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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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for December 2015

Several response personnel at the harbor's edge.

NOAA spill specialists were among those responding when 233,000 gallons (1,400 tons) of molasses were spilled into Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor in 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of December 7, 2015 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

We will accept applications for this class until Friday, October 16, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, October 30, via email.

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

These trainings cover:

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

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

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

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


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For Oil and Chemical Spills, a New NOAA Tool to Help Predict Pollution’s Fate and Effects

Dead crab on a beach with oily water and debris.

NOAA has released the software program CAFE to help responders dealing with pollution answer two important questions: What’s going to happen to the contaminant released and what, if any, species will be harmed by it? (Beckye Stanton, California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Accidents happen. Sometimes, they happen at places with big consequences, such as at a fertilizer factory that uses the chemical ammonia as an active ingredient.

An accident in a place like that can lead to situations in which thousands of gallons of this chemical could, for example, be released into a drainage ditch leading to a nearby salt marsh.

When oil or chemicals are released into the environment like this, responders dealing with the pollution are often trying to answer two important questions: What’s going to happen to the contaminant released and what, if any, species will be harmed by it?

To help responders answer these questions, NOAA has just released to the public a new software program known as CAFE.

The Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects Database

NOAA’s Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects (CAFE) database allows anyone to determine the fate and toxicological effects of thousands of chemicals, oils, and dispersants when released into fresh or saltwater environments. CAFE has two major components: the Fate module, which predicts how a contaminant will behave in the environment, and the Effects module, which determines the chemical’s potential toxicity to different species.

In the Fate module, CAFE contains data, such as chemical properties, useful in understanding and predicting chemical behavior in aquatic environments.

For example, in our ammonia-in-water scenario, CAFE’s chemical property data would tell us that ammonia has a low volatilization rate (it doesn’t readily change in form from liquid or solid to gas) and is very soluble in water. That means if spilled into a body of water, ammonia would dissolve in the water and stay there.

In the Effects module, CAFE contains data about the acute toxicity—negative, short-term impacts from short-term exposure—of different chemicals. This module plots that data on graphs known as “Species Sensitivity Distributions.” These graphs show a curved line ranking the relative sensitivity of individual species of concern, from the most sensitive to the least sensitive, to a particular chemical over a given period of exposure (ranging from 24 to 96 hours).

Graph showing the range in sensitivity of aquatic species to 48 hour exposure to ammonia.

The reactions of different species to chemicals can vary widely. The CAFE database produces these species sensitivity graphs showing the range in sensitivity of select aquatic species to certain chemicals after a given length of exposure. (NOAA)

Again turning to our scenario of an ammonia spill in a salt marsh, the graph here shows how a range of aquatic species, which the user selects from the program, would be affected by a 48 hour exposure to ammonia. The Taiwan abalone (a type of aquatic snail) is the most sensitive species because many of these snails would be affected at lower concentrations of ammonia, falling into the orange, highly toxic zone.

On the other hand, the brine shrimp is the least sensitive of this group because these shrimp would have to be exposed to much higher concentrations of ammonia to be affected. Thus the brine shrimp falls into the green, practically nontoxic zone. However, most of the data in this graph seem to fall into the moderately or slightly toxic zones, meaning that ammonia is a toxic chemical of concern.

Using these data from CAFE, you then assess the potential impact of the ammonia spill to the aquatic environment.

Download the Software

You can download version 1.1 of the Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects (CAFE) database from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration website at http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/cafe.

Adding to our collection of spill response resources, CAFE will serve as a one-stop, rapid response tool to aid spill responders in their assessment of environmental impacts from chemical and oil spills.


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To Bring Back Healthy California Ocean Ecosystems, NOAA and Partners Are “Planting” Long-Lost Abalone in the Sea

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Diver placing PVC tube with small sea snails on the rocky seafloor.

A diver places a PVC tube filled with young green abalone — sea snails raised in a lab — on the seafloor off the southern California coast. (NOAA)

They weren’t vegetables but an excited group of scuba divers was carefully “planting” green abalone in an undersea garden off the southern California coast all the same. Green abalone are a single-shelled species of sea snail whose population has dropped dramatically in recent decades.

