NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


From Driving Underwater Scooters to Texting, Hawaii Students Learn Skills for Science Under the Sea

This is a post by NOAA Fisheries Biologist Dr. Matthew Parry. The Office of Response and Restoration’s Joe Inslee also contributed to this post.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course.

A student sending an underwater text message to another dive team during the joint NOAA-University of Hawaii course. (Jeff Kuwabara/University of Hawaii)

The sparkling, turquoise waters off the coast of Hawaii may seem like the perfect place to work, no matter what you’re doing. But when you’re trying to figure out what happened to that idyllic environment after a ship grounds on a coral reef or spills oil, those attractive waters present a surprising number of challenges.

You can’t just walk up with a clipboard and start taking samples. You have to haul your team and equipment out by boat, be a qualified SCUBA diver, and be able to get around underwater and communicate with your team. And this is all while (carefully and consistently) documenting the species of coral, fish, and other marine life, as well as their habitats, which might have been affected by a misdirected ship or spilled oil.

To help cultivate this unique and valuable skill set in Hawaii’s future scientists, NOAA has partnered with the University of Hawaii to offer a hands-on (and flippers-on) course introducing their students to a suite of marine underwater techniques. This multi-week course gives developing young scientists, all enrolled at the University of Hawaii, the critical technical skills required to succeed in the rapidly growing field of marine sciences. The course focuses on advanced underwater navigation, communication, and mapping techniques that NOAA uses in environmental assessment and restoration cases but which can be applied to almost any marine-related career.

Under the Sea

For the past month, our classroom was located in the Pacific Ocean off the south shore of the Hawaiian island Oahu. Students learned the proper techniques for using:

  • A GPS (Global Positioning System) tracker where GPS normally can’t go. Because a GPS unit doesn’t work underwater, students learned how to tow one in a waterproof bag attached to a float at the surface and which is also tethered to them as they dive. The bobbing GPS unit then follows them as they take photos of what they see in the water. Later, using a program to match the photos to their locations, students can create a map of the habitats on the ocean floor.
  • Underwater text messaging. While underwater, divers need a way to communicate with other dive teams when they are not in sight of each other. We taught the students to use underwater communication devices that use sonar to send very basic, preset messages to others in their group or on the boat. That way, they can coordinate when someone discovers, for example, a damage site, a rare coral, or even a shipwreck. They can also use it to navigate back to the boat.
  • Underwater scooters. For longer sampling surveys, students learned how to hang onto and drive a small underwater scooter. These aquatic vehicles allow divers to venture further out at a time and do so more efficiently, because they aren’t exerting themselves as much and using as much of their limited air supply.
  • High-precision underwater mapping equipment. This system, based on sonar, more accurately maps divers’ locations in real time as they gather data underwater. Surrounded by transmitters attached to fixed float lines, students were able to enter data they collected directly into handheld devices, while also creating maps underwater.

Get a better idea of what this was like for the students by taking a look at photos from the class:

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And into Local Jobs

This year’s course was taught as a partnership between the NOAA Restoration Center, the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), and the University of Hawaii Marine Option Program, with collaboration from staff with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The course was supported by PIRO’s Marine Education and Training program.

Efforts such as this one are aimed at keeping young scientists with local ecological skills and experience in Hawaii by allowing them to advance their knowledge of practical underwater techniques. Having this specialization enables them to stay employed in the region and in the field of marine science. Ideally, local students gain the technical skills they need to work in the natural resource management field in Hawaii. After taking the marine underwater techniques course, a number of highly specialized jobs would be open to them, such as conducting:

  • Environmental damage assessments after ship groundings.
  • Academic research.
  • Search and salvage missions.
  • Mitigation surveys for underwater construction projects.

Underwater Expertise in Action

This kind of underwater expertise was called upon in 2005 when the M/V Casitas ran aground in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. NOAA divers reported to the scene of the accident to help determine the damage to corals and other parts of the environment caused by the initial ship grounding and subsequent efforts to remove the ship.

Using several of the techniques we teach in this course, divers were able to accurately determine not only the locations where corals were injured but also how much of the reef was injured (about 18,220 square feet). This information was essential in the process of planning for restoration after the grounding. You can read more about the resulting restoration projects in another blog post.

Dr. Matthew Parry got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2003. He came to work for the NOAA Restoration Center in Honolulu as part of the Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program in 2007. He continues to work at NOAA as a Fishery Biologist specializing in Natural Resource Damage Assessment and teaches the Marine Underwater Techniques course with co-instructors Robert O’Conner, Kara Miller, and Jeff Kuwabara.

