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 Marine Debris is Impacting Marine Animals

and What You Can do About it……

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

Animals tangled in nets. NOAA.

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

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

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

Bird stomach, turtle with string.

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

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

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

Diver and damaged seagrass. NOAA.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Newark Bay, New Jersey. Image: NOAA.

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

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

Striped Bass

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

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

Striped bass on net. Image: NOAA.

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

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

Blue Crab

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

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection warns that:

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

Blue crab. Image: NOAA.

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

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

Restoring Clean and Healthy Habitats

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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How to Locate Wildlife Threatened During Oil Spills

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

Harbor seal on rock. NOAA.

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

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

What do you do?

How do you determine what animals may be in jeopardy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What information is in an Environmental Sensitivity Index?

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

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

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

How we gather biological information

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

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

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

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

How to access the data

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

ERMA map showing ESI data. Image: NOAA.

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

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

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

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


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Incident Responses for July 2017

Alaska coastline with mountains. Image: NOAA.

The U.S. Coast Guard requested a vessel drift analysis and trajectory for the 400 gallons of diesel fuel associated with the FV Grayling that capsized off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska July 21, 2017. The Alaska ShoreZone photo shows the gravel shoreline most immediately adjacent to the sinking location of the Grayling. Image credit: NOAA.

Aug. 3, 2017 – Every month our Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Our services include everything from running oil spill trajectories to possible effects on wildlife and fisheries, and estimates on how long the oil may stay in the environment.

In July, our scientific support coordinators responded to requests for a vessel drift analysis and trajectory, an analysis of currents and winds to help identify the potential source of an oil sheen, and list of sensitive species and resources that could be effected from warehouse fire near a river.

Our Incident News website has information on oil spills and other incidents where we provided scientific support.

Here are some of this month’s responses:

Drifting Fisheries Buoy Trajectory

FV Grayling, Kodiak, AK

Tanker Truck Spill Florida Keys MM 70

Mississippi Canyon 736 Platform Discharge

North River Street Fire – Portland, OR

Wreck 1487

UTV Eric Haney

FV Donna

FV Ketok

FV Bunchie


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A Summer like NOAAther: A NOAA Intern’s Experience

Man standing in front of wave fountain. Image: NOAA.

Danny Hoffman, constituent and legislative affairs intern, standing in front of the wave pool at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The pool, Coastline, is the work of artist Jim Sanborn and represents the Atlantic coastline. A NOAA monitoring station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts transfers instantaneous wave heights via modem to Silver Spring and then transferred to the wave pool. Image credit: NOAA.

By Danny Hoffman, Office of Response and Restoration intern

When I told my friends and family that I would be interning at NOAA this summer, the first reply I often got was “NOAA? Aren’t they the ones that do the weather report?”

I have to profess that as a government and history double major, my knowledge of NOAA did not extend much beyond that before starting my internship. When asked what I would be doing, I mostly rattled off phrases from the internship description posted, not knowing many more specifics.

However, after a very rewarding 10 weeks as a constituent and legislative affairs intern at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, not only do I know much more about NOAA than I could have previously imagined, I have also gained valuable experience working in a government agency.

As my time at NOAA ends, I’ll share some of my experiences, as well as my impressions of interning with the federal government.

What does Response and Restoration mean?

First, “Response and Restoration” is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than physically clean up oil and chemical spills, one of the office’s roles is to provide scientific support to the Federal On-Scene Coordinators during spills. The Emergency Response Division does this by calculating the trajectory of spilled materials in bodies of water and providing information on weather and resources at risk for the affected areas, among other support.

The Assessment and Restoration Division assesses damages to natural resources in the aftermath of a spill, and finally, the Marine Debris Division helps to monitor and cleanup the thousands of tons of marine debris in our waterways and oceans. Even after 10 weeks, I am still learning new aspects of this office every day.

Learning to Love Science

As someone coming from a social science academic background with limited scientific expertise, I initially felt intimidated interning for a government agency principally focused on science.

