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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Polar Bears and Response Drills in Alaska

Two boats in fog with man on beach. Image: NOAA.

NOAA scientists scout for polar bears prior to disembarking for fieldwork at Beaufort Sea, Alaska. Image credit: NOAA.

How do you handle a polar bear covered in oil?  That was just one aspect of the annual Mutual Aid Deployment exercise last month on Alaska’s North Slope oil field.

Staff members from our Emergency Response Division and the Assessment and Restoration Division as well as other NOAA offices participated in the three-day exercise. Each year government agencies, oil companies, and oil spill removal organizations in the region work together to respond to a simulated oil spill in Alaska.

The scenario for this year’s drill was the simulation of an oil pipeline leak in the Beaufort Sea and the rescue of an oiled polar bear. In the exercise, the pipeline that was leaking belonged to Hilcorp, Alaska LLC. It was the first year the oil company hosted the event.

In addition to our office, participants included:

The exercise included field equipment deployment, an Incident Command Center, and remote operations in Anchorage.

Emergency Response Division staff participated in the Incident Management Team at the command center established at Hilcorp’s Endicott Facility on the Beaufort Sea north of Prudhoe Bay.

Staff from the Assessment and Restoration Division led the Natural Resource Damage Assessment component of the drill, that included a tabletop exercise with representatives from the state and federal agencies, and staff from Hilcorp. One Damage Assessment liaison was at the Endicott facility and the rest of the team participated remotely from Anchorage. The drill provided an opportunity to practice how a natural resource damage assessment would work with response early in a spill situation.

NOAA provides scientific support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spills, and the tools we’ve developed are an extension of that support. During the exercise, our GNOME trajectory-forecasting tool kept participants updated on where the spilled oil could go.

Arctic ERMA, our online Environmental Response Management Application, was continuously being updated with information on where the oil was as well as the location all the responders and their equipment. Environmental Sensitivity Index maps, which identify vulnerable wildlife and habitat potentially at risk from the spill, were displayed in ERMA.

Arctic ERMA display from response drill. Image: NOAA.

Information visualized on Arctic ERMA during the Mutual Aid Deployment exercise on Alaska’s North Slope oil field. Image credit: NOAA.

So how do you handle an oiled polar bear?

Very carefully and with a close eye on a timer.

Part of the drill was to see if an oil-injured polar bear could be tranquilized, pulled from the water, cleaned and caged before waking up.

Standing in for a real polar bear was an industrial-sized drum, filled with sand, covered with white cloth, and sporting a molded-foam head. The idea was to put the bear in the ocean and have emergency responders rescue the bear.

The rescue went well although some miscommunication early in the day added an unexpected element of realism—the team setting the fake bear in the lagoon did not anchor it, and due to heavy seas and winds on drill day, the bear drifted out into open water. However, the polar bear response team performed expertly and the fake bear was successfully located and rescued within the time allotted.

Fake polar bear on beach near dock. Image: NOAA.

The fake polar bear used for the Mutual Aid Deployment exercise on Alaska’s North Slope oil field. Image credit: NOAA.

You can read more about other simulated oil (and oranges and rubber ducks) spills in these articles:

 

Zachary Winters-Staszak, Catherine Berg, and Sarah Allan of the Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.

 


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Weston Mill Dam Removal Project in Full Swing

New Jersey’s Millstone River with bridge and dam. Image: Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

Removal of the Weston Mill Dam is an important step in long-term efforts to restore habitat in the Raritan River watershed. Image credit: Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

Fish will once again be able to swim unencumbered in New Jersey’s Millstone River as removal of the Weston Mill Dam begins.

The project is part of the settlement negotiated to compensate for potential injuries to fish and other in-river trust resources from long-term hazardous substance releases related to the nearby American Cyanamid Superfund Site in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The site was used for manufacturing of chemicals, dyes, and pharmaceuticals and for coal tar distillation from the early 1900s until 1999.

