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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Sea Urchins Battle to Save Hawaii Coral Reef

Tiny spikey sea urchins in palm of a hand.

Tiny sea urchin released in Kaneohe Bay to combat invasive algae. (NOAA)

Can tiny sea urchins save a Hawaiian coral reef? In Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay, with a little help from scientists, it appears they can.

Kaneohe Bay has been plagued for decades by two species of invasive algae that blanket the native coral reefs, blocking the sun. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners developed two methods to destroy the invaders, vacuuming them up, and releasing hungry native sea urchins to munch them away.

Since the urchin program started in 2011, hundreds of thousands of baby Hawaiian collector sea urchins (Tripneustes gratilla) have been released into targeted areas of the bay to gorge on the algae invaders. Although native to the bay, the collector sea urchin population was too low to battle the invasive algae. Using funds from a ship grounding a decade earlier, officials developed a sea urchin hatchery.

The State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, the Nature Conservancy, and NOAA created the Kaneohe Bay restoration plan from the settlement of the 2005 grounding of the ship M/V Cape Flattery on the coral reefs south of Oahu. The grounding, and response efforts to free the ship, injured 19.5 acres of coral.

Despite the injuries, the reef began recovering on its own. Rather than mess with that natural recovery, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources began restoring the coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay.

NOAA Fisheries has a video on the creation of the sea urchin hatchery, as well as details on the success of the sea urchin releases.

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000; however, this project fell under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damaged reefs in the following articles:

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?


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Restoration: The Other Part of Spill Response

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Grass and water at sunset with bridge in background.

From landfill to vibrant tidal marsh, the wetland restoration at Lincoln Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, was funded from multiple oil spill settlements and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This project restored a significant area of coastal wetlands in New York-New Jersey harbor’s Arthur Kill ecosystem. (NOAA)

Typically, during an oil spill or chemical release, media images show emergency responders dressed in protective gear, skimming oil off the ocean’s surface or combing coastal beaches for oiled animals.

As dramatic as they are, those images can leave the impression that cleaning up after a spill is the end of the story. Often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues working on spills years after response efforts have ended, determining how to restore the environment.

OK, it’s not really a myth we’re busting here, maybe a misconception. Let’s chat about the less visible task of long term restoration after an oil spill.

When a spill happens, there are two tasks for those who caused the spill, clean up the spilled oil or chemical released, and restore the environment.

That first responsibility, cleaning up the mess, is the subject of those media photos. It’s the immediate actions taken to scoop up the oil, clear the beaches, and rescue wildlife. It was not long after the Exxon Valdez spill that a television commercial appeared featuring a liquid dish soap used to wash birds covered in oil. That commercial has become so identified with oil spills, it’s practically the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about oil spills.

Now, what happens when I ask you to picture long-term restoration after an oil spill? What do you see? Having a hard time picturing it? That’s because restoring the environment takes time, often years. Restoration doesn’t lend itself to immediate imagery.

It may not be the subject of a soap commercial, or be very visible to the public, but it’s the second half of the story after the emergency crews are gone.

So what does restoring the environment after a spill look like? Well it can start with scientists taking samples of an oiled fish and conclude with the construction of new wetlands. The Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program restores natural resources injured during an oil spill, release of hazardous materials, or vessel grounding to fully compensate the public for losses.

To ensure that fish, wildlife, and critical habitats like beaches, wetlands and corals impacted by a spill are restored a specific process is followed that includes:

  • Assess the Injury: Quantify injuries to the environment, including lost recreational uses, by conducting scientific and economic studies
  • Plan the Restoration: Develop a restoration plan that identifies projects and outlines the best methods to restore the impacted environment
  • Hold Polluters Accountable: Ensure that responsible parties pay the costs of assessing injuries and restoring the environment
  • Restore the Environment: Implement projects to restore habitats and resources to the condition they would have been in had the pollution not occurred

NOAA’s job is to not only to restore the environment, but to also evaluate and restore the experience the public lost during an oil spill, like fishing or swimming at the beach. For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or, there may be fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the outdoors NOAA and partners may build restoration projects that improve recreational access to waterways, install boat launches, fishing piers, and hiking trails.

During all this work, it’s important to keep the public informed and to ask for comments and ideas on how an injured area should be restored. Several restoration projects are currently open for public review and comment, read more here.


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Chemical Pollution in the Great Lakes

Sunset over Lake Erie.