On a Wednesday in mid-June, these oceanic “gardeners”—NOAA biologist David Witting and divers from The Bay Foundation—released over 700 young green abalone into newly restored kelp forest areas near Palos Verdes, California. This was the first time in over a decade that juvenile abalone have been “outplanted,” or transplanted from nursery facilities, to the wild in southern California. This ongoing project is a partnership between NOAA, The Bay Foundation, Redondo SEA Lab, The Nature Conservancy, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Spawned and reared at The SEA Lab in Redondo Beach, California, all of the juvenile abalone were between two and four years old and were between a quarter inch and 3 inches in size. Biologists painstakingly tagged each abalone with tiny identifying tags several weeks prior to their release into the wild.

Leading up to outplanting day, microbiologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had to run rigorous tests on a sample of the juvenile abalone to certify them as disease-free before they were placed into the ocean. Several days before transferring them, biologists placed the abalone in PVC tubes with netting on either end for easy transport.

“This was just a pilot outplanting with many more larger-scale efforts to come in the near future,” stated David Witting from NOAA’s Restoration Center. “We wanted to go through all of the steps necessary to successfully outplant abalone so that it would be second nature next time.”

Marine biologists from The Bay Foundation, along with Witting and other NOAA biologists, will be going out over the next six to twelve months to monitor the abalone—checking for survival rates and movement of the abalone. “We expect to find some abalone that didn’t survive the transfer to the wild but probably a good number of them will move into the cracks and crevices of rocky reef outcroppings immediately,” according to Witting.

Why Abalone?

PVC tube filled with green abalone lodged into the rocky seafloor.

After testing and refining the techniques to boost the population of green abalone in the wild, scientists then will apply them to help endangered white and black abalone species recover. (NOAA)

All seven abalone species found along the U.S. West Coast have declined and some have all but disappeared. White and black abalone, in particular, are listed as endangered through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Three abalone species (green, pinto, and pink) are listed as Species of Concern by NOAA Fisheries, a designation meant to protect the populations from declining further and which could result in an ESA listing. The two remaining abalone species, reds and flats, are protected and managed by states along the U.S. West Coast.

Historically, the main cause of abalone’s demise was a combination of overfishing and disease. Today, many other threats, such as poaching, climate change, oil spills, and habitat degradation, contribute to the decline of abalone and could impact the health of future populations.

The recent green abalone outplanting was one of the many steps needed to advance the recovery of all abalone species. Methods for rearing and outplanting are first being tested using green abalone because this species is more abundant in the wild. Once the methods are refined, they then will be employed to recover endangered white and black abalone—both species which are currently living on the brink of extinction.

What the Future Holds

A small green abalone eats red algae stuck to a plastic rack.

A young green abalone, reared in a lab in southern California, grazes on red algae. Raising these sea snails in a lab requires a lot of resources, prompting scientists to explore other approaches for boosting wild abalone populations. (Credit: Brenda Rees, with permission)

In particular, biologists are hoping to refine a technique they are coining “deck-spawning” as a way to outplant abalone in the future. Maintaining abalone broodstock and rearing them in a lab requires a lot of resources, funding, and time. This monumental effort has spurred biologists to develop an initially successful, alternate approach, which involves inducing mature, wild abalone to spawn on the deck of a boat.

The scientists then take the viable abalone larvae that develop and release them in a habitat where the young abalone are likely to settle and thrive. Immediately after spawning, the parent abalone can then be returned to the wild where they can continue to be a component of the functioning ocean ecosystem.

The green abalone outplanting project is part of a broader effort to restore abalone but is also playing an important role in work being led by The Bay Foundation with NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program to restore southern California’s kelp forests. In southern California, fish habitat has been harmed by decades of toxic pollution dumped into the marine environment. After clearing areas that would be prime kelp habitat if not for the unnaturally high densities of sick and stressed sea urchins, NOAA, The Bay Foundation, and our partners have seen kelp bounce back once given relief from those overly hungry urchins.

While abalone also eat seaweed, including kelp, they are a natural competitor of urchins in this environment and will help keep urchin populations in check, ultimately allowing a healthy kelp forest community to return.

Watch as divers transport the young abalone using PVC tubes and release them on the rocky seafloor off California’s coast:

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California, where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.


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From Building B-17 Bombers to Building Habitat for Fish: The Reshaping of an Industrial Seattle River

Imagine living in as little as two percent of your home and trying to live a normal life. That might leave you with something the size of a half bathroom.