“Removal of the Weston Mill Dam is an important step in long-term efforts to restore habitat in the Raritan River watershed,” said David Westerholm, Director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “Cooperative resolution of natural resource damage liability benefits everyone – the public, industry, and the ecosystem. These collaborative efforts lower damage assessment costs, reduce risk of litigation, and – most importantly – shorten the time between injury and restoration of public resources.”

Removal of the dam will return the flow of the river closer to its natural state restoring passage for migratory fish, and improving water quality and habitat without negative impacts to endangered species or cultural, sociological, or archaeological resources.

The project will open about 4.5 miles of the Millstone River to migratory species – including American shad and river herring  -that spend much of their lives in the ocean and estuaries but need to return to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. American eel, which spawn in the ocean but spend much of their lives in rivers and streams, will also benefit.

The dam removal will also benefit people by increasing safety and improving recreational and scenic enjoyment of the waterway A free-flowing river allows safer kayaking, canoeing, and fishing.

Here in the United States, millions of dams and other barriers block fish from reaching upstream spawning and rearing habitat. Although dams often provide benefits, such as hydroelectric power and irrigation many, including the Weston Mill Dam, are now obsolete and present a hazard.

Fish ladders, bypass channels, and rock ramps are forms of Technical Fish Passage that may be considered when dam removal is not an option, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Restoration Center.

NOAA and our co-trustees – the U.S. Department of Interior and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection – secured removal of the Weston Mill Dam through cooperative resolution of natural resource damages and ongoing work with our local partners including the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

You can read more about the Raritan River in this article:

Reyhan Mehran of the Office of Response and Restoration and Carl Alderson of the NOAA Fisheries Restoration Center contributed to this article.


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National Aquarium Helping Reduce Plastic Pollution

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

Woman reaching for beverage from case. National Aquarium.

This year the National Aquarium eliminated all single-use plastic foodware in its building. Image credit: National Aquarium.

By Maggie OstdahlNational Aquarium 

Experts estimate there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our ocean, with millions of tons entering the ocean from land each year. It’s estimated that Americans use (and throw away) about 500 million plastic straws each day, and 100 billion plastic bags each year. Disposable plastic items easily wash or blow into the ocean, where they can have devastating effects on marine animals and ecosystems.

Plastic pollution also affects human health—humans are ingesting the plastic that has found its way into our food web, and the production of plastic releases toxins into our atmosphere that have negative impacts on our health.

We also have a financial interest in reducing plastic pollution, since the cost of waste management and litter cleanup largely comes from our tax dollars. Recycling helps, but reducing the use of plastic is a critical first step in keeping it out of the ocean.

The National Aquarium is proud to contribute to the global reduction of plastics, not only through advocacy and education, but also through our own operations. This year, we eliminated all single-use plastic foodware in our building.

This change involved many of our partners, including Sodexo, the Classic Catering People and Pepsi, and a shift in the products we offer in our on-site cafes. For example, disposable plastic lids, straws, stirrers and utensils have been replaced with compostable options. Juices and soft drinks are available, but no longer sold in single-use bottles, eliminating the average 85,000 single-use soda and juice bottles previously sold within our building each year.

Prior to this year, we also removed plastic bags in our gift shops, eliminated single-use water bottles and installed water bottle filling stations throughout our building. As a result of these changes, we estimate that at least 300,000 water and soft drink bottles have been removed from the waste stream each year.

Our most recent effort to eliminate single-use plastics is also part of our leadership role in the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, or ACP, a first-of-its-kind collaboration of 19 U.S. aquariums that have joined together to take collective action to address plastic pollution.

Alongside Monterey Bay Aquarium and Shedd Aquarium, we’ve led the charge to produce In Our Hands, the ACP’s first consumer campaign. In Our Hands seeks to bring awareness and action to plastic pollution, and empower the participating aquariums’ 20 million visitors—and millions more in their communities—to shift away from single-use plastics and adopt innovative alternatives.

The participating aquariums have also pledged to significantly reduce or eliminate plastic beverage bottles by December 2020 and showcase innovative alternatives to single-use plastics in their facilities.

