can give us valuable clues to regional or local changes in the debris picture.  We’re looking forward to doing the analysis, though it’s at least certain to indicate a lot of foam present.

Head over to the NOAA Marine Debris Blog to read more from his journey—including a recap and amazing photos from the trip—with artists, educators, and other scientists to document the trash on Alaska’s beaches and turn it into oceanic inspiration.

You can also watch a video to learn more about the GYRE Expedition at http://www.anchoragemuseum.org/galleries/gyre/.


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How to Survive an Upside-Down Helicopter Crash in the Ocean? Practice

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Nir Barnea, Marine Debris Regional Coordinator and Safety Officer, and LTJG Alice Drury, Scientific Support Coordinator.

Oil spill response staff, under the exceptional guidance of U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers, practiced their ocean survival skills in a life raft and simulated helicopter chair in a pool at Seattle University.

Oil spill response staff, under the exceptional guidance of U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers, practiced their ocean survival skills in a life raft and simulated helicopter chair in a pool at Seattle University. (NOAA)

“To the count of three, we roll you over. Ready? One, two, and—roll!”

This is what 32 NOAA emergency response staff heard when they went through what has become an integral part of their safety training since 1999: The practice of safely exiting an upside-down, underwater helicopter using emergency Survival Egress Air (SEA) bottle systems. SEA bottles are like small, portable SCUBA bottles that fit into a Personal Flotation Device vest.

Because many Office of Response and Restoration staff participate in helicopter overflights during oil spill responses, this is important training to have in case an emergency occurred while flying over the ocean.

We worked with four rescue swimmers from the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles and in close collaboration with Seattle University staff to carry out this training in a racing pool at the university. They used a frame-encased floating chair, which simulated a helicopter seat. Everyone sat in the floating framed seat, put on a helmet (safety first!), buckled up, and when the chair rolled upside-down into the water, we had to unbuckle the five-point seat belt and exit the “helicopter” while using emergency air in the SEA.

U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers rolled each person under water while strapped into the simulated helicopter chair. While under water, individuals had to engage the air supply, unbuckle, and kick out the "window" of the helicopter to escape.

U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers rolled each person under water while strapped into the simulated helicopter chair. While under water, individuals had to engage the air supply, unbuckle, and kick out the “window” of the helicopter to escape. (NOAA)

Sounds like fun? It was to some, though less so to others, but everyone passed the training, got an adrenaline rush, and had an opportunity to become more familiar with the equipment that could save their lives.

The exceptionally professional team of Coast Guard rescue swimmers also coupled the helicopter exit training with offshore survival skills, which include getting into a life raft and a refresher on the use of various types of other survival equipment.

Just a day before, we learned about open water survival and helicopter egress (exit) training from the Coast Guard to prepare us for the “dip” in the pool. They hit on several key points for surviving a helicopter water crash and included personal stories that taught important survival lessons. Specifically, the Coast Guard covered the “Seven Steps to Survival”:

  • Recognition: Recognize that a bad situation is unfolding and that you are in trouble. Do something about it!
  • Inventory: Decide what to do next, and what you have with you that will help you survive.
  • Shelter: Protect your body and get out of the water as much as you can. Your clothing choice is your first key to shelter.
  • Signal: Make yourself visible to rescuers.
  • Water: Keep yourself hydrated.
  • Food: If you have water, keep yourself sustained with food.
  • Play: Stay busy and keep your mind occupied. Continue working toward getting saved.

Having the right equipment is key to survival, but it isn’t much good if you don’t know how to use it properly. In addition to the action-packed pool training, we familiarized ourselves with the SEA air bottles and the MOLLE (a modular, adjustable vest used to hold the SEA) thanks to the help of Aerial Machine and Tool Company representative Butch Flythe. Butch is a retired Coast Guard Chief, expert on survival equipment, and also was part of the very first group of Coast Guard rescue swimmers when the program launched in 1985.

Buckling up when we drive, practicing evacuation from a building, and training safe exit from a downed helicopter are all safety measures we take hoping that we will never need to use them but knowing that if practiced, they could someday save our lives.

[Editor’s note: You can learn about how real-time ocean data from NOAA is aiding Coast Guard search and rescue operations in the video podcast below.]