On top of that, this was my first internship. However, those worries were largely laid to rest on the first day, when to my surprise, rather than finding scientists in lab coats huddling around beakers—as I like to imagine my friends majoring in science do all day—I instead found an office with resource coordinators, communication specialists, NOAA commissioned officers, and scientists, none of whom were in lab coats.

Some of the things I learned my first day here were:

I quickly had to adapt to navigating the jungle of acronyms. Thankfully, I finally found an acronym that spoke to my feelings of sinking in the sea of letters and abbreviations: SOS. Which, incidentally, stands for both Science of Oil Spills, a class that helps train and educate spill responders, and Science on a Sphere, a room-sized globe that allows the over 400 data sets to be projected onto it.

Behind the Scenes

While providing scientific expertise during spills is one of the main missions of this office, their work extends far beyond that. During my internship, I worked under policy analyst Robin Garcia. She is responsible for communications between the office and Congress. This ranges from organizing tours of spill restoration sites in congressional districts, to requests for technical information about the office’s work to Congress. Though this job may be more behind-the-scenes, it provides vital support for the office’s mission.

 More than Just Brewing Coffee

When picturing an intern, you may think of someone delegated to the mailroom, licking envelopes and refilling the water cooler.

I actually did help refill the water cooler, but only because of my cubicle’s close location to it. Otherwise, I did little grunt work. When I wasn’t out attending Capitol Hill briefings, or outreach events, my main duties included tracking key legislation that would affect the office’s mission, and creating a tracker for the Strategic Plan that will continue be used through 2021.

My activities were varied; I attended an outreach event at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, helped review a training manual on environmental compliance, and went to a briefing on the Hill, all within the first week!

From white papers to windows

I was also fully integrated into the office, from sitting and participating in conference calls with the outreach team, to interviewing NOAA scientists in Hawaii. That interview was for one of my main projects this summer, researching and writing a white paper reviewing the office’s outreach efforts on oil-by-rail spills.

As someone used to writing historical and political science research papers, one of my biggest challenges was adapting to the more technical and explanatory, or scientific, writing style of a governmental white paper.

Also, while this may seem strange to some, getting my own cubicle proved more exciting than I was expecting. As part of that, I also learned to deal with a struggle affecting thousands of government employees: not having a view of a window by their cubicle (though thankfully I was no more than a five-second walk away from one).

Man sitting at desk in front of computer screen. Image: NOAA.

Intern Danny Hoffman sitting at his desk in his windowless cubicle. Image credit: NOAA.

Some other highlights of time include attending Capitol Hill Oceans Week, the nation’s premier ocean conference where I attended panels and met with leading ocean science and policy experts, and a communications training day, which included workshops on how to constructively talk to reporters during interviews, public speaking tips, and not one, but two mock interviews.

A true dive into the world of policy

As I leave NOAA to enter my senior year at the University of Maryland, I am thankful for the sweeping introduction this internship has given me to the world of policy, and for all of my NOAA coworkers who supported me during my internship.

From preparing white papers to speaking daily with leading professionals who make policy, much of what I have learned and experienced simply could not have been taught in a lecture hall.

I am excited for a possible future career with the federal government, and encourage anyone with an interest in policy, marine science, or public relations to apply for an internship with the Office of Response and Restoration in the future!

 

Danny Hoffman is a rising senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently double majoring in Government and History, with a minor in Spanish. Outside of interning for NOAA, Danny enjoys traveling (though not on Metro), reading about U.S. History, and playing his viola.


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Staff Participate in NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

Girl in classroom pouring liquid into fish tank. Image credit: NOAA.

A camper pours a bit of sesame oil into a fish tank to simulate a marine oil spill. NOAA Science Camp participants learned the basics of how spilled oil behaves, effects the environment, and how we forecast where it might go. Image credit: NOAA

The U.S. Coast Guard announces a ship collision in Puget Sound off Shilshole Bay. What happens now?

Trying to answer that question started the journey of participants in this year’s NOAA Science Camp. Washington Sea Grant organizes the popular camp and each year participants discover how NOAA oceanographers, biologists, chemists, physical scientists and others from the Office of Response and Restoration respond to hazardous spills.