Now imagine it’s a dirty half bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned in years.

Gross, right? As Muckleshoot tribal member Louie Ungaro recently pointed out, that has been roughly the situation for young Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout for several decades as they pass through the Lower Duwamish River in south Seattle, Washington.

Salmon and Steelhead trout, born in freshwater streams and creeks in Washington forests, have to make their way to the Puget Sound and then the ocean through the Duwamish River. However, this section of river has been heavily industrialized and lacks the clean waters, fallen trees, huge boulders, and meandering side channels that would represent a spacious, healthy home for young fish.

Chair of his tribe’s fish commission, Ungaro sent a reminder that the health of this river and his tribe, which has a long history of fishing on the Duwamish and nearby rivers, are closely tied. “We’re no different than this river,” he implored. Yet he was encouraged by the Boeing Company’s recent cleanup and restoration of fish habitat along this Superfund site, a move that he hopes is “just a start.”

The Pace—and Price—of Industry

Starting as far back as the 1870s and stretching well into the twentieth century, the Lower Duwamish River was transformed by people as the burgeoning city of Seattle grew. The river was straightened and dredged, its banks cleared and hardened. Factories and other development lined its banks, while industrial pollution—particularly PCBs—poured into its waters.

More than 40 organizations are potentially responsible for this long-ago pollution that still haunts the river and the fish, birds, and wildlife that call it home. Yet most of those organizations have dragged their feet in cleaning it up and restoring the impacted lands and waters. However, the Boeing Company, a longtime resident of the Lower Duwamish River, has stepped up to collaborate in remaking the river.

Newly restored marsh and riverbank vegetation with protective ropes and fencing on the Duwamish River.

The former site of Boeing’s Plant 2 is now home to five acres of marsh and riverbank habitat, creating a much friendlier shoreline for fish and other wildlife. Protective fencing and ropes attempt to exclude geese from eating the young plants. (NOAA)

Boeing’s history there began in 1936 when it set up shop along 28 acres of the Duwamish. Here, the airplane manufacturer constructed a sprawling building known as Plant 2 where it—with the help of the women nicknamed “Rosie the Riveters”—would eventually assemble 7,000 B-17 bombers for the U.S. government during World War II. The Army Corps of Engineers even took pains to hide this factory from foreign spies by camouflaging its roof “to resemble a hillside neighborhood dotted with homes and trees,” according to Boeing.

But like many of its neighbors along the Duwamish, Boeing’s history left a mark on the river. At the end of 2011, Boeing tore down the aging Plant 2 to prepare for cleanup and restoration along the Duwamish. Working with the City of Seattle, Port of Seattle, and King County, Boeing has already removed the equivalent of thousands of railcars of contaminated sediment from the river bottom and is replacing it with clean sand.

From Rosie the Riveter to Rosie the Restorer

By 2013, a hundred years after the Army Corps of Engineers reshaped this section of the Duwamish from a nine mile estuary into a five mile industrial channel, Boeing had finished its latest transformation of the shoreline. It planted more than 170,000 native wetland plants and grasses here, which are interspersed with large piles of wood anchored to the shore.

Five acres of marsh and riverbank vegetation now line its shores, providing food, shelter, and calmer side channels for young fish to rest and grow as they transition from freshwater to the salty ocean.

Canada geese on an unrestored portion of the Duwamish River shoreline.

Protecting the newly restored shoreline, out of sight to the left, from Canada geese is a challenge to getting the young wetland plants established. Behind the geese, the artificial, rocky shoreline is a stark difference from the adjacent restored portion. (NOAA)

Now the challenge is to keep the Canada geese from eating all of the tender young plants before they have the chance to establish themselves. That is why protective ropes and fencing surround the restoration sites.

Already, biologists are beginning to see a change in the composition of the birds frequenting this portion of the river. Rather than the crows, starlings, and gulls typically associated with areas colonized by humans, birds such as herons and mergansers, a fish-eating duck, are showing up at the restoration sites. Those birds like to eat fish, which offers hope that fish such as salmon and trout are starting to make a comeback as well.

Of course, these efforts are only the beginning. Through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, NOAA looks forward to working with other responsible organizations along the Duwamish River to continue restoring its health, both for people and nature now and in the future.


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How to Keep Your Belongings From Becoming Trashed by Hurricanes

Destroyed dock and debris along a populated canal in Louisiana.