Whether through consumer education or operations within our own walls, the National Aquarium is proud to work with other organizations and our on-site partners to lead the fight against plastic pollution. Reducing plastic at or near the source of production is crucial to keeping it from becoming marine debris that harms wildlife and people, and educating consumers about these harmful effects is key to inspiring change.

 

Maggie Ostdahl is the conservation operations manager at the National Aquarium who never leaves the house without her reusables. The National Aquarium is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. Consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top three aquariums, we host more than 1.3 million guests and educate more than 100,000 students each year. The Aquarium’s conservation work focuses on  urban conservation and diversity, climate change and resiliency, and ocean and human health.


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Oils Spills and Animal Rescue in Alaska and Beyond

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

 

Harbor seal. Image ASLC.

This harbor seal was discovered hurt and alone on a beach South Naknek, Alaska. She was admitted to Alaska SeaLife Center’s Wildlife Response Program and after gaining her health, was release back into the wild. You can read more of her story here. All activities involving animals are authorized under ASLC’s NOAA Stranding Agreement. Image credit: Alaska SeaLife Center.

By Carrie Goertz, Alaska SeaLife Center

I love working with animals but being a bit of an organizational geek, I also enjoy the logistical side of preparation. The right tool for the job, a place for everything, and everything in its place gives me great satisfaction.

Here in Seward, Alaska, we have built a well-equipped facility with depth in space, resources, and personnel. But chances are oil spills will occur somewhere other than our home base. We have partnered with oil spill response organizations to provide support in other key areas with a large industrial and civic presence. These and other fixed facilities have the advantage of being close to population centers, providing shelter, and meeting the needs of stranded animals and our staff.

However, Alaska is a bit on the large side and has thousands of miles of remote coastlines dotted with small communities. As trans-Arctic shipping increases, so does the risk of accidents potentially affecting these shores, and we cannot count on spills happening where our equipment is conveniently available. In fact, we need to be prepared to be completely self-sufficient and independent of even the smallest communities so as not to over-tax their resources with our activities.

So how do we take our rehab center on the road? Or rather, how do we take it down the beach, since most of Alaska’s shore is not accessible by road? We need a deployable set of equipment to treat impacted animals that will also meet the needs of the staff required to care for them.

Something like a MASH unit, a mobile army surgical hospital, or perhaps a ‘Mobile Animal Stranding Hospital!’ The team at Alaska Sea Life Center had already come up with an easily shipped seal pool and a list of equipment needed to support the oiled, stranded animals at fixed facilities as part of our partnerships with oil spill response organizations.

Now we needed to focus on those additional items needed if we were required to provide our own electricity, water, shelter, and staff needs, all of which needed to be compact and deployable.

Ultimately, we settled on a tiny-house-meets-Transformers approach in which we fill specially designed shipping container units with the necessary supplies and equipment, ready to be deployed where needed. Once on site, they transform into a veterinary clinic, food storage and kitchen, animal housing—including a pool, totes, crates, and dry area—and staff area.

Drawing of a mobile vet clinic. Image: Alaska SeaLife Center.

Tiny-house-meets-Transformers in the Alaska SeaLife Center’s design for a mobile animal hospital. Each unit is filled with the necessary supplies and equipment to help wildlife, ready to be deployed where needed. Image credit: Alaska SeaLife Center.

But how will we staff our responses? Initially, we plan to draw from our own staff, as many are both Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response certified and experienced with caring for marine mammals and are based right here in Alaska. We have also partnered with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to train additional personnel experienced with the unique challenges of caring for marine mammals. Their home institutions have agreed to allow trained staff to deploy in support of events, but their staff are also trained to assist with events in their local area.

In combination, these efforts keep us ready, keep Alaska ready, and keep zoos and aquaria across the country ready.

To read more about the Association of Zoos and Aquariums program to train members for wildlife spill response:

Zoos and Aquariums Training for Oil Spill Emergency Response

Read more stories in our series on the effects of pollutants on wildlife:

 

Carrie Goertz is the staff veterinarian at the Alaska SeaLife Center overseeing the program of veterinary care for collection, research, and stranded animals. Special interests include helping the center and other zoological facilities being prepared to respond to disasters as well as how information about animals in zoological facilities and free ranging wildlife can help provide the best care for both groups.