Sunset over Lake Erie. (Anna McCartney NOAA Pennsylvania Sea Grant)

By Anna McCartney, Pennsylvania Sea Grant

Sailors that discovered the Great Lakes called them Sweetwater Seas because they contained drinkable water. Today, that water is under threat from chemical pollution. A recent report from the International Joint Commission, a U.S. – Canadian panel that monitors Great Lakes water quality, states the efforts to clean up the lakes over the past 25 years are “a mix of achievements and challenges.”

The five Great Lakes, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior have a total coastline of almost 11,000 miles. Together with the rivers, channels, and smaller lakes that feed or drain them, they make up the largest surface freshwater system on Earth.

While the Great Lakes system spreads across more than 94,250 square miles (244,106 square kilometers), it drains a much larger watershed that includes parts of eight states and two Canadian provinces. Nearly 40 million people, including 11 million Canadians depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, recreation, transportation, power and economic opportunities. According to Environment Canada, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region supports 56 million jobs shared by Canada and the United States.

As the population has increased, human activities have taken their toll on the Great Lakes ecosystem. The environmental impacts of urbanization, trade, industrialization, agriculture, climate change, toxic contaminants and other pressures, are obvious. Concentrations of historic pollutants are still a concern, mercury levels in some species of Great Lakes fish are stable but are increasing in others.

New pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and plastic waste are equally troubling. Chemicals like fire retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are present in the water, air, sediment, wildlife, and people who live near the Great Lakes.

This is deeply concerning because these chemicals are persistent (never break down), toxic, and bioaccumulative, absorbed by the body. Exposure to PBDEs has been linked to thyroid disorders, birth defects, infertility, cancer, and neurobehavioral disorders.

The commission is seeking public comments on the report until April 15, 2017 at ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org or at participateijc.org.

Here are recent stories about the Office of Response and Restoration’s work in the Great Lakes:

Protecting the Great Lakes After a Coal Ship Hits Ground in Lake Erie

With Eye Toward Restoring Ecosystems, NOAA Releases New Pollution Mapping Tool for Great Lakes

Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

What Was the Fate of Lake Erie’s Leaking Shipwreck, the Argo?

Anna McCartney is the communications and education specialist at Pennsylvania Sea Grant.


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Preserving an Estuary in Hawaii

Hawaii coastline with mountains.

He‘eia National Estuarine Research Reserve, Oahu, Hawaii. NOAA

On the Island of Oahu, at the southern portion of Kāne‘ohe Bay, sits the nation’s newest estuary reserve.

He’eia National Estuarine Research Reserve is one of 29 areas in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, protected for long-term research, water-quality monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship.

Created when the fresh water of rivers meets the salty water of the sea, estuaries act like giant sponges protecting upland areas from ocean waves and storms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in partnership with coastal states and territories works to preserve these unique natural areas.

This 1,385 acre Oahu reserve includes unique and diverse upland, estuarine, and marine habitats within the He‘eia estuary and a portion of Kāne‘ohe Bay, protecting features such as the He‘eia stream, coral reefs, sand flats, and important cultural components.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has worked in Kāne‘ohe Bay and other Oahu locations to minimize the impacts of oil spills and hazardous waste sites on these important habitats. You can read more about some of our work in Oahu in the following articles:

 


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Restoration of an Injured Caribbean Coral Reef

Broken coral on ocean floor.

A coral cache location where fractured corals were protected prior to reef reattachment. NOAA

The waters surrounding the Puerto Rico archipelago are known for the diversity and beauty of the coral reefs. Those reefs are also under great pressure from population density, land uses, and shipping traffic.

On Oct.  27, 2009 the tanker Port Stewart grounded in coral reef habitat on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico near the entrance to Yabucoa Channel. The tanker was carrying 7 million gallons of oil. Local efforts freed the ship the same day it grounded without an oil spill but both the grounding and removal process caused extensive injury to the reef.

Nearly 93 percent of Puerto Rico’s coral reefs are rated as threatened, with 84 percent at high risk and among the most threatened in the Caribbean. The Port Stewart incident directly destroyed about 512 square meters (about 5,551 square feet) of the living coral reef. The injured habitat had a diverse community of soft corals (octocorals), sponges, and hard corals (scleractinian), including Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

When a reef is injured it’s important to take emergency restoration actions to salvage as many of the corals as possible. Following the grounding work began to triage corals and plan emergency restoration which lasted through 2010. This included surveying and mapping the area affected by the incident and salvaging as many living corals as possible. Emergency restoration efforts are designed to meet most of the actions needed to revive the injured reef.

Scuba diver underwater with string and plastic pipe grid.