No matter the size of the storm, you and your family can take steps to reduce the likelihood of your stuff becoming storm debris. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Winds, heavy rains, flooding, storm surge. Hurricanes and other powerful storms can cause a lot of damage, both to people’s lives, of course, but also to the surrounding land and waters.

Docks, storage tanks, and buildings can be ripped off their foundations. Oil drums, shipping containers, and lumber can get swept away in floodwaters. A boat could end up in someone’s living room.

Much of this destruction introduces debris into coastal waterways and wetlands. This is one of several ways NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, through the NOAA Marine Debris Program, becomes involved after hurricanes.

While we can’t prevent hurricanes, we can prepare for them. That means doing everything you can to keep you, your family, and your belongings safe, far ahead of any natural disaster.

No matter the size of the storm, you and your family can take steps to reduce the likelihood of your stuff becoming storm debris. It is difficult to prevent buildings or large boats from becoming debris, especially during a large storm, but smaller items be safely stored or secured. After all, no one wants their patio umbrella to knock out a neighbor’s window before it ends up swimming with the fishes.

Here are a few ways to help protect yourself and your belongings in case of a hurricane:

  • Create a plan for your family and home [PDF], practice your evacuation route, and stock an emergency supply kit.
  • Secure yard items before a storm. Make a list of items to bring inside in case of hurricane-force winds or flooding. This could be patio furniture, lawn decorations, tools, trash cans, planters, etc.
  • Invest in storm-resilient building designs, which might include raising the level of your house for areas at high risk of flooding or installing a roof that can withstand high winds.
  • Boaters and fishers: Pull vessels and fishing gear out of the water before a storm. If you’re unable to remove the boat from the water, properly secure it [PDF].

A Boat out of Water

Boat half-sunk in Vermilion Bay, Lousiana.

Finding a safe and secure location for boats during a storm proves to be a huge challenge for many along the coasts, which is how a great deal of boats end up like this one after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (U.S. Coast. Guard)

Dealing with the large number of abandoned and derelict vessels after a storm is often a complicated and expensive ordeal. As a result, we should try to keep boats from ending up in this sorry state in the first place. Unfortunately, finding a safe and secure location for boats during a storm proves to be a huge challenge for many along the coasts.

A few areas do show promise in creating safe spaces for vessels during storms. One example is the Clean and Resilient Marina Initiative from the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a regional partnership made up of the Gulf states. According to the alliance, “This improved program…provides additional recommendations to strengthen local marinas’ ability to withstand natural and man-made disasters.”

The initiative offers best management practices [PDF] for incorporating resilience and environmental responsibility into everything from the design and siting of marinas to strategies for evacuating them during a disaster.

Another example is the concept of “harbors of refuge,” which several organizations in Louisiana are looking to implement on public lands along the coast. A harbor of safe refuge is “a port, inlet, or other body of water normally sheltered from heavy seas by land and in which a vessel can navigate and safely moor.”

Providing resilient infrastructure able to withstand high winds and waters helps better protect boats, and offering these facilities on public lands creates opportunities for public funding to help pay for the upgrades or for salvage after a storm.

Taking on Disasters

The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) is also taking a proactive approach to planning for disasters.

Cover of Alabama Incident Waterway Debris Response Plan, with damaged boats.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program worked with the State of Alabama to release the first in a series of comprehensive plans to help coastal states better prepare for an acute waterway debris release, such as in a hurricane. (NOAA)

In 2012, Congress expanded the program’s responsibilities to include “severe marine debris events,” which formalized their role in preparing for and responding to disaster debris.

This was in the wake of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and states were struggling to deal with the tsunami debris—from small boats to massive docks—washing up on U.S. shores. Furthermore, the massive storm known as Sandy had recently hit the East Coast, leaving its own path of destruction along coastal waterways.

As a result, the NOAA MDP has started a proactive planning program for dealing with these types of large, disaster-related debris events. They began by working with the State of Alabama to develop a waterway debris emergency response plan and will now move on to work with other coastal states.

This effort includes both a comprehensive plan and field action guide which spells out information such as which agencies have authorities to remove disaster-related debris if it lands in a given waterway, as well as points of contact at those agencies. The plan is meant to be a broad, useful tool both for the NOAA MDP and the state in case of a natural disaster producing large amounts of debris.