Opened in 1998, the Alaska SeaLife Center is a private, non-profit research institution and public aquarium. ASLC generates and shares scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems, and is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. To learn more, visit www.alaskasealife.org.

 


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How Marine Debris is Impacting Marine Animals

and What You Can do About it……

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration looks at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

Animals tangled in nets. NOAA.

Left: Animals can become entangled in marine debris, particularly in items such as derelict fishing lines and nets. Image credit: NOAA. Right: Sea turtles entangled in debris run the risk of drowning if they are prevented from reaching the surface to breathe. Image credit: NOAA.

Marine debris is one of the most widespread pollution problems facing our ocean and waterways today. This issue of solid, man-made materials in the ocean or Great Lakes is a global one that leaves no part of the world untouched by debris and its impacts. These negative effects impact people on a daily basis, from economic losses to potential health hazards, but can impact marine animals most severely. Animals are impacted by marine debris in a variety of ways, including:

Ingestion. Marine debris can be ingested by animals that either mistake it for food or accidentally consume it along with their meal. This can create a lot of problems, ranging from mild discomfort to a dangerous blockage. Debris can fill up stomachs, causing an animal to feel full while depriving it of the nutritious meal it needs. In these cases, animals may starve with a full stomach.

Bird stomach, turtle with string.

Left: The contents of this bird’s stomach shows marine debris can block up an animal’s system. When plastic debris is ingested, it can make the animal feel full and robs them of getting the nutrients they need. Image Credit: NOAA. Right: This sea turtle was found after ingesting balloon debris, likely mistaking it for food. Image Credit: Blair Witherington, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Entanglement. Animals may become tangled up in marine debris and unable to free themselves. This can affect the animal in a variety of ways, ranging from mild discomfort to seriously impacting the animal’s ability to survive. Entangled animals may get abrasions from the debris, resulting in a dangerous infection. If movement is restricted, animals may not be able to feed and air-breathing fauna may drown if entangled underwater.

Habitat damage. Marine debris can also harm animals indirectly by impacting their habitat. Large or heavy debris may damage or smother sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs and sea grass.

Diver and damaged seagrass. NOAA.

Left: Debris can damage or smother sensitive habitats like coral reefs. Image credit: NOAA. Right: After six months of a derelict spiny lobster trap sitting on top of seagrass, the impact to this habitat can be readily observed. Image credit: NOAA.

Non-native species. Non-native species may hitch a ride on marine debris from one region to another. This might sound like a convenient way to travel, but if these introduced species become invasive, they can wreak havoc on an ecosystem by depleting food sources or destroying habitat.

Thankfully, there is hope! Although debris is a big problem that has many negative impacts, it is also a completely preventable problem that we have the power to address. The NOAA Marine Debris Program has many efforts underway to prevent and remove marine debris in order to reduce these harmful effects, coordinating with partners on local solutions to this global issue. Many other organizations are stepping up to do their part to address debris, from reducing their distribution of unnecessary single-use plastics to involving the community in caring for their local area.

You can get involved, too! Evaluate your habits and change those that may contribute to marine debris. Follow the “3Rs” and reduce, reuse, and recycle. An additional “R” to keep in mind is to refuse items you don’t need, like a plastic straw in your water glass. Spread the word to your family and friends so they can participate, too. If you’d like to get more involved, join a cleanup in your area (subscribe to our e-newsletter for a list of cleanups each month) or start one yourself and use the Marine Debris Tracker app to record your finds. Working together, we can make a big difference in the fight against marine debris.

To learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts to remove and prevent marine debris, head to marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Read more stories in our series on the effects of pollutants on wildlife:


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A Legacy of Industry and Toxins in Northern New Jersey: Striped Bass and Blue Crab

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

Newark Bay, New Jersey. Image: NOAA.