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Join the International Coastal Cleanup and Clean up a Beach Near You

Plastic bottle caps picked up from a beach on Midway Atoll.

Help pick up marine debris where you live on September 21 with the International Coastal Cleanup. Marine debris is a global problem, even for places like the middle of the U.S. or a remote Pacific island. The plastic bottle caps shown here were collected from Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. (NOAA)

Worried about the amount of trash on our coasts? Do gyres of bobbing plastic whirl through your head each night? Help wipe these worries from your mind and the beach by joining the International Coastal Cleanup on September 21, 2013.

With more than 550,000 volunteers scouring beaches, rivers, and lakes last year, this event is the biggest one-day cleanup of marine debris in the world. In the past, volunteers have turned up everything from bottle caps and plastic bags to toilet seats and cyborg sea-kitties. But each year cigarette butts take home the prize for most common item of debris found on the beach, with 2,117,931 of these toxic pieces of plastic turning up during the 2012 global cleanup alone.

To volunteer at a location near you, visit Ocean Conservancy online. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the annual event, and last year NOAA volunteers cleaned up more than 2.8 tons (nearly 5,700 pounds) of debris from waterways and beaches in DC, Seattle, and Oahu.

Even if you can’t make it to your nearest waterway on September 21, you can still help reduce how much trash makes it to the ocean by planning your own beach cleanup and considering these 10 suggestions from Ocean Conservancy:

10 things you can do for trash free seas

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Frozen Hands and Muddy Lagoons: Lessons from Summer Sampling in the Arctic

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division Alaska Regional Coordinator Dr. Sarah Allan.

The author, NOAA scientist Dr. Sarah Allan, collecting fish bile samples during her recent trip to Barrow, Alaska.

The author, NOAA scientist Dr. Sarah Allan, collecting fish bile samples during her recent trip to Barrow, Alaska. (NOAA)

From the relative comfort of my cubicle in Anchorage, Alaska, I have been working on plans for identifying environmental injuries, through a process known as Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic. These plans include elaborating on a conceptual model for oil spill impacts and developing methods for assessing exposure to oil chemicals and injuries to natural resources in the Arctic. During the last week of July, I had the opportunity to test some of those plans in the decidedly less comfortable but much more spectacular Alaskan Arctic.

The Assessment and Restoration Division’s ongoing effort to plan for damage assessment in the Arctic is motivated in part by growing industrial activity and vessel traffic in Arctic waters as sea ice decreases. We recognize that the risk of an oil spill in the Arctic is increasing and that conducting spill response and damage assessment in this remote, harsh, and unique region of the world presents a myriad of logistical and scientific challenges—making planning absolutely necessary.

Chasing Snails Under Ice

To test these plans, I joined the Arctic Coastal Ecosystem Survey team from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center for a week on Alaska’s North Slope. The goal was to develop and improve techniques for assessing pollutant exposure and resulting injury, which could be used to assess environmental injuries after an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic.

We worked in nearshore areas around Barrow, Alaska, which is the northernmost community in the United States. Along much of the arctic coast, the nearshore areas include estuarine lagoons and the shorelines of the barrier islands that define the lagoons.  These nearshore areas are important habitat for a diversity of shellfish, migratory birds, and different life stages of fish, which in turn serve as prey for marine mammals and as a subsistence food source for local communities. Though the lagoons and coastline are covered in ice for up to 10 months of the year, they are highly productive habitats for an array of organisms during the brief arctic summer.

Before heading out into the cold, I reviewed research on the habitats, organisms, and food webs in the nearshore areas of the Arctic. Though research on these ecosystems is somewhat limited, I looked for information about which species might be present, likely to be exposed to oil chemicals in the event of a spill, and useful for assessing injury to natural resources. I focused on larval fish and adult fish, carnivorous snails, and clams, which are important but vulnerable parts of Alaska’s lagoon and nearshore ecosystems. Next, I began thinking about how to capture these organisms—how would you sample a snail that is hunting for prey under sea ice that was still present in July?

Even Catching Nothing Reveals Something

I tested a number of techniques for capturing fish and shellfish, including using a rake, a beam trawl that drags along the bottom and collects organisms in an attached net, and a grab sampler that scoops up sediment along with the organisms on and in it. I helped the NOAA Fisheries team sample fish with a beach seine, which is a long net with floats on top and weights on the bottom that we deployed with the help of a small inflatable boat. Seining proved to be effective for capturing large numbers of adult and juvenile fish in the lagoons and nearshore sites, as well as snail larvae at one sampling site.