More than 90 campers participated in 10 two-hour sessions during the two weeks of science camp, held July 10-21 at NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle. Guided by staff from both the Emergency Response Division and the Assessment and Restoration Division campers explored answering the five questions our response staff ask during spill incidents:

  • Where will the oil go?
  • How will it behave in, on the water, and on different types of shorelines?
  • What biological and human resources may be at risk during a spill?
  • How might the oil adversely affect these resources?
  • What can be done to help?

Camp participants learned what scientific data is gathered to answer those questions. They also were introduced to response tools like our GNOME modeling software, and Environmental Sensitivity Index maps.

Our staff also helped campers learn about pollutants from cars, homes, agriculture, and other types of land uses and the effects on the Puget Sound.

In other lessons, campers simulated the flow of water and pollutants in the environment, using tabletop watershed models and building groundwater models. They then brainstormed methods to clean up, contain, and prevent watershed pollution.

In another session, campers rolled up their sleeves, donned lab googles and gloves and become aquatic toxicologists for a day, testing samples for toxic chemicals and water quality parameters and learned how to interpret their data.

Later in the week, campers had to solve a science mystery. They visited several NOAA offices to gather more information about various aspect of the scenario and then applied what they learned to test their hypotheses.

Campers presented their findings and conclusions on the last day of camp each week and were evaluated by a scientist representative from each office.

Staff science camp instructors included Marla Steinhoff, Mark Dix, Dalina Thrift-Viveros, Dylan Righi, Chris Barker, Matthew Bissell, Gary Shigenaka, Nicolle Rutherford, Amy MacFadyen, and Rebecca Hoff.

Marla Steinhoff and Amy MacFadyen contributed to this article.


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Chinese Delegation Visits NOAA Office of Response and Restoration

People standing together with lake in background. Image credit: NOAA.

The Office of Response and Restoration hosted a delegate from China’s National Marine Hazard Mitigation Service in Seattle. From L: Yufei Lin, Jun Tan, Yijun Zhang, NOAA staff John Tarpley, Scott Lundgren, Glen Watabayshi, and Aijun Zhang. Image credit: NOAA

As part of our ongoing commitment to share our expertise in spill response with other nations, the Emergency Response Division recently hosted a delegation from China’s National Marine Hazard Mitigation Service.

The Chinese agency requested the meeting to learn about our strategies and tools for responding to environmental hazards and to exchange information about China’s marine emergency response programs.

The goal of the two-day meeting in Seattle was to learn about each other’s emergency response programs and to discuss the possibilities of collaborate in the future, according to Glen Watabayshi, chief of the Emergency Response Division’s Technical and Scientific Services Branch.

During the meeting, Watabayshi presented our oil spill response and planning tools including the GNOME modeling software and TAP trajectory planning software. Jill Petersen explained Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping and methodology. Mark Miller presented the CAMEO software suite and CAFE tool. Other emergency division staff participants included Scott Lundgren, Mark Dix, John Tarpley, Kristen Faiferlick, and Brianne Connolly.

The visiting contingent included executive director Yijun Zhang, senior research scientist Yufei Lin and senior research scientist Jun Tan.

“We spent a valuable two days with the staff from China’s National Marine Hazard Mitigation Service,” said Scott Lundgren, chief of the Emergency Response Division. “Staying in touch with other national counterparts on how they conduct and advance response and restoration is valuable. As large spills have declined in frequency with a strong prevention focus in oil production and transportation, it is even more important to stay current with practices and advances around the world.”

The Assessment and Restoration Division also participated in the meeting with Mary Baker presenting information on our environmental damage assessment techniques and tools and Ben Shorr explaining our online response management mapping tool, ERMA®. Jason Lehto from NOAA’s Restoration Center also presented. In addition, Aijun Zhang from NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services attended the meeting to help facilitate and act as an interpreter.

 

Glen Watabayshi, chief of the Emergency Response Division’s Technical and Scientific Services Branch, contributed to this article.