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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NOAA at Submerge NYC Marine Science Festival

Children gathered around a tub with water.

NOAA’s eel ladder demonstration is one of the highlights of Submerge! Last year, thousands of visitors stopped by to meet live eels and learn how NOAA’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program works to restore access so these animals can reach habitat upstream of man-made barriers in rivers and streams. Image credit: NOAA.

Have you ever wanted to see an eel climb a ladder? Or explore a research vessel?  How about learning to fish or watch a scuba diver?  And did you ever think you could do all that in New York City?

Well, you can do all that and more with NOAA scientists and other experts at the Submerge NYC Marine Science Festival on Saturday, Sept. 16. This is the fourth year that Hudson River Park will host the event.

The free daylong science festival brings together researchers and scientists to talk to people about marine life and conservation. NOAA scientists from our Damage Assessment and Restoration Program and Marine Debris Program, as well as the Northeast Fisheries Science Center will be on hand to explain our work protecting the coastal environment from hazardous waste, oil, and marine debris and restoring habitat and biota.

Children handle horseshoe crab shell.

At NOAA’s Research Station, scientists from our Office of Response and Restoration and our Fisheries Service describe their work assessing natural resource injuries, reducing marine debris, and restoring habitat for the many marine and estuarine species that call the New York Harbor home. Image credit: NOAA.

A brief power outage at last year’s event stopped the water pump that supplied an attractant water flow for our popular eel ladder. Rather than shut down the display, we asked the public to help by manually using buckets of water to simulate the river flow. The eels did not disappoint. They showed off their climbing skills, which allow them to navigate around and over natural obstacles that would be barriers to other fish species.

“The loss of power turned into an even more engaging interactive demonstration as the public eagerly played the role of the river to maintain flow and operation of the eel ladder,” said NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Lisa Rosman. “Many visitors were also excited by the opportunity to briefly hold or touch an eel.”

Activities at th​is year’s ​science festival will include:

  • Discovery Lab
  • Vessel Tours
  • Big City Fishing
  • Kayaking
  • Live Scuba Dives
  • River Ranger Kid Zones
  • Research Stations

You can find our booth in the Research Stations section of the festival along with other science organizations sharing current marine research.

The Submerge NYC Marine Science Festival is Saturday, Sept.16 from 11am-4pm at Pier 26 at N. Moore St. in Lower Manhattan.


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Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Impacts on Gulf of Mexico Shorelines and Nearshore Areas

OIled beach with marsh grass.

Heavily oiled marsh shoreline in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. Image credit: NOAA.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in significant environmental harm over a large area of the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent shorelines.

A special issue of Marine Ecology Progress Series(link is external)  published August 3, 2017, features 9 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on northern Gulf of Mexico shorelines and nearshore areas.  The scientific studies, conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration authors and partners, document four key findings based on five years of data collection and study: (1) organismal level effects were documented across the full range of trophic levels in areas that experienced heavy oiling; (2) degradation or loss of habitat-forming species represents a pathway to long-term direct and indirect effects; (3) the loss and degradation of these habitats result in a wide range of ecosystem service losses; and (4) response actions designed to mitigate the effects of oil often result in ecological injury. Findings from these research studies, in addition to other studies on other parts of the ecosystem, formed the basis of the natural resources damage assessment settlement with BP for up to $8.8 billion.  All of the data associated with the settlement is available publicly in the Data Integration Visualization Exploration and Reporting database, but the Marine Environmental Progress Series special issue is the first time this information on nearshore impacts of the spill has been compiled together in peer-reviewed scientific publications.

For further information, contact Mary.Baker@noaa.gov(link sends e-mail).

Also see Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Coastal Salt Marsh Habitat.


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Solving the Case of the Mystery Sheen

Ocean with sheen. Image: U.S. Coast Guard.

Can you see the sheen in the distance? That lighter blue just below the horizon caught the attention of the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew that led to the discovery of a natural oil seep off the coast of San Diego, California. The sheen’s narrowing on the left with broader “feathering” on the right suggested a submerged source. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

By Jordan Stout, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator

In early March 2017, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was returning to its home base when the aircrew spotted a silvery sheen in the water about 35 miles west of San Diego, California.

I imagine the conversation among the crew went something like this:

Hey, that looks like it might be oil…

Is that from yesterday’s spill?  No sir, too far away…

Did any vessels sink out here recently?  Nothing’s been reported…

Do you see any debris in the water?  No sir, but I think I see bubbles coming to the surface within the sheen…

We’re pretty far offshore.  How deep is the water here?  Chart says about 300 fathoms (roughly 1,800 feet)…

Any other petroleum sources out here?  Not that I’m aware of.  Let’s call it in…

Reporting that finding of a mysterious sheen of oil on the ocean’s surface triggers a forensic process that typically requires the highly skilled staff of multiple federal agencies. In this instance, it included U.S. Coast Guard, several NOAA offices, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Most Coast Guard aircrew members have overflown an oil spill at some point in their careers and many have seen our overflight job aid or taken the NOAA on-line training to help them identify and describe oil on the water.

