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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When Oil Spills Take You to Hawaii and the Yellowstone River in Two Days

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill.

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill on Jan. 19, 2015. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

We get called for scientific support between 100 and 150 times a year for oil spills, chemical releases, and other marine pollution events around the nation. That averages to two or three calls per week from the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but those calls aren’t nicely scheduled out during the week, or spread out regionally among staff in different parts of the country.

The date of an oil spill is just the starting point. Many of these pollution incidents are resolved in a day or two, but some can lead to years of work for our part of NOAA. Some oil spills make the national and regional news while others might only be a local story for the small coastal town where the spill took place.

To give you an idea, some of the incidents we worked on just last week took us from Hawaii one day to eastern Montana the next day—and we were already working on two others elsewhere. These incidents included a pipeline break and oil spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana; a mystery spill of an unknown, non-oil substance that resulted in birds stranded in San Francisco Bay, California; a tug boat sinking and releasing diesel fuel off of Oahu, Hawaii; and a fishing vessel grounded near Sitka, Alaska.

Aerial view of oil spilled along the edge of Yellowstone River.

View from an aerial survey of the spill site on the Yellowstone River, taken about six miles upstream from Glendive, Montana. (Montana Department of Environmental Quality)

The Yellowstone River spill involved a pipeline releasing oil as it ran under a frozen river. The source of the leaking oil has been secured, which means no more oil is leaking, but response operations are continuing. It is an interesting spill for several reasons. One is because the oil type, Bakken crude, is an oil that has been in the news a lot recently. More Bakken crude oil is being transported by train these days because the location of the oil fields is far from ports or existing pipelines. Several rail car accidents involving this oil have ended in explosions. Another reason the Yellowstone River spill is of particular interest is because the response has to deal with ice and snow conditions along with the usual challenges of dealing with an oil spill.

Watch footage of an aerial survey over the Yellowstone River and spilled oil:

The mystery spill in the San Francisco Bay Area is still a mystery at this point (both what it is and where it came from), but hundreds of birds are being cleaned in the meantime. The response is coordinating sampling and chemical analysis to figure out the source of the “mystery goo” coating these seabirds.

Marine diesel fuel dyed red in the ocean.

Marine diesel fuel, dyed red, is shown approximately seven miles south of Honolulu Airport on January 23, 2015. The spill came from a tugboat that sank off Barbers Point Harbor, Oahu, on January 22. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Meanwhile, the tugboat accident in Hawaii involved about 75,000 gallons of fuel oil leaking from a tugboat that sank in over 2,000 feet of water. All 11 crewmembers of the tugboat were safely rescued. We were helping forecast what was happening to the spilled oil and where it might be drifting. In addition, there was a lot of concern about endangered Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles in the area, but no oiled wildlife have been reported.

And that brings us to the fishing vessel grounded in Alaska. At this time the vessel is still intact and hasn’t spilled any of the 700 gallons of fuel believed to be onboard. Salvors are working to refloat the vessel. Fortunately, the crew had time to cap some of the fuel tank vents before abandoning ship, which may be helping prevent oil from being released. All four crew were safely rescued.

That makes four very different spills in four very different areas … and we have to be ready to respond with oil spill models and environmental expertise for all of them at the same time. But that’s just all in a day’s work at NOAA.


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Despite Threats, Celebrating Restoration Successes for Seabirds in California

Flocking seabirds on ocean surface with humpback whale tale and NOAA ship in the distance.

Thousands of seabirds flock around a diving humpback whale off Alaska’s Unalaska Island. The NOAA Ship OSCAR DYSON is in the distance. (NOAA)

Seabirds: You may see them perched along a fishing pier poised to scavenge or swooping for fish by the thousands out in the open ocean. This diverse group of marine birds serves as a valuable indicator [PDF] of the health of the ocean and what they have been telling us lately is that they face many threats.

Often victims of oil spills and other pollution, seabirds are threatened by a changing climate, hunting, and introduced species (such as rats or feral cats). In addition, they frequently get caught in fishing nets, a serious concern for many seabirds, particularly if they dive for food.

Yet it’s not all bad news for our feathered friends. Help is on the way.

Bait and Switch

While nearly 7,000 birds were estimated killed after the container ship Cosco Busan spilled heavy oil into San Francisco Bay in 2007, restoration projects are already underway. In 2014 alone, over $15 million was spread across more than 50 projects to enhance and restore beaches and habitat, including seabird habitat, around the Bay Area.