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NOAA Supporting Coast Guard after Natural Gas Rig Lost Well Control, Caught Fire in Gulf of Mexico

The Hercules 265 drilling rig with cloud of leaking natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Hercules 265 drilling rig, located about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, caught fire the night of July 23. Earlier that day, the rig experienced a loss of well control while drilling for natural gas. The cloud of leaking natural gas from the well, pictured here, ignited. No one was on board at the time and no injuries have been reported. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

The Hercules 265 jack-up drilling rig, which caught fire about 50 miles offshore of Louisiana after experiencing a loss of well control, no longer has natural gas leaking out of the well. The U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, via aerial surveys (overflights), have confirmed that the flow of gas from the well has stopped, though a diminished fire continued to burn residual gas near the well until today.

On Tuesday, July 23, the rig operator lost control of the natural gas well during a drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico. All 44 members of its crew were evacuated safely into life rafts and were later picked up by an offshore supply vessel. Late that night, the leaking gas ignited and the rig caught fire and partially collapsed. The incident occurred at South Timbalier block 220 in about 154 feet of water.

The well was releasing natural gas and a small amount of oily fluids, creating a light sheen of variable size. (Gas is often mixed with oily fluids, and the amounts of these fluids vary among reservoirs.) The U.S. Coast Guard has two cutters on scene to provide support. NOAA support has been focused on forecasting the trajectory of the sheen and customized weather reports for the affected area as well as providing technical advice on dealing with methane (a primary component of natural gas) and potential species at risk from hydrocarbon exposure, such as birds, shrimp, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals.  A NOAA scientist and emergency response meteorologist are now at the scene of the response and offering further scientific and weather support as needed.

Learn more at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement website.


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Kelp Forest Restoration Project Begins off Southern California Coast

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

After 15 years of scientific monitoring, research, and planning, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation (SMBRF), with funding and technical assistance from NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP), begins a large-scale kelp forest restoration project [PDF] off the coast of California’s Palos Verdes peninsula this July. SMBRF will bring kelp forests back to life in an area that has experienced a 75% loss of kelp canopy.

Nearly 100 acres of reef habitat along the Palos Verdes coast is covered by “urchin barrens,” where the densities of urchins are extremely high and kelp plants are non-existent. Sea urchins are spiny marine invertebrates that live on rocky reef substrates and feed mostly on algae. When sea urchin populations are kept stable, they are an important part of a healthy kelp forest ecosystem.

On the other hand, in an “urchin barren,” urchin densities get very high because predators rarely feed on urchins, preferring the greater cover and higher productivity of healthy kelp forests. The urchins in barrens are also in a constant state of starvation, continually expanding the barren area by eating every newly settled kelp plant before the kelp has a chance to grow. These urchins are of no value to fishermen and urchin predators because they are undernourished, small, and often diseased.

See what an urchin barren looks like:

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species.

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species. (NOAA/David Witting)

To bring back the kelp forests, volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups will assist SMBRF with removing urchins from the “urchin barrens” and allow for natural settlement of kelp plants. Divers’ removal of the urchins will allow for kelp plants to grow and mature, which can happen quickly since the plants often grow up to two feet per day.

Within a year, SMBRF expects that many of the characteristics of a mature kelp forest will return, including providing suitable fish habitat for important commercial and recreational fish species. The mature kelp forest will support greater numbers of urchin predators, such as birds, fish, crabs, lobsters, octopuses, sea stars, and sea otters, which will help to maintain more sustainable levels of urchin populations in the future.

NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program is providing funding for this project as part of its plan to restore fish habitat in southern California. MSRP was developed in 2001 following a case settlement against polluters that released the toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals DDTs and PCBs into the southern California marine environment. MSRP has allocated settlement funds to restore natural resources that were harmed by these chemicals, including impacts to fish habitat due to their presence in ocean sediments.

Learn more about the kelp forest restoration project [PDF], including details about how and where it will happen.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California, where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.


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Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility

Aerial view of Ohmsett and its 2.6 million-gallon salt water tank.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Last week I had the chance to go back to Leonardo, New Jersey, to observe an oil spill dispersant exercise at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility known as Ohmsett (the Oil and Hazardous Material Simulated Environmental Test Tank). Ohmsett is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The facility features a large saltwater test tank that allows for full-scale testing of oil spill response equipment and technologies. This tank has a large wave generator to simulate the type of conditions seen in the open ocean.

Dispersant use became a national topic of discussion following the explosion and subsequent well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010. The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants on and below the ocean’s surface during this oil spill raised scientific, public, and political questions about both their effectiveness and their potential consequences for ecosystems and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention, I’ve worked on hundreds of oil spills over the past 20 years, and during that time, I’ve only worked on a handful of spills where dispersants were used. Furthermore, I’ve never had a chance to observe directly how dispersants work. The Ohmsett facility provided that opportunity in a controlled setting that still simulated real-world, open ocean conditions.