Broken corals were draped on a floating coral array frame in order to grow bigger. Divers attached Acropora coral fragments, one of many coral types affected by the grounding. NOAA

In the Port Stewart case that included salvaging scleractinian corals, the hard reef-building animals that create skeletons under their skin. The skeletons are made from calcium carbonate and protect the coral animals and offer a base that other coral can attach themselves to, creating the reef community. The actions of emergency crews were able to save about 1,000 corals.

Scientists have monitored injured reef for the past six years and consider restoration efforts successful. According to monitoring reports, survivorship of reattached corals is comparable to that of naturally occurring corals in the area.

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico

 


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Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary Plan Open for Review

Bay shore with trees growing on old ships.

Mallows Bay contains more than 100 known and potential shipwrecks. Credit: Marine Robotics & Remote Sensing, Duke University

Mallows Bay is a largely undeveloped area identified as one of the most ecologically valuable in Maryland, and on its way to becoming the first marine sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a detailed description of the proposed Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA’s proposed sanctuary regulations will focus only on the protection of the shipwrecks and associated maritime heritage resources. However, the structures provided by shipwrecks and related infrastructure serve as habitat for populations of recreational fisheries, bald eagles, and other marine species.

Situated on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, just east of Washington D.C. and west of Chesapeake Bay, the proposed sanctuary includes the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere. Mallows Bay has nearly 200 known historic shipwrecks dating back to the Civil War, as well as archaeological artifacts dating back 12,000 years, according to NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries.

Among the waters of Mallow Bay rest the derelict vessels of the “Ghost Fleet,” the U.S. Emergency Fleet built for World War I. Following the war, hundreds of the wooden steamships were sent to Mallows Bay to be scrapped—and the remains of dozens can still be seen in the shallow waters. The half-sunk and decomposing ships serve as habitat to populations of recreational fisheries, bald eagles, and other marine species. Frank Csulak, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration based in New Jersey, wrote about his impressions of Mallows Bay during a kayaking tour in July 2016. The tour was an opportunity for NOAA and U.S. Coast Guard staff see firsthand how sensitive the environment is, and the risk a potential oil spill could pose to the site.

In 2014, Mallows Bay, including the derelict vessels, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Mallows Bay-Widewater Historical and Archaeological District. A community partnership committee was formed to draft the national marine sanctuary nomination when the nomination process was revitalized. The Mallows Bay nomination included support from nearly 150 organizations, agencies, and private citizens. The nomination to have the bay designated as the first National Marine Sanctuary in 20 years was announced by President Obama in 2015.

The period for public comments will remain open until about the end of March 2017.

 


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Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

Scuba diver underwater near rocks.

A diver rescued live coral for emergency reattachment. Photo taken less than 12 hours after grounding shows how fast NOAA mobilized. (Sea Ventures Inc. photo)

U.S. coral reefs are impacted by 3 ­- 4 large groundings a year.  On Dec. 15, 2009 the danger became reality near Guayanilla Bay, Puerto Rico when the liquid natural gas carrier Matthew grounded on the coral reef there causing substantial harm. It wasn’t just the grounding that injured the coral. During attempts to free the tanker the bow of the ship was moved from side to side causing further injury to the reef structure.

Although no oil was spilled, by the time the ship was removed a total of 3,200 square meters (about 34,444 square feet) of living coral reef was mangled or destroyed.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

In the aftermath of groundings, impacted corals are often broken, dislodged, or flipped over. These fragments are subject to abrasion, scour, and sedimentation, which ultimately result in death. Unchecked, these damages can result in additional reef loss and instability. However, if dislodged fragments can be collected and stabilized shortly after physical impacts then the probability of survival increases substantially. After the grounding a triage team of divers, which included NOAA, salvaged live corals from the rubble. The corals were cached in a safe, stable underwater area in an effort to keep them alive until they could be permanently reattached.

The emergency restoration actions lasted through 2010 and were designed to address most of the potential restoration actions that might be needed for the injured reef.  Emergency response efforts were able to save about 7,000 corals.

Restored coral reef.

Fully restored coral in Guayanilla Bay, Puerto Rico provides recreation and commercial benefits. NOAA

Species harmed included fractured and crushed hard corals (scleractinian), dislodged soft corals (octocorals). Staghorn coral, classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act were also injured and swaths of the sea floor were scraped and pulverized.

Coral reefs are one of the most economically valuable ecosystems on earth, providing hundreds of billions of dollars in food, jobs, recreational opportunities, and coastal protection. NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000.

You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico