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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How Do You Keep Invasive Species out of America’s Largest Marine Reserve?

A young monk seal and birds on the beach of French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The coral reefs of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are the foundation of an ecosystem that hosts more than 7,000 species, including marine mammals, fishes, sea turtles, birds, and invertebrates. Many are rare, threatened, or endangered, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. At least one quarter are found nowhere else on Earth. (NOAA)

From Honolulu, it takes a day and a half to get there by boat. But Scott Godwin, an expert in the ways “alien” marine life can travel and take hold in new places, knows what is at risk. He understands perfectly well what might happen if a new species manages to make that journey to the remote and incredible area under his watch.

Godwin works for the Resource Protection Program in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and State of Hawaii, he is charged with protecting Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a tall order considering that it is one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. This monument includes an isolated chain of tropical islands, atolls, and reefs hundreds of miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands—appropriately known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—as well as nearly 140,000 square miles of surrounding waters. The monument is home to a host of rare and unique species, some found exclusively within its borders, as well as some of the healthiest and least disturbed coral reefs on Earth.

Map of main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the single largest fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag, and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It encompasses 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean — an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined. (NOAA)

And it is Godwin’s job to keep it that way. Along with climate change and marine debris, invasive species have been identified as one of the top three threats to this very special place, which, in addition to being a national monument, is also a national wildlife refuge and United Nations World Heritage Site. Fortunately, invasive species also happen to be Godwin’s area of expertise.

If new species were to break into the monument’s borders—and in some cases, they already have—the risk is of them exhibiting “invasive” behavior. In other words, outcompeting the native marine life among the coral reefs and taking the lion’s share of the most valuable resources: food and space.

But considering how remote and expansive the area is—the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands stretch across 1,200 nautical miles and are closed to the general public—how would anything find its way there in the first place?

Yet help from humans is how many species arrive in new environments, including the main Hawaiian Islands, where more than 400 non-native marine species are established. That means ships and other human activity coming from Hawaii represent the greatest potential for bringing invasive species into the monument.

Packing List: Bleach, Deep Freezer, and Quarantine Clothes

Dianna Parker of the NOAA Marine Debris Program learned this lesson firsthand. In October 2014, she and colleague Kyle Koyanagi joined a team of NOAA divers from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) on a mission to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to remove the tons of old fishing nets that wash up on its coral reefs each year.

In the months leading up to her departure from Honolulu, Parker learned she would need something called “quarantine clothes.” In essence, they were a brand-new set of clothes set aside for each time she would step on dry land in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Furthermore, these new clothes had to be sealed in plastic bags and stored in a walk-in freezer for 48 hours before she could wear them. That made for a chilly start to the day, as Parker recalled.

The quarantine clothes were part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protocol for limiting both the introduction of foreign species into the monument and the spread of species between islands within it. “Something that’s native to one tiny island could be alien to the next one down the chain,” said Parker. The transmission could happen via a spore on your shoe or a seed stuck to your shirt.

In addition, all of the gear and equipment they were using, such as wet suits, fins, and life vests, had to be soaked in a dilute bleach solution before being used in a new location, a protocol developed by NOAA.

For the roughly month-long mission, Parker brought six full outfits to wear on the six islands the ship planned to visit. In the end, she only visited five islands and was able to turn a t-shirt from the sixth outfit into a makeshift hat to keep the hot sun at bay.

“Having to go through that level of precaution to not bring invasive species into the monument makes you realize just how delicate things are up there,” reflected Parker.

Stowaways Not Welcome

But before Parker and the rest of her team left on their mission, the vessel that would carry them, the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette, first had to undergo a thorough cleaning and inspection before being granted a permit to enter the monument. The hull was scrubbed and checked by specially trained divers for even as much as a rogue barnacle. Ballast water, the water held in tanks on a ship to provide stability, was inspected closely as well because numerous creatures worldwide have been documented hitching a secret ride this way. And, of course, the ship was examined for rats, the perennial stowaways.