One project in particular is aimed at undoing the damage done to the threatened Marbled Murrelet. In order for these small, chubby seabirds to recover from this oil spill, they need some help keeping jays from eating their eggs. For three years in a row, a restoration project has been working on this in the old growth forests around campgrounds in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

From the Cosco Busan Oil Spill Trustee Council [PDF]: “In order to train jays not to eat murrelet eggs, hundreds of chicken eggs were painted to look like murrelet eggs, injected with a chemical that makes the jays throw up, and placed throughout the forest. Monitoring suggests the jays learn to avoid the eggs and may teach their offspring as well.”

Cleaning up the Neighborhood

Meanwhile, down the California coast, seabirds in the Channel Islands were suffering as a result of the pesticide DDT and industrial chemicals that were dumped into the ocean by local industries years ago. The birds themselves were contaminated by the pollution and their eggshells became dangerously thin, reducing reproduction—a notorious effect of DDT. On top of all that, human activities had been altering seabird habitat on these islands for years.

NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program has been focused on reversing this harmful trend with a number of projects to restore seabird nesting habitat, attract seabirds to the restored sites, and to remove non-native plants and animals on the Channel Islands and Baja California Pacific Islands.

On Scorpion Rock, a small islet located off the northeast coast of Santa Cruz Island, biologists have been transforming the inhospitable landscape for Cassin’s Auklets, a small open-ocean seabird. Scorpion Rock had been overrun with dense, non-native ice plant which prevented the seabirds from digging burrows to nest and provided little protection from predators.

Begun in 2008, the restoration of Scorpion Rock is nearly complete. The island now boasts a lush cover of 17 different native plant species, including shrubs that stabilize the soil and offer cover for nesting birds. That work has been paying off.

According to the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program: “Biologists have seen a 3-fold increase in the number of natural Cassin’s Auklets burrows since the project started. Over the last few years, biologists have also observed a lower number of dead adult auklets which means that the native plants are providing adequate cover from predators.”

In the final year of the project, the plan is to use sounds of breeding seabirds to attract greater numbers to the restored habitat on Scorpion Rock, and continue maintaining the native vegetation and monitoring the birds’ recovery.

Learn more about this and other seabird restoration projects in the Channel Islands and watch a video from 2010 about the restoration at Scorpion Rock during its earlier stages:


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Information about Oil Spills Is at Your Fingertips

Where and when was the biggest oil spill? How many oil spills happen each year? Is the frequency of oil spills going up or down? Where can I get information about oil spills?

We at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration hear these questions often, frequently from high school students looking for help writing their research papers …

We have a lot of information on our website about oil spills in general, as well as those cases in which we have provided scientific expertise during the response. In addition, we maintain IncidentNews.noaa.gov, which has information on thousands of selected historical incidents spanning 30 years of our experience responding to spills.

But NOAA only becomes involved with larger, more complex incidents in which scientific expertise is required to track or clean up spilled oil or cases with a significant threat to marine and coastal resources. Sometimes we get involved before any oil has actually spilled, such as when a ship runs aground on a coral reef and the fuel tanks have not been breached—yet. We typically respond to more than a hundred oil and chemical incidents annually, but there are thousands of smaller spills happening as well, many in marinas and urban and industrial waterways.

So what are some good sources of information on oil spills? For general statistics on oil spills in U.S. waters, I recommend that researchers go to the National Response Center website at http://www.nrc.uscg.mil.

The National Response Center (NRC) receives all reports of releases involving hazardous substances, including oil spills. Reports to the NRC activate the National Contingency Plan and the federal government’s response capabilities. The NRC maintains reports of all releases and spills in a national database going back to 1990 that you can download and search.

If you are interested in a specific pollution incident in the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard has a lot of information in their Marine Casualty and Pollution Data files. This database goes back to 1973 and captures details about marine casualty and pollution incidents that were investigated by the Coast Guard.

On the international level, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) does a good job of providing data on oil spills from tankers and barges transporting oil. The ITOPF database goes back to 1970, and includes data from a variety of sources including maritime insurers and shipping publications.

One of the interesting trends that ITOPF data shows is that while tanker traffic has increased over the past 30 years, there has been a downward trend in oil spills originating from tankers.  In their list of the top 20 tanker accidents, 19 occurred before 1990, or pre-Exxon Valdez. Since then, many oil pollution prevention rules have been put in place and ship navigation tools have been improved. One notable example being the phase out of single-hull tankers.

Another good source of international data is CEDRE, the Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution, based in Brittany, France. The CEDRE website has a good map and database featuring major oil spills around the world, dating back to 1917.