To learn more about how you can prepare for hurricanes, visit NOAA’s National Hurricane Center at www.nhc.noaa.gov/prepare/, and read more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts at marinedebris.noaa.gov/current-efforts/emergency-response.


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How Do Oil Spills out at Sea Typically Get Cleaned Up?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Close up of skimming device on side of a boat with oil and boom.

Skimmers come in various designs but all basically work by removing the oil layer from the surface of the water. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Whether for hanging a picture on the wall or fixing a leaky faucet, most people keep a common set of tools in their home. While some tools get more use than others, it’s good to have an array on hand to handle most repair jobs. The same is true for responding to oil spills.

Like a home repair job, each oil spill has unique aspects that call for careful consideration when deciding which tool to use. Responders keep an array of response methods in their toolkit for dealing with oil in offshore waters: skimming and booming, in situ burning, and applying dispersants.

Let’s get to know a few of those tools and the situations when they might be the most appropriate method for dealing with oil spills out at sea.

Skimming: Take a Little off the Top

Skimming is a process that removes oil from the sea surface before it reaches sensitive areas along a coastline. Sometimes, two boats will tow a collection boom, allowing oil to concentrate within the boom, where it is then picked up by a “skimmer.” From whirring disks to floating drums, skimmers come in various designs but all basically work by removing the oil layer from the surface of the water. These devices attract oil to their surfaces before transferring it to a collection tank, often on a boat. Ideal conditions for skimming are during the day when the oil slick is thick and the ocean surface is fairly calm.

The success of a skimming operation is dependent on something known as the “encounter rate.” Much like a vacuum picks up dirt from your carpet, a skimmer has to come in direct contact with the oil in order to remove it from the surface and, even then, it will still pick up some water. That’s why responders will often refer to the volume of oil removed via skimming as gallons of an oil-water mixture.

In Situ Burning: Burn After Oiling

Plumes of smoke from two fires burning oil on the ocean surface.

Burning oil “in place” (in situ) on the water’s surface requires gathering a layor of oil thick enough to sustain the burn. (NOAA)

In situ burning is the process of burning spilled oil where it is on the ocean (known as “in situ,” which is Latin for “on site”). Similar to skimming, two boats will often tow a fire-retardant collection boom to concentrate enough oil to burn. Burning is sometimes also used in treating oiled marshes.

Ideal conditions for in situ burning are daylight with mild or offshore winds and flat seas. The success of burning oil is dependent on corralling a layer of oil thick enough to maintain a sustained burn. Any burn operation includes careful air monitoring to ensure smoke or residue resulting from the burn do not adversely impact people or wildlife.

Chemical Dispersants: Break It Up

Releasing chemical dispersants, usually from a small plane or a response vessel, on an oil slick breaks down the oil into smaller droplets, allowing them to mix more easily into the water column. Smaller droplets of oil become more readily available to microbes that will eat them and break them down into less harmful compounds.

However, using dispersants has its drawbacks, shifting potential impacts to the marine life living in the water column and on the seafloor. Because of this, the decision to chemically disperse oil into the water column is never made lightly. This decision is often made so that much less oil stays at the surface, where it could affect birds and wildlife at the ocean surface and drift onto vulnerable coastal habitat like beaches, wetlands, and tidal flats.

Ideal conditions for chemical dispersion are daylight with mild winds and moderate seas. Chemical dispersion is never done close to the shore, in shallow waters, near coastal communities, or when there is a potential for winds to carry the chemical spray away from its intended target.

Natural dispersion can and does occur when waves at the ocean surface have enough turbulent energy to allow surface oil to mix into the water column. Applying chemical dispersants can expedite this process when there is an imminent threat associated with allowing the oil to stay on the surface.

Graphic showing methods for responding to oil spills at sea. Plane applying chemical dispersants: Chemical dispersion is achieved by applying chemicals to remove oil from the water surface by breaking  the oil into small droplets. Burning oil surrounded by boom: Also referred to as in situ burning, this   is the method of setting fire to freshly spilled oil, usually while still   floating on the water surface. Booms: Booms are long floating barriers used to   contain or prevent the spread of spilled oil. A boat skimming oil: Skimming is achieved with  boats equipped with a floating skimmer designed to remove thin layers of oil from   the surface, often with the help of booms.One Size Does Not Fit All

You may have noticed that each of these tools has one common factor limiting its effectiveness: daylight, or more precisely, visibility. Being able to see the spilled oil, often over large areas of the ocean, is critical to being able to clean it up. That means these tools become ineffective at night, during certain seasons, or in regions where prolonged darkness, fog, or clouds are the norm.