However, rats arrived in the monument years ago via the U.S. military activity previously based on Midway Atoll, a strategic naval base during World War II and the Cold War, and French Frigate Shoals, a runway and refueling stop for planes headed to Midway during World War II. While efforts to eradicate rats at these former military bases were successful, attempting a similar project for underwater species would be much more challenging. Marine species spread very quickly and human activities are necessarily limited by the finite amount of time we can spend underwater.

Currently, Godwin has documented about 60 non-native marine species in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, mainly at Midway, but these species—the majority of which are marine invertebrates such as tube worms and sea squirts—are not recent arrivals. Most likely harken back to the area’s military days, which ended in 1994. Today the easiest way for a new marine species to get a foothold on these reefs is by colonizing “disturbed habitat,” or areas humans have altered, such as seawalls or docks, as is the case at Midway and French Frigate Shoals.

“Competition with native species is pretty stiff,” admits Godwin. While marine life from outside the monument can become established, they often don’t have the opportunity to become invasive, he said. “But we never say never,” which is why he helps train NOAA divers going to the monument to recognize the aggressive behaviors of marine invasive species.

Marine Debris and Surprises from Japan

Person pulling bio-fouled net out of water into boat with diver's help.

NOAA divers examining the abandoned fishing nets for potentially invasive species, as they were removing them from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in October 2014. (NOAA)

Godwin was on high-alert, however, when debris washed away from Japan during the 2011 tsunami began showing up in Hawaii. Most marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands comes in the form of fishing nets typically lost in the open ocean—the kind the NOAA PIFSC team was clearing from reefs. Many of the species colonizing these nets are native to the open ocean and generally do not survive in the monument’s coastal environment.

But the boats and other debris from Japan came from the coast, bringing with them the hardy and flexible marine life capable of surviving the transoceanic journey until they found another coastal home. Fortunately, Godwin found that none of the non-native Japanese species showing up on tsunami debris became established in either Hawaii or the monument.

“Marine debris is a vector [for invasive species],” said Godwin, “but we have very little control,” which is why dealing with it in the monument focuses more on response than prevention. Yet with invasive species, prevention is always the goal. And when you get a glimpse of the unique place that is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, it is not hard to understand the lengths being taken to protect it.


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To Save Corals in an Oahu Bay, First Vacuum up Invasive Algae, Then Apply Sea Urchins

Diver placing algae into Super Sucker vacuum hose.

With the help of a gentle vacuum hose attached to a barge — a device known as the “Super Sucker” — divers can now remove invasive algae from coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay in much less time. (Credit: State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources)

Progress used to be painfully slow. On average, it would take a diver two strenuous hours to remove one square meter (roughly 10.5 square feet) of the exotic red algae carpeting coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. In addition to ripping away thick mats of algae, divers also had to pluck off any remaining algae stuck to the reef and use a hand net to capture bits floating in the surrounding water. Even then, these invasive algae were quick to regrow from the tiniest remnants left behind.

Today, however, divers can clear the same area in roughly half the time, or even less, depending on how densely the algae are growing. How? With the help of a device called the “Super Sucker.”

This underwater vacuum is not much more than a barge equipped with a 40 horsepower pump and long hose that gets lowered into the water. Divers still pull off chunks of algae from the reef, but they then stuff it into the device’s hose. The steady, gentle suction of the Super Sucker pulls the algae—including any tiny drifting remnants—through the hose up to a mesh table on the barge. There, seawater drains out and any critters accidentally caught by the algae-vacuuming can be returned to the ocean. People on the barge can then pack the algae into mesh bags to be taken back to shore. (Watch a video of the Super Sucker at work.)

Super sucker barge with green collection hose in a tropical bay.