In this case, the aircrew took photos and reported their observations to their command center. The crew’s initial report stated the sheen spanned approximately 400 yards by 10 yards, was patchy, thin, and unrecoverable.

Initial theories about the mystery sheen included:

  • A passing ship that spilled oil (by accident or intentionally)
  • A recent vessel casualty
  • An old shipwreck
  • An offshore disposal site, or
  • A natural oil seep

Theories in place, the next step was going through the list and systematically eliminating what could be causing the sheen.

Sheen shape, size, and area traffic

The Coast Guard is well known for conducting search and rescue operations when vessels are in distress and lives are at stake. It’s also responsible for ensuring safe and lawful maritime commerce. A check showed no large vessels had been in the area recently nor had any vessels (small or large) been reported missing.

The aircrew’s report of an oil “sheen” indicated to folks on shore that they had seen a very thin layer of oil (<50 microns) on the water’s surface.  That’s pretty darned thin, if you consider that a normal sheet of paper is about 100 microns thick.  Such thin layers don’t normally persist very long in the environment, so it wasn’t expected to stick around very long.

If the sheen had been spread out and patchy, it might be consistent with a spill from a passing ship or an earlier spill that had moved some distance over time.  Instead, the photos showed the sheen as a long linear feature, very narrow at one end and spread out and dissipating at the other (downstream) end.

During subsequent overflights for the next few days, the Coast Guard continued to see a similar sheen in the same location.  Because the original sheen would have dissipated in a matter of hours, these repeated sheen observations seemed to confirm an on-going, fixed source. But, what was it?

Both sunken vessels and natural seeps can release gases, so observing bubbles was interesting but not conclusive.  It could have been a sunken vessel, but in most cases, a sunken vessel will only release bubbles over a short period of time until the pockets of trapped air are all gone.  However, natural seeps can release gas bubbles continuously or sporadically for years.

Satellites, sunken ships and chemical analysis

Satellites – We checked with NOAA’s environmental satellite office, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, to see if any of their environmental satellite data/imagery had picked anything odd at that location recently or in any of their archived imagery.  They looked but they didn’t see anything obvious, but that’s not conclusive either.  Even the best satellite sensors for detecting oil on water have limitations.  There may very well have been a sheen out there, but it could not be distinguished with satellite data either because the winds were not optimal, the sheen was too small, or there was too much background “noise” in the data.

Maritime history – NOAA plays an important national role in identifying and protecting our nation’s maritime history.  As part of that stewardship role, NOAA and the Coast Guard partnered to evaluate which of the 1,000’s of shipwrecks in United States water might pose a substantial pollution threat.  This effort, called Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats, or RULET, resulted in a series of reports in 2013.  No potentially polluting shipwrecks were identified off San Diego through the RULET program.

Charting – Another data source, the Resources and Under Sea Threats, called RUST, which includes shipwrecks and other potential pollution sources, only identified an ammunition dumpsite offshore of San Diego.  That site appears on the NOAA nautical charts, but is over 13 miles away.

Chemistry – A Coast Guard ship was sent out to obtain some sheen samples.  Chemical analysis from their Marine Safety Lab revealed the sheen contained petroleum oil with characteristics most resembling those of moderately weathered crude oil.  A vessel leaking fuel would not show a crude oil signature, but a natural seep would.

Two men on boat's deck taking water samples. Image USCG.

The helicopter crew guided a boat-based sampling team to the area. Samples were sent to the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Lab for analysis. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

And the Mystery Sheen is: a natural seep?

 The seas off Southern California are known to have hundreds of sub-sea natural oil seeps. Most of them are found off Santa Barbara, and quite a few off Los Angeles, according to Thomas Lorenson, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

“Recent seafloor mapping south of Santa Catalina Island shows subsea features like mounds that are often associated with oil or natural gas seepage, so it is not too surprising to discover another seep,” said Lorenson. “Luckily a person can pay a visit to a famous oil seep found on land at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and imagine what they may look like underwater.”

So though we’ve not (yet) gotten visual confirmation of seep with a submersible or remotely operated vehicle, a natural seep on the sea floor remains the best explanation for this mystery.

 

Jordan Stout is the Scientific Support Coordinator in California, providing scientific input to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency for spills of oil and hazardous material.

 


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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.