Here is a series of photos I took from one of the tests:

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

A few minutes after dispersants applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

A few minutes after dispersants were applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

So what do these tests demonstrate? Dispersants can be effective in removing oil from the surface of the water. Breaking the oil into tiny droplets doesn’t remove oil from the water, but it does help to increase the rate of biodegradation.

What these tests don’t tell you is the biological effect of mixing the oil in the water, as opposed to leaving it on the sea surface. Leaving oil on the surface will increase the potential exposure to birds, mammals, and shorelines, while dispersing oil will increase exposure to fish and other animals living in the water column. The decision to use dispersants or other response strategies will always involve a careful evaluation of the environmental benefits and trade-offs of the particular situation and location.

To help answer some of these trade-off questions, NOAA, in between spills, continues to study dispersants and their potential effects on the marine resources that we are trying to protect.


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Transforming an Oregon Watershed, Once Marred by a Gasoline Spill, into Fish-Friendly Habitat

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

The Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon is a vast, solitary, and beautiful place. Stretching out from the southeastern flanks of Mt. Hood, the reservation is home to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon. The reservation is bisected by one of Oregon’s most scenic roads, Highway 26. Driving down this road on a hot and dry summer day, you’ll see the rich, dark forest transition to sagebrush steppe and high desert. You’ll see hazy mountains in the distance, with creeks meandering across the foreground. Today, you’d never know a tanker truck ran off this idyllic road in 1999, spilling more than 5,000 gallons of gasoline into Beaver Butte Creek, just above where it meets Beaver Creek.

The spill impacted Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and other fish and wildlife that lived in or downstream of Beaver Butte Creek. It killed the plants and contaminated the soil around the creek as well. Cleanup efforts began immediately. A trustee council was formed to assess the environmental damages and plan for restoration. The council included representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Using funds from the settlement with the company responsible for the spill, the Trustees have chosen a range of restoration projects to improve conditions for steelhead trout and Chinook salmon throughout the Beaver Creek watershed. The restoration plan focuses on steelhead in particular because they are an endangered species, already on the brink of extinction.

In addition to the gasoline spill, there are a variety of other factors that have degraded the once-abundant natural resources on the Warm Springs Reservation. Logging and human-caused changes to the natural regime of wildfires have transformed the forests. Roads and development have relocated, and in some cases, blocked streams. Wild horses and cattle have packed down the soils and reduced vegetative cover, increasing erosion along the stream banks.

The first restoration project to offset impacts from the gasoline spill took shape in 2011. Since then, four more projects have been built, ranging from riparian fencing to road removal. There are more to come. With a creative and thoughtful approach, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the other trustees are stretching the settlement dollars by leveraging them with other funding sources to provide the greatest benefit to injured fish and wildlife.  Here are some of the highlights:

Red Lake, Happy Valley, and Quartz Creek Riparian Fencing Projects

The problem: Wild horses and free-roaming cattle. These large animals eat plants along the creeks and stomp down the dirt on the stream banks and floodplains, increasing erosion and degrading water quality.

The solution: Fencing. So far we have installed four miles of fence along stream banks, protecting 150 acres of riparian (stream-side) habitat throughout the Beaver Creek Watershed while also helping ranchers manage their livestock. An added benefit of the fencing projects?  Providing employment to 15 tribal members. That’s what we call a win-win.

S512 Large Wood Project and S501 Road Removal Project

The problem: Simplified streams that don’t provide good habitat for fish. Logging, road building, and other types of development have removed trees from the areas near streams, where the trees normally would fall into the creeks and provide nooks and crannies for fish to hide in and eat bugs.

The solution: Adding large wood to the stream to give fish places to hide, rest, and eat. In some cases we have also decommissioned old, abandoned logging roads and planted them with native trees and shrubs so that, eventually, nature can take over the work.

Quartz Creek Stream Restoration

The problem: Streams that have eroded so badly they now have 20-foot-high banks that are completely disconnected from the floodplain. The eroding stream banks release small landslides of fine dirt into the stream, making the water cloudy and covering the gravel that salmon need to spawn.

The solution: Think like a beaver. This year the Tribe plans to install two beaver dam–mimicking structures on Quartz Creek to help dam up the water and catch eroding dirt as it is moving downstream. Hopefully, actual beavers eventually will move back into the creek and continue this work.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.