The Super Sucker barge at left in Kaneohe Bay. The green collection hose used to vacuum up invasive algae from the reefs below is visible on the water surface. (Credit: State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources)

The success of the Super Sucker stands to be augmented with help from small, spiny sea creatures—sea urchins—as well as a new, dedicated infusion of funding from NOAA which will expand the device’s reach in Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay. But the question remains: How did exotic algae come to cause so much trouble for corals in the first place?

A Welcome Introduction, an Unintended Stay

The problematic marine algae, or seaweed, in Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay actually is a complex of two types of algae originally from Southeast Asia: Kappaphycus and Eucheuma. Both algae were brought to this area on the eastern side of Oahu in the 1970s in an attempt to cultivate them as a source of carrageenan, a thickening agent used in processed foods. While the agricultural endeavor never took off in Oahu, these algae did. Unfortunately, this was somewhat of a surprise. Two years after the algae’s introduction, several studies found a low likelihood of their escaping from experimental pens and threatening coral habitat in the bay.

In the decades since, Kappaphycus and Eucheuma have proven that prediction very wrong, as these algae are now comfortably established in Kaneohe Bay. Because these algae spread aggressively once they arrived in this new environment, they have earned the label “invasive.” The algae have been overgrowing the coral reefs, smothering and killing corals by blocking the sunlight these organisms need to survive. These days, some areas of Kaneohe Bay are no longer dominated by corals but instead by invasive algae.

Tumbleweed-like clumps of invasive algae on a coral reef.

Meet the complex of invasive algae plaguing coral reefs in Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay: Kappaphycus and Eucheuma. These thick, warty, plastic-like, and irregularly branching algae grow in tumbleweed-like clumps, often smothering coral beneath them. (Credit: State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources)

Delivering a Double-Whammy to Invasive Algae

Around 2005, NOAA helped fund the development of the Super Sucker as part of a joint project between the State of Hawaii and the Nature Conservancy. The project was aimed at containing these invasive algae in Kaneohe Bay, a partnership that continues to the present day.

Today, NOAA is becoming involved once more by expanding this project and bringing the Super Sucker into new parts of Kaneohe Bay. NOAA will accomplish this by using part of the nearly $6 million available for restoration after the 2005 grounding of the ship M/V Cape Flattery. When the ship became lodged on coral reefs south of Oahu, efforts to refloat the vessel and avoid an oil spill caused extensive harm to coral habitat across approximately 20 acres, an area now recovering well on its own.

Sea urchins grazing on seaweed on a coral reef.

The native sea urchins eat away at any invasive algae left on the coral, keeping the algae’s growth in check. The State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources is raising these urchins in captivity and releasing them into Kaneohe Bay. (Credit: State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources)

This restoration project will not just involve the Super Sucker, however. Another key component in controlling invasive algae in Kaneohe Bay is reintroducing a native predator. While most plant-eating fish there prefer to graze on other, tastier algae, native sea urchins have shown they are happy to munch away at the tiniest scraps of Kappaphycus and Eucheuma found on reefs. But the number of sea urchins in Kaneohe Bay is unusually low.

Currently, the State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources is raising native sea urchins and experimentally releasing them back into the bay. NOAA’s restoration project for the Cape Flattery coral grounding would greatly expand the combined use of the Super Sucker and reintroduced sea urchins to control the invasive algae.

Together, mechanically removing the algae with the Super Sucker and reintroducing sea urchins in the same area should be effective at curbing the regrowth and spread of invasive algae in the northern part of Kaneohe Bay. Making sure invasive algae do not spread outside the bay is an important part of this coral restoration project. This northern portion, near a major entrance to the bay, is a critical area for containing the algae and making sure it doesn’t escape from the bay to other near shore reefs.

Saving Corals and Creating Fertilizer

Top, coral reef with invasive algae. Bottom, same reef after algae was removed.

Top, coral reef before Super Sucker operations, and bottom, the same reef after the Super Sucker has cleared away the invasive algae. (Credit: State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources)

Ultimately, the goal is to move toward natural controls (i.e., the sea urchins) taking over the containment of Kappaphycus and Eucheuma algae in Kaneohe Bay.