Capturing snails and clams proved much harder for a number of reasons. The bottoms of the lagoons were muddy, with patches of tundra that foiled the sampling tools I tried. Though the equipment worked better on the ocean, rather than the lagoon, side, I did not capture any of the snails or clams I was targeting. Past research indicates that clams and snails in the Arctic have a patchy distribution, which could explain why my efforts didn’t turn up many samples. Though I only worked in a small area of the Arctic, this information about species distribution, capture methods, and level of effort adds to our planning efforts. It helps assure that, in the event of a spill, we appropriately focus our initial efforts and study plans and make realistic decisions about how much we can sample and with what priority.

 Capturing What’s Ephemeral

Another element of my field work on Alaska’s North Slope was to test high-priority ephemeral data collection protocols that we have been developing for Natural Resource Damage Assessment in the Arctic. Ephemeral data are information that changes quickly over time, such as the concentration of oil chemicals in the water after a spill or the presence of certain species and life stages in an impacted area. Because these data are ephemeral, it is important to collect them as quickly as possible in the first few days and weeks after an oil spill so that we can accurately assess the resulting exposure and injury. Having tried-and-true protocols for collecting this information helps prepare us to do this quickly after a spill and at the high standard needed for the damage assessment process.

I tested the draft protocols for sampling water, sediment, shellfish, fish, and fish bile. This testing brought to light a number of Arctic-specific modifications that need to be made to the protocols, as well as the need to develop additional protocols for unique arctic habitats. [UPDATE: We have released these Arctic sampling guidelines.]

Weather Days

Though I was prepared to deal with Alaska’s notoriously horrific swarms of mosquitoes, it was actually the cold temperatures, snow, sea ice, and high winds that proved to be more of a challenge on this trip. These “mild” summer conditions made even simple tasks, like writing on a sample label, difficult and time consuming with numb hands, a frozen pen, a wet label, and wind trying to blow away the clipboard.

I took advantage of the “weather days,” when wind and fog made working on the water too dangerous, to meet with local scientists and borough authorities to discuss Arctic oil spill response and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. Unlike most other villages in the Alaskan Arctic, Barrow has some private, university, borough, state, and federal research facilities. This trip was a valuable chance to connect with local experts and learn about research facilities and their capacity for supporting or participating in our work.

This field work was an opportunity to put plans for conducting Natural Resource Damage Assessment in the Arctic to the test. Sharing the lessons I learned and integrating them into our planning improves our preparedness to do timely and appropriate injury assessments in the event of a spill in the Arctic.

And thanks to Ron Heintz, Ann Robertson, Mark Barton, and Sam George of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service for letting me join their crew for a week.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan has been working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division and as the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the Assessment and Restoration Division, based in Anchorage, Alaska, since February of 2012. Her work focuses on planning for natural resource damage assessment and restoration in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.

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What Is the Current State of Arctic Sea Ice and What’s in Store?

This is a post by Samantha Guidon, Constituent and Legislative Affairs Intern with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Arctic sea ice near Barrow, Alaska.

Patches of newly formed ice are visible in the open water of the Chukchi sea, offshore of “landfast ice.” Landfast ice, which is frozen to the shoreline, is an essential platform for local Inupiat people’s winter and spring hunting. This photo was taken during a flight between Barrow and Wainwright, Alaska, in early 2013. (NOAA)

A look at the Arctic region uncovers many hot-button issues: climate change, energy extraction, and cultural impacts, just to name a few—all in a remote area with a harsh environment. Recently, I received a crash course and status update on the Arctic’s disappearing sea ice at the 5th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations. Co-hosted by the United States National/Naval Ice Center and the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the conference brought together key stakeholders for information sharing and discussion.

Two facts were apparent over the course of the three-day conference: (1) sea ice in the Arctic is shrinking—more rapidly than scientists originally predicted, and (2) “ships” will be essential to the future of the Arctic.

NOAA Research Oceanographer Dr. Jim Overland predicted that the Arctic will most likely be functionally ice free in the summer by 2050, at the latest; however, he agreed with others that it may happen even sooner. Rear Admiral Jonathan W. White, Navy Oceanographer and Navigator and Director of the Task Force on Climate Change, set his prediction at 2022, which may be plausible given that all of the older ice in the region has already melted. And, currently, the oldest ice in the Arctic is a mere three years old, according to Dr. Ignatius Rigor of the International Arctic Buoy Program.