Newark Bay and its tributaries are among the places in northern New Jersey where the federal government has initiated cleanup and restoration activities to address contamination related to industrial releases of hazardous waste. Image credit: NOAA.

Northern New Jersey’s industrial history continues to effect two popular recreational fisheries, striped bass and blue crab. Examining how toxic waste from the past continues to impact people and wildlife today shows the importance of continuing to cleanup and restore polluted habitats.

Striped Bass

Striped bass is prized both for its taste and for the challenge in catching the fish. Its popularity in sports fishing circles rivals that of salmon. Yet because of pollutants found in the fish, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection cautions people to limit their consumption of striped bass caught in the state and advises high-risk individuals—including children—not to eat them at all. For striped bass caught in some of the northern parts of the State, like in the Newark Bay Complex – the bay and its tidal tributaries – the department has even stricter recommendations for limiting consumption.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the northeastern part of our country was heavily industrialized. Plastics, dyes, pharmaceuticals, and paint are just a few examples of important manufacturing that took place in these areas and that released, as by-products, toxic substances such as mercury, chromium, arsenic, lead, and PCBs into local bodies of water.

Striped bass on net. Image: NOAA.

Striped bass – a popular New Jersey sport fish and top-level predator – can accumulate high concentrations of unsafe contaminants. Image credit: NOAA.

Because striped bass move inland to spawn, they are accessible to recreational fishers but exposed to the contaminated sediments that remain in some of these areas from their industrial history. Striped bass is a long-lived predatory fish that feeds on smaller fish, so bioaccumulative contaminants (like mercury and PCBs) can build up in its tissues. These contaminants are harmful to people who consume the fish and are unhealthy for the fish themselves.

Blue Crab

Found in brackish estuarine areas in the same region are blue crabs. Blue crabs are among the most sought-after shellfish—both commercially and recreationally—and are found from Nova Scotia to Uruguay. Callinectes sapidus, the Latin name for blue crab, means “savory beautiful swimmer.” At about 4 inches long and 9 inches wide, they are prized for their taste.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection warns that:

“…blue claw crabs from the Newark Bay region are contaminated with harmful levels of dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Eating blue claw crabs from this region may cause cancer and harm brain development in unborn and young children. Fish consumption advisories in this region for blue claw crabs are DO NOT CATCH! AND DO NOT EAT!”

Blue crab. Image: NOAA.

Because blue crab live on the bottom of waterways where contaminants tend to accumulate, they can be unsafe to eat in formerly industrial areas. It’s always important to be aware of any consumption advisories in place for bodies of water before eating what you catch. Image credit: NOAA.

Blue crab serve an important role in the ecosystem as benthic (bottom) feeders and important prey for other fish. But because they live at the bottom of waterways, those found in formerly industrial areas, can be in direct contact with contaminated sediments that are the legacy of the historical discharge of industrial wastes and these contaminants can accumulate in their bodies. In addition to making the blue crab unsuitable for human consumption, those toxins adversely affect the blue crabs themselves, negatively impacting their survival, growth, or reproduction.

Restoring Clean and Healthy Habitats

The good news is that the process of cleanup and restoration is in progress at many of these contaminated waste sites in northern New Jersey including Newark Bay as well as throughout the country.

The industries that contributed to the pollution were developing products we depend on and were bolstering the nation’s economy but it is also essential to rehabilitate contaminated waterways and restore the habitats on which these species depend.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as Superfund, guides the reduction of exposure of wildlife like striped bass and blue crab to contaminated areas and enables the Trustees, including NOAA,  to recover the costs of restoring or replacing the equivalent of the resources that the public has lost because of the contamination.

The Trustees work to ensure that the cleanups minimize ongoing injury to wildlife and the people who use those resources. Trustees also restore clean healthy habitats for fish and shellfish to compensate for the lost use of areas that were contaminated; restored areas are designed to improve fish and shellfish populations and enhance recreational access.