Speaking of oil spill data, we crunched the numbers on the locations of all of our oil spill-related responses from 2014 and came up with the following infographic:

Map of United States with numbers of oil spill responses in various coastal regions.

NOAA oil spill responses in 2014, by region. Includes actual and potential oil spills. The Gulf of Mexico, a region which produces and refines a lot of oil, also experiences the most oil spill responses NOAA is involved with of any other region. The U.S. Coast Guard in different regions takes advantage of NOAA support services in different ways, which may account for some of the very low or very high numbers of NOAA responses in various regions. (NOAA)


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Spring 2015

A group of people gathered on a deck, with a ferry in the background.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of April 27-May 1, 2015 in Houston, Texas.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, February 27, 2015, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, March 13, 2015, via email.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

One additional SOS course will be held in 2015 in Seattle, Washington (date to be determined).

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Why Are Seabirds so Vulnerable to Oil Spills?

Out of the squawking thousands of black and white birds crowding the cliff, a single male sidled up to the rocky edge. After arranging a few out-of-place feathers with his sleek beak, the bird plunged like a bullet into the ocean below. These penguin look-alikes (no relation) are Common Murres. Found along the U.S. coast from Alaska to California, this abundant species of seabird dives underwater, using its wings to pursue a seafood dinner, namely small fish.

During an oil spill, however, these classic characteristics of murres and other seabirds work to their disadvantage, upping the chance they will encounter oil—and in more ways than one. To understand why seabirds are so vulnerable to oil spills, let’s return to our lone male murre and a hypothetical oil spill near his colony in the Gulf of Alaska.

Preening in an Oil Sheen

After diving hundreds of feet beneath the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean, the male murre pops back to the surface with a belly full of fish—and feathers laminated in oil. This bird has surfaced from his dinner dive into an oil slick, a common problem for diving birds during oil spills. His coat of feathers, once warm and waterproof, is now matted. The oil is breaking up his interlocking layer of feathers, usually maintained by the bird’s constant arranging and rearranging, known as preening.

With his sensitive skin suddenly exposed not just to the irritating influence of oil but also to the cold, the male murre becomes chilled. If he does not repair the alignment of his feathers soon, hypothermia could set in. This same insulating structure also traps air and helps the bird float on the water’s surface, but without it, the bird would struggle to stay afloat.

Quickly, the freshly oiled seabird begins preening. But with each peck of his pointed beak into the plumage, he gulps down small amounts of oil. If the murre ingests enough oil, it could have serious effects on his internal organs. Impacts range from disrupted digestion and diarrhea to liver and kidney damage and destruction of red blood cells (anemia).

But oil can find yet another way of entering the bird: via the lungs. When oil is spilled, it begins interacting with the wind, water, and waves and changing its physical and chemical properties through the process of weathering. Some components of the oil may evaporate, and the murre, bobbing on the water’s surface, could breathe in the resulting toxic fumes, leading to potential lung problems.

Birds’-Eye View

Colony of murres on a rocky outcropping on the California coast.

Murres are very social birds, living in large colonies on rocky cliffs and shores along the U.S. West Coast. If disturbed by an oil spill, many of these birds may set off temporarily to find a more suitable home. (Creative Commons: Donna Pomeroy, Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License)

This single male murre is likely not the only one in his colony to experience a run-in with the oil spill. Even those seabirds not encountering the oil directly can be affected. With oil spread across areas where the birds normally search for food and with some of their prey potentially contaminated or killed by the oil, the colony may have to travel farther away to find enough to eat. On the other hand, large numbers of these seabirds may decide to up and move to another home for the time being.

At the same time that good food is becoming scarcer, these birds will need even more food to keep up their energy levels to stay warm, find food, and ward off disease. One source of stress—the oil spill—can exacerbate many other stresses that the birds often can handle under usual circumstances.

If the oil spill happens during mating and nesting time, the impacts can be even more severe. Reproducing requires a lot of energy, and on top of that, exposure to oil can hinder birds’ ability to reproduce. Eggs and very young birds are particularly sensitive to the toxic and potentially deadly properties of oil. Murres lay only one egg at a time, meaning they are slower to replace themselves.

The glossy-eyed male murre we are following, even if he manages to escape most of the immediate impacts of being oiled, would soon face the daunting responsibility of taking care of his fledgling chick. As young as three weeks old, his one, still-developing chick plops off the steep cliff face where the colony resides and tumbles into the ocean, perhaps a thousand feet to its waiting father below. There, the father murre is the chick’s constant caregiver as they travel out to sea, an energy-intensive role even without having to deal with the potential fallout from an oil spill.