Table showing the conditions which may affect the use of different oil spill response methods at sea (skimming, burning, dispersing). Conditions are sunlight, wind, rough seas, cold, and nearshore.

Conditions which may affect the use of different oil spill response methods at sea.

Rough seas can be prohibitive for skimming and burning since these methods rely on calm conditions and collection booms to gather (and keep) oil in one place. High winds can often rule out burning and aerial dispersion as an option.

While these techniques perform best under certain, ideal conditions, responders often have to make do with the variety of conditions going on during an oil spill and can and do use these tools under less-than-ideal conditions. Their effectiveness also depends on factors such as the type or state of the spilled oil or the environment it was spilled in (e.g., sea ice).

Just like your home repairs, the job sometimes calls for a non-traditional tool or creative fix. The continued development of alternative response methods and technologies for cleaning up oil is critical for addressing oil spills in geographic areas or conditions that the traditional toolbox is not equipped to fix.

Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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Using Big Data to Restore the Gulf of Mexico

This is a post by Ocean Conservancy’s Elizabeth Fetherston.

If I ask you to close your eyes and picture “protection for marine species,” you might immediately think of brave rescuers disentangling whales from fishing gear.

Or maybe you would imagine the army of volunteers who seek out and protect sea turtle nests. Both are noble and worthwhile endeavors.

But 10 years of ocean conservation in the southeast United States has taught me that protecting marine species doesn’t just look like the heroic rescue of adorable species in need.

I’ve learned that it also looks like the screen of 1s and 0s from the movie The Matrix.

Let me explain.

Much of what goes on with marine life in the Gulf of Mexico—and much of the rest of the ocean—is too dark and distant to see and measure easily or directly. Whales and fish and turtles move around a lot. This makes it difficult to collect information on how many there are in the Gulf and how well those populations are doing.

In order to assess their health, you need to know where these marine species go, what they eat, why they spend time in certain areas (for food, shelter, or breeding?), and more. This information may come from a number of places—state agencies, universities, volunteer programs, you name it—and be stored in a number of different file formats.

Until recently, there was no real way to combine all of these disparate pixels of information into a coherent picture of, for instance, a day in the life of a sea turtle. DIVER, NOAA’s new website for Deepwater Horizon assessment data, gives us the tools to do just that.

Data information and integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing you to look for causes and effects that you might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

Of course, this idea is far from new. For years, NOAA and ocean advocates have both been talking about a concept known as “ecosystem-based management” for marine species. Put simply, ecosystem-based management is a way to find out what happens to the larger tapestry if you pull on one of the threads woven into it.

For example, if you remove too many baitfish from the ecosystem, will the predatory fish and wildlife have enough to eat? If you have too little freshwater coming through the estuary into the Gulf, will nearby oyster and seagrass habitats survive? In order to make effective and efficient management decisions in the face of these kinds of complex questions, it helps to have all of the relevant information working together in a single place, in a common language, and in a central format.

Screenshot of DIVER tool showing map of Gulf of Mexico and list of data results in a table.

A view of the many sets of Gulf of Mexico environmental data that the tool DIVER can bring together. (NOAA)

So is data management the key to achieving species conservation in the Gulf of Mexico? It just might be.

Systems like DIVER are set up to take advantage of quantum leaps in computing power that were not available to the field of environmental conservation 10 years ago. These advances give DIVER the ability to accept reams of diverse and seemingly unrelated pieces of information and, over time, turn them into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife.

The rising tide of restoration work and research in the Gulf of Mexico will bring unprecedented volumes of data that should—and now can—be used to design and execute conservation strategies with the most impact for ocean life in our region. Ocean Conservancy is excited about the opportunity for systems like DIVER to kick off a new era in how we examine information and solve problems.

Elizabeth Fetherston is a Marine Restoration Strategist with Ocean Conservancy. She is based in St. Petersburg, Florida and works to ensure restoration from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is science-based, integrated across political boundaries, fully funded, and inclusive of offshore Gulf waters where the spill originated.

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