For more information on our restoration work in New Jersey, read the following articles:

Read more stories in our series on the effects of pollutants on wildlife:

 

Reyhan Mehran, NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator with the Assessment and Restoration Division, and Vicki Loe, Communications Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, contributed to this article.


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How to Locate Wildlife Threatened During Oil Spills

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

Harbor seal on rock. NOAA.

Harbor seals are one of the many species cataloged in our Environmental Sensitivity Index. Image credit: Marge Brigadier, NOAA Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Scenario: You’re a state natural resource manager for a coastal salt marsh and just got a call that a tanker spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil that is now heading for your shores. You have maybe two hours before the oil starts washing up on your coast.

What do you do?

How do you determine what animals may be in jeopardy?

How do you prepare a response plan to protect those species?

Anticipating the information state and federal staff need when responding to an oil spill or other environmental hazard is what we do. In addition to providing scientific support, we’ve developed guides and databases for resource and response managers to use in those early, sometimes chaotic, hours of an incident.

One of the tools we’ve developed is our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps. The maps and data show where species are found, along with information about monthly seasonality, breeding and life stages occurring, concentrations, and qualifiers that indicate why a species occurrence may have increased vulnerabilities.

In responding to hazardous materials released into the natural environment, it’s important for responders to know that some animal species are especially vulnerable to spills and cleanup activities. Animals and their habitats tend to be most at risk from oil spills when:

  • There are many individuals concentrated in a small area, such as a seal haulout area or a bay where waterfowl concentrate during migration.
  • Early life stages such as seabird rookeries, spawning beds used by anadromous fish, or turtle nesting beaches are present.
  • Oil affects areas important to specific life stages such as foraging or over-wintering sites, or migration routes
Environmental Sensitivity Index map. Image: NOAA.

Our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps categorize and display environmental hazard sensitive animals and their habitats, and habitats that are themselves sensitive to spilled oil, such as coral reefs. This map shows part of the Maine coast. Image credit: NOAA.

What information is in an Environmental Sensitivity Index?

It’s important for emergency responders to know as much as possible about what species may be adversely affected by a hazardous spill. Our Environmental Sensitivity Index, or ESI, maps include critical information on:

  • Rare, threatened, endangered, and species of special concern
  • Commercial and recreational wildlife
  • Areas of high species concentration
  • Areas where sensitive life-stages or activities occur

In addition to information on wildlife resources along the nation’s coastlines, the indexes provide detailed information on shorelines and on how people use the natural resources present.

How we gather biological information

The Environmental Sensitivity Index biology information is a compilation of existing data and regional knowledge. A list of all threatened or endangered species in the area is amended with other regional species that are of local concern, or are particularly vulnerable to oil.

Once an initial species list is created, the search for existing species distribution and seasonal information begins. This may come from state or local government, academics, non-profit organizations, or non-affiliated experts. A typical ESI atlas will have upwards of 100 contributing expert sources and documents.

The ESI challenge is how best to compile and integrate this diverse data to create a product useful to responders who need to quickly assess an area of potential oil impact. As data is processed, the contributing experts are asked to review the species distribution and attributes to assure the data is presented accurately and as intended.

Because there are often multiple sources for a single species, this is particularly important in order to assure the experts are comfortable with how their information will be presented. This is a collaborative process during which additional species may be identified and added to the species list, and additional resource experts are identified. Reviews continue through the finalization of the ESI data and tables.

How to access the data

The Environmental Sensitivity Index data is designed to work within a geographic information system. The data can also be accessed publicly through a variety of free tools including our ESI toolkit and many of our Environmental Response Management Application, or ERMA®.

ERMA map showing ESI data. Image: NOAA.

Using the query tool in ERMA you can isolate a particular area by making a polygon and then choose which ESI data to display. Image credit: NOAA.

Making decisions during an environmental crisis sometimes requires difficult trade offs. Having this valuable information ready beforehand helps spill planners and responders prioritize areas to protect from oil and identify appropriate cleanup strategies.

Read more stories in our series on the effects of pollutants on wildlife:

Jill Petersen, ESI program manager, contributed to this article.