The benefits of removing the algae from the area’s coral reefs are two-fold. First, clearing away the carpets of algae saves the corals that are being smothered beneath them. Second, opening up other areas of the seafloor previously covered by algae creates space for young corals to settle and establish themselves, growing new reef habitat.

Another benefit of clearing the invasive algae in this project is that it provides a source of free fertilizer for local farmers. Not only does it offer a sustainable source of nutrients on agricultural fields but the algae breaks down more slowly and is therefore less susceptible than commercial fertilizer to leaching into nearby waterways.

Even so, a 2004 study confirmed that these algae do not survive in waters with low salt levels, meaning that any algae that do run off from farms into nearby streams will not eventually re-infect the marine environment. Another win.


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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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When the Dynamics of an Oil Spill Shut Down a Nuclear Power Plant

Yellow containment boom floats on a river next to a nuclear power plant.

Precautionary containment boom is visible around the water intake system at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey on December 6, 2004. The nuclear plant was shut down for 11 days to prevent the heavy, submerged oil from the Athos spill from clogging the water intakes. (NOAA)

“I’ve never reopened a nuclear power plant,” thought NOAA’s Ed Levine. Despite that, Levine knew it was his job to get the right information to the people who ultimately would make that decision. This was his role as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator during oil spills. However, most major oil spills do not affect nuclear power plants. This wintry day in 2004 was an exception.

Forty miles north of the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, an oil tanker called the Athos I had struck an object hidden beneath the Delaware River. As it was preparing to dock at the CITGO refinery near Philadelphia on November 26, the ship began tilting to one side, the engine shut down, and oil started gushing out.

“Not your typical oil spill,” later reflected Jonathan Sarubbi, who served as U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port and led the federal response during this incident. Not only did no one immediately know what the ship had hit—or where that object was located in the river channel—but the Athos, now sitting too low in the water to reach the dock, was stuck where it was. And it was still leaking its cargo of heavy Venezuelan crude oil.

Capt. Sarubbi ordered vessel traffic through this busy East Coast shipping channel to stop until the object the Athos hit could be found. Little did Capt. Sarubbi, Levine, and the other responders know that even more challenges would be in store beneath the water and down the river.

Getting Mixed up

Most oils, most of the time, float on the surface of water. This was precisely what responders expected the oil coming out of the Athos to do. But within a couple days of the spill, they realized that was not the case. This oil was a little on the heavier side. As it shot out of the ship’s punctured bottom, some of the oil mixed with sediment from the river bottom. It didn’t have far to go; thanks to an extremely low tide pulling the river out to sea, the Athos was passing a mere 18 inches above the bottom of the river when it sprung a leak.

Now mixed with sediment, some of the spilled oil became as dense as or denser than water. Instead of rising to the river surface, it sank to the bottom or drifted in the water column. Even some of the oil that floated became mixed with sediment along the shoreline, later sinking below the surface. For the oil suspended in the water, the turbulence of the Delaware River kept it moving with the currents increasingly toward the Salem nuclear plant, perched on the river’s edge.

NOAA’s oil spill trajectory model GNOME forecasts the spread of oil by assuming the oil is floating on the water’s surface. Normally, our oceanographers can verify how well the forecasts are doing by calibrating the model against twice-a-day aerial surveys of the oil’s movement. The trouble with oil that does not float is that it is harder to see, especially in the murky waters of the Delaware River.

Responders were forced to improvise. To track oil underwater, they created new sampling methods, one of which involved dropping weighted ropes into the water column at various points along the river. The ropes were lined with what looked like cheerleader pom-poms made of oil-attracting plastic strips that would pick up oil as it passed by.