Birds of a Feather Get Oiled Together

Like a bathtub filled with rubber ducks, murres form giant floating congregations on the water, known as “rafts,” which can include up to 250,000 birds. In fact, murres spend all but three or four months of the year out at sea. Depending on where the oil travels after a spill, a raft of murres could float right into it, a scenario which may be especially likely considering murre habitat often overlaps with major shipping channels.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, responders collected some 30,000 dead, oil-covered birds. Nearly three-quarters of them were murres, but the total included other birds which dive or feed on the ocean surface as well. Because most bird carcasses never make it to shore intact where researchers can count them, they have to make estimations of the total number of birds killed. The best approximation from the Exxon Valdez spill is that 250,000 birds died, with 185,000 of them murres.

While this population of seabirds certainly suffered from this oil spill (perhaps losing up to 40 percent of the population), murres began recovering within a few years of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Surprisingly resilient, this species is nonetheless one of the most studied seabirds [PDF] precisely because it is so often the victim of oil spills.


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After a Century Apart, NOAA and Partners Reunite a Former Wetland with San Francisco Bay’s Tides

Excavator removing earth from a breached barrier between tide waters in a slough and the new wetland.

The first of four breaches of tidal levees separating Cullinan Ranch from the tide waters of San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Scooping away the last narrow band of mud, a bright yellow excavator released a rush of brackish water into an area cut off from the tides for more than a hundred years.

The 1,200 acre field now filling with water, known as Cullinan Ranch due to its history as a hay farm, is once again becoming a tidal wetland.

On January 6, 2015, more than 100 people celebrated the reintroduction of tide waters to Cullinan Ranch in Solano County, California. For decades before, earthen levees had separated it from the nearby Napa River and San Pablo Bay, a northern corner of the San Francisco Bay Estuary.

With three more levee breaches planned by the end of January, restoration of this 1,500 acre site is nearly complete, with efforts to monitor the project’s progress to follow. Surrounded by state and federal wildlife lands, Cullinan Ranch will fill in a gap in coastal habitat as it becomes integrated with San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

How Low Can It Flow

For the most part, Cullinan Ranch will be covered in open water because years of farming, beginning in the 1880s, caused the land to sink below sea level. The open water will provide places for animals such as fish and birds—as well as the invertebrates they like to eat—to find food and rest after big storms.

However, some areas of the property will remain above the low tide level, creating conditions for the plant pickleweed to thrive. While a succulent like cacti, pickleweed can survive wet and salty growing conditions. (Fun fact: Some people enjoy cooking and eating pickleweed. When blanched, it apparently tastes salty and somewhat crispy.) The salt marsh harvest mouse, native to California and one of the few mammals able to drink saltwater, also will take advantage of the habitat created by the pickleweed in the recovering wetland.

Wildlife will not be the only ones enjoying the restoration of Cullinan Ranch. A major highway passes by the site, and Cullinan Ranch has experienced numerous upgrades to improve recreational access for people brought there by Highway 37. Soon anyone will be able to hike on the newly constructed trails, fish off the pier, and launch kayaks from the dock.

Turning Money into Marshes

The restoration of Cullinan Ranch from hay field to tidal wetland has been in the works for a long time, brought about by a range of partners and funding agencies, including NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Ducks Unlimited. NOAA provided several sources of funding to help finish this restoration project.

In addition to $900,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NOAA contributed $650,000 through a community-based restoration partnership with Ducks Unlimited and $1.65 million awarded for natural resource damages through the Castro Cove trustee council. The latter funding was part of a $2.65 million settlement with Chevron as a result of the nearby Chevron Richmond Refinery discharging mercury and oil pollution into Castro Cove for years. Cullinan Ranch and Breuner Marsh are the two restoration projects Chevron funded to make up for this pollution.

Map of San Francisco Bay showing locations of NOAA restoration projects.

NOAA is working on a number of tidal wetland restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Cullinan Ranch is one of the largest restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay, but it is far from the only one NOAA is involved with in the region. Helping reverse a century-long trend which saw many of the bay’s tidal wetlands disappear, NOAA has been working on a suite of projects restoring these historic and important coastal features in northern California.

Watch footage of the earthen levee being breached to reconnect the bay’s tide waters to Cullinan Ranch and see what the wetlands look like after the waters have fully returned.

Excavator removing a dirt levee and allowing tide waters to rush into a dry marsh.

Taking out the first levee at the Cullinan Ranch marsh restoration project in central California in January 2015. (NOAA)