Regardless of when it happens, the Arctic will be ice-free at some point within our lifetimes, a reality that comes with the potential to alter significantly business and life in the region and across the globe. It is because of these implications that three kinds of “ships” will play a key role in the region’s future: icebreaking or ice-capable ships, partnerships, and chairmanship.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in the Bering Sea to assist the tanker Renda on its way to deliver winter fuel supplies to Nome, Alaska.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the U.S.’s only operational polar icebreaker, breaks ice in the Bering Sea to assist the tanker Renda on its way to deliver winter fuel supplies to Nome, Alaska, on Jan. 8, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Wanted: Ships

The United States currently has only one icebreaker, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is mission-ready for the Arctic. Yet transit—via maritime commerce, tourism, and energy exploration—within and through the Arctic will increase, whether or not there are enough ice-capable ships able to assist them in an emergency. This fact raised questions about U.S. ship capabilities, especially because icebergs will still be around and posing risks even without historical sea ice levels. While the U.S. does have a strong Arctic maritime presence, there is plenty of room to increase that presence in the future.

As part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Arctic Shield” drill this September, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) will be participating in an oil spill training exercise on the icebreaker Healy in Alaska. During the exercise, they will test possible spill response techniques and tools, including a new version of NOAA’s Arctic ERMA, an online mapping tool that brings together, visualizes, and shares key data from NOAA and its partners in a centralized, easy-to-use format during an environmental response scenario. Developed by OR&R through its partnership with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, this new “Stand-alone ERMA” has been adapted for use by responders in a remote command post, vessel, or other areas with limited or no internet connection.

In addition, the Coast Guard is preparing a second icebreaker, Polar Star, which should be ready for work in November and would give the United States two functioning icebreakers.

Partnerships Are Key

The need for partnerships (interagency, national, indigenous, and international), especially in an area so vast during a time with limited resources, was another key theme. One successful partnership brought up was the Memorandum of Understanding between NOAA and Shell to share data in the Arctic, demonstrating how government and industry can work together effectively. An area where there could be strengthened partnerships and better forms of communication is in working more closely with indigenous peoples to incorporate and use traditional knowledge in Arctic emergency planning, which OR&R’s Dr. Amy Merten mentioned in her talk on Arctic ERMA.

Chairmanship of the Arctic Council

Chairmanship of the Arctic Council was also on everyone’s mind. Canada just assumed chairmanship in 2013 and the United States is on deck for 2015, which will result in four years of North American chairmanship. Julia Gourley, U.S. Senior Arctic Official at the Department of State, discussed the desire to communicate and work with Canada in order to accomplish both of the countries’ goals and manage the Arctic to the best of their abilities.

However, several questions arose out of the Arctic Council discussion, including: When chairmanship moves away from North America, will the priorities shift? The Arctic Council does not have any authority for governance; will this be a problem in the future? Agreements between Arctic Council nations on oil spill response and search and rescue are great ideas in theory, but how will they be implemented during an actual emergency? This may be a compelling reason for supporting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, according to the U.N., extends “international law to the vast, shared water resources of our planet,” and under whose provisions the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard already operate, though the U.S. has not yet ratified it.

How Will the U.S. Move Ahead?

Some concerns about the U.S. status in the Arctic stem from having only one functioning ice breaker, the USCG Cutter Healy. However, Rear Admiral White referenced the fact that our country is still in transition from a nation with an Arctic state to an Arctic nation. Other Arctic nations have needed additional resources for quite some time because they have always relied on the area for trade. However, within the United States, attention on the Arctic is still a relatively new phenomenon to non-Alaskans, so it may take more time to gain the status of some of the other Arctic nations.

President Barack Obama released his National Strategy for the Arctic Region in May 2013, which outlines an overall plan for the Arctic region, focusing on security, stewardship, and partnerships. There are at least 10 other reports from federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, NOAA, U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, also outlining their own Arctic strategies and policy recommendations, making it difficult to identify a common direction when moving forward in the Arctic region.

Because of this, I am composing a report for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration that will examine all of these plans and policy recommendations and identify a key policy that is common among the reports in order to suggest a priority for implementation.

Learn more about our work in the Arctic, from oil spill response support to marine debris removal.

Samantha Guidon is currently a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania studying Environmental Policy and OR&R’s Constituent and Legislative Affairs Intern for the summer. Prior to UPenn, Sam graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in the spring of 2012 with a BA in Environmental Policy. Sam is originally from Cranford, New Jersey, and loves to vacation to the Jersey Shore.