Nuclear Ambitions

Nuclear plants like the Salem facility rely on a steady flow of freshwater to cool their reactors. A thin layer of floating oil was nearing the plant by December 1, 2004, with predictions that the heavier, submerged oil would not be far behind. By December 3, small, sticky bits of oil began showing up in the screens on the plant’s cooling water intakes. To keep them from becoming clogged, the plant decided to shut down its two nuclear reactors the next day. That was when NOAA’s Ed Levine was tasked with figuring out when the significant threats due to the oil had passed.

Eleven days later, the Salem nuclear plant operators, the State of New Jersey, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the plant to restart. A combination of our modeling and new sampling methods for detecting underwater oil had shown a clear and significant drop in the amount of oil around the plant. Closing this major electric generating facility cost $33.1 million out of more than $162 million in claims paid to parties affected by the Athos spill. But through our innovative modeling and sampling, we were able to reduce the time the plant was offline, minimizing the disruption to the power grid and reducing the economic loss.

Levine recalled this as an “eye-opening” experience, one yielding a number of lessons for working with nuclear power plants should an oil spill threaten one in the future. To learn more about the Athos oil spill, from response to restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos.

A special thanks to NOAA’s Ed Levine and Chris Barker, former U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jonathan Sarubbi, and Henry Font, Donna Hellberg, and Thomas Morrison of the Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center for sharing information and data which contributed to this post.


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Carrying on a Nearly Fifty Year Tradition, Scientists Examine the Intersection of Pollution and Marine Life

As reliably as the tides, each month biologist Donald J. Reish would wash over the library at California State University, Long Beach, armed with stacks of 3×5 index cards. On these cards, Reish meticulously recorded every scientific study published that month on pollution’s effects on marine life. When he began this ritual in 1967, this did not amount to very many studies.

“There was essentially none at the time,” says Reish, who helped pioneer the study of pollution’s impacts on marine environments in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, after a year of collecting as much as he could find in scientific journals, he would mail the index cards with their handwritten notes to a volunteer crew that often included his former graduate students, including Alan Mearns, now an ecologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Like a wave, they would return to the library to read, review, and send summaries of these studies back to Reish. At his typewriter, he would compile the individual summaries into one comprehensive list, an “in case you missed it” for scientists interested in this emerging field of study. This compilation would then be published in a scientific journal itself.

By the early 2000s, Reish handed off leadership of this annual effort to Mearns, an early recruit to the project. Today, Mearns continues the nearly 50 year tradition of reviewing the state of marine pollution science and publishing it in the journal Water Environment Research. Their 2014 review, “Effects of Pollution on Marine Organisms,” comes together a little differently than in the 1960s and 70s—and covers issues that have changed with the years as well.

Signs of the Times

Man and woman at a desk covered with scientific papers.

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration biologists Alan Mearns and Nicolle Rutherford tackle another year’s worth of scientific studies, part of an effort begun in 1967. (NOAA)

For starters, vastly more studies are being published on marine pollution and its environmental effects. For this year’s publication, Mearns and his six co-authors, who include Reish and NOAA scientists Nicolle Rutherford and Courtney Arthur, reviewed 341 scientific papers which they pulled from a larger pool of nearly 1,000 studies.

The days of having to physically visit a library each month to read the scientific journals are also over. Instead, Mearns can wait until the end of the year to scour online scientific search engines. Emails replace the handwritten 3×5 index cards. And fortunately, typewriters are no longer involved.

The technology the reviewers are using isn’t the only thing to change with the years. In the early days, the major contaminants of concern were heavy metals, such as copper, which were turning up in the bodies of fish and invertebrates. Around the 1970s, the negative effects of the insecticide DDT found national attention, thanks to the efforts of biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal book Silent Spring.

Today, Mearns and Reish see the focus of research shifting to other, often more complicated pollutants, such as nanomaterials, which can be any of a number of materials roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. On one hand, nanotechnology is helping scientists decipher the effects of some pollutants, while, on the other, nanomaterials, such as those found in cosmetics, show potentially serious effects on some marine life including mussels.

Another major trend has been the evolution of the ways scientists evaluate the effects of pollutants on marine life. Researchers in the United States and Western Europe used to study the toxicity of a pollutant by increasing the amount animals are exposed to until half the study animals died. In the 1990s, researchers began exploring pollutants’ finer physiological effects. How does exposure to X pollutant affect, for example, a fish’s ability to feed or reproduce?

Nowadays, the focus is even more refined, zeroing in on the molecular scale to discern how pollutants affect an animal’s genetic material, its DNA. How does the presence of oil change whether certain genes in a fish’s liver are turned on or off? What does that mean for the fish?

A Year of Pollution in Review

With three Office of Response and Restoration scientists working on this effort, it unsurprisingly features a lot on oil spills and marine debris, two areas of our expertise.

Of particular interest to Mearns and Rutherford, as oil spill biologists, are the studies of biodegradation of oil in the ocean, specifically, how microbes break down and eat components of oil, especially the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Scientists are examining collections of genes in such microbes and determining which ones produce enzymes that degrade PAHs.

“That field has really exploded,” says Mearns. “It’s just amazing what they’re finding once they use genomics and other tools to go into [undersea oil spill] plumes and see what these critters are doing and eating.”

Marine debris research in 2013 focused on the effects of eating, hitchhiking on, or becoming entangled in debris. Studies examined the resulting impacts on marine life, including sea birds, fish, crabs, turtles, marine mammals, shellfish, and even microbes. The types of debris that came up again and again were abandoned fishing gear and plastic fragments. In addition, quite a bit of research attempted to fill in gaps in understanding of how plastic debris might take up and then leach out potentially dangerous chemicals.

Attitude Adjustment

A group of men and women stand around Don Reish.

Reish often relied on his former graduate students, including NOAA’s Alan Mearns, to help review the many studies on marine pollution’s effects each year. Shown here in 2004, Reish (seventh from left) is surrounded by a few of his former students who gathered to honor him at the Southern California Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting. Mearns is fifth from left and another contributer, Phil Oshida of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stands between and behind Mearns and Reish. (Alan Mearns)

Perhaps the most significant change over the decades has been a change in attitudes. Reish recalled a presentation he gave at a scientific meeting in 1955. He was discussing his study of how marine worms known as polychaetes changed where they lived based on the effects of pollution in southern California. Afterward, he sat down next to a professor from another college, whose response to his presentation was, “Don, why don’t you go do something important?”

In 2014 attitudes generally skew to the other end of the spectrum when it comes to understanding human impacts on our world and how intertwined these impacts often are with human well-being.

And while there is a lot of bad news about these impacts, Mearns and Reish have seen some bright spots as well. Scientists are starting to observe slow declines in the presence of toxic chemicals, such as DDT from insecticides and PCBs from industrial manufacturing, which last a long time in the environment and build up in the bodies of living things, such as the fish humans like to catch and eat.

The end of the year is approaching and, reliably, Mearns and his colleagues are again preparing to scan hundreds of studies for their annual review of the scientific literature. Reflecting on this effort, Mearns points out another benefit of bringing together such a wide array of research disciplines. It encourages him to cross traditional boundaries of scientific study, enriching his work in the process.

“For me, it inspires out-of-the-box thinking,” says Mearns. “I’ll be looking at wastewater discharge impacts and I’ll spot something that I think is relevant to oil spill studies…We can find out things from these other fields and apply them to our own.”


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Untangling Both a Whale and Why Marine Life Get Mixed up With Our Trash

Tail-view of humpback whale tangled in rope and nets underwater.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear swims near the ocean’s surface in 2005. (NOAA/Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:

“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.

Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”

Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:

Net Results

While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].

They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.

One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.

But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?

Location, Location, Location

The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.

For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.

Just Behave

Monk sleep sleeping on nets on beach.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal snuggles up on a pile of nets and other fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the population declined to one-third of its size due at least in part to entanglement in trawl nets and other debris that drift into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from other areas (e.g., Alaska, Russia, Japan) and accumulates along the beaches and in lagoon reefs of atolls. (NOAA)

While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.

Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.

Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.

While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:


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For a Salt Marsh on San Francisco Bay’s Eastern Shore, Restoration Means a Return to the Tides

Degraded marsh area on edge of bay.

This area along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay will be enhanced and expanded as part of the restoration of Breuner Marsh. (NOAA)

For more than half a century, a large portion of Breuner Marsh has been walled off from California’s San Francisco Bay, depriving it of a daily infusion of saltwater. The tide’s flooding and drying cycle is a key component of healthy salt marshes. But for decades, a succession of landowners drew up plans for developing the property and therefore were happy to keep the levee up and the bay’s waters out of it.

Today, however, ownership has changed and things look different at Breuner Marsh. The landing strip built for model airplanes is gone, and soon, parts of the levee will be as well. For the first time in years, this land which was once a salt marsh will be reconnected to the bay, allowing it to return to its natural state.

Before the Floodgates Open

A major milepost on the road to restoration for Breuner Marsh originated about five miles down the coast at Castro Cove. From the early 1900s until 1987, this tidal inlet on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay had a discharge pipe pumping wastewater from the nearby Chevron Richmond Refinery into the cove. As a result, mercury and a toxic component of oil known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons permeated the sediments beneath the cove’s waters.

Aerial view of Castro Cove next to Chevron refinery.

Southern Castro Cove and Chevron Richmond Refinery. Wildcat Creek entering Castro Cove in the background. Photo courtesy of Steve Hampton, California Department of Fish and Game. October 2005

The State of California had pinpointed this area as a toxic hotspot, and by the early 2000s, Chevron was ready to begin cleanup and restoration. Along with the state, NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessed the environmental impacts of historical pollution from the refinery and the amount of restoration needed to offset them. Through this Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) and our partners settled with Chevron on the funding the company would provide to implement that restoration: $2.65 million.

Because the impacts to Castro Cove’s salt marshes occurred over such a long time, even after Chevron cleaned up the roughly 20 worst-affected acres of the cove, there simply was not enough habitat in the immediate area to adequately make up for the backlog of impacts. The 2010 settlement called for Chevron to restore about 200 acres of marsh. This took us up the road to Breuner Marsh, part of a degraded coastal wetland that was ripe for restoration and which became one of two projects Chevron would fund through this settlement.

A Vision of Restoration

The vision for Breuner Marsh turned out to be a lot bigger than the $1 million originally set aside from Chevron’s settlement. A lot of this drive came from the Richmond, California, neighborhood of Parchester Village, a community across the railroad tracks from Breuner Marsh which was advocating the property’s habitat be restored and opened to recreation. Eventually, the East Bay Regional Park District was able to purchase the 218-acre-site and is managing the $8.5 million restoration of Breuner Marsh. Additional funding came from the park district and nine other grants.

Aerial view of marsh construction site, with berm separating the bay from the future marsh.

A view of the Breuner Marsh restoration site, where portions of the area have been graded and are waiting the take down of the berm. (Screen shot from video courtesy of Questa Engineering Corporation/East Bay Regional Park District)

Construction began in 2013 and the project, which also includes building trails, picnic areas, and fishing spots, is expected to wrap up in 2015. While at least 30 acres of Breuner Marsh will be transformed into wetlands fed by the tide, some areas will never be flooded because they sit at higher elevation.

Instead, they will become a patchwork of seasonal wetlands and prairie. Yet this diversity of habitats actually makes the salt marsh even more valuable, because this patchwork creates welcoming buffer zones for various birds, fish, and wildlife as they feed, rest, and reproduce.

But first, those levees need to be breached and the tide needs to reach deep into Breuner Marsh, creating conditions just right for the plants and animals of a salt marsh to take hold once more. Conditions the project managers have been working hard to prepare.

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