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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8 Ways to Keep the Earth Clean

Litter on beach.

Litter such as plastic detergent bottles, crates, buoys, combs, and water bottles blanket Kanapou Bay, on the Island of Kaho’olawe in Hawaii. This region is a hot-spot for marine debris accumulation. Image credit: NOAA

By: Amanda Laverty, Knauss fellow with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program

Earth Day is just around the corner and it’s the perfect time to get involved and support efforts working toward a clean environment and healthy planet. We want to remind ourselves to make these efforts throughout the year, so Earth Day is a great time to start.

This year, let’s challenge ourselves as consumers to make better daily choices so that we can collectively lessen our impact on the planet! It only takes a few consistent choices to develop new sustainable and earth-friendly habits.

Here are a few easy and effective ways you can choose to reduce your daily impact and make a world of difference:

  1. Bring a bag. Remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery store or for any other shopping activities to reduce consumption of disposable bags.
  2. Invest in a reusable water bottle. Acquiring a reusable water bottle would not only greatly reduce the amount of single-use plastic you use, but it would also save you money in the long run! If you’re concerned about the quality of your tap water, consider using a water filter.
  3. Bring your own reusable cup. Think about how many disposable cups are used every day in just your local coffee shop. Bringing a mug for your morning coffee can reduce the amount of waste you produce annually. Imagine how much waste we could reduce if we all made this simple daily change!
  4. Refuse single-use items. Take note on how often you rely on single-use items and choose to replace them with more sustainable versions. Refusing plastic straws and disposable cutlery when you go out and bringing your own containers for leftovers are a few ways you can start today.
  5. Avoid products with microbeads. Facial scrubs and beauty products containing plastic microbeads were banned in the United States in 2015, but won’t be fully phased out until 2019. Read the labels when purchasing products and opt for ones that contain natural scrubbing ingredients like salt or sugar.
  6. Shop in bulk. Consider the product-to-packaging ratio when purchasing items and choose larger containers instead of multiple smaller ones. When you have the option, also consider purchasing package-free foods and household goods.
  7. Make sure your waste goes to the right place. Do your best to ensure that the waste you dispose of ends up where it should. Recycle the materials that are recyclable in your area and make sure to reduce the likelihood of your garbage ending up in the environment by keeping a lid on your trash can when it’s outside.
  8. Compost. Composting at home reduces the volume of garbage sent to landfills and reduces the chance of some products becoming marine debris.

These are just a few ways that we can apply our Earth Day intentions to our everyday lives. By doing our part to work toward a sustainable and debris-free planet, we’ll also be providing others with inspiration and a good example to follow. As individuals we have the potential to make a big difference and together we can change the world.

This blog first appeared on the Marine Debris blog. Learn more about NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and its mission to investigate and prevent the adverse impacts of marine debris.


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Assessing the Impacts from Deepwater Horizon

Beach with grass.

Beach habitat was part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. Image Credit: NOAA

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster spread spilled oil deep into the ocean’s depths and along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, compromising the complex ecosystem and local economies. The response and the natural resources damage assessment were the largest in the nation’s history.

Ecosystems are comprised of biological, physical, and chemical components, interconnected to form a community. What happens in one location has serious, cascading effects on organisms in other parts of the ecosystem. The Gulf’s coastal wetlands and estuaries support the entire Gulf ecosystem, providing food, shelter, and nursery grounds for a variety of animals. The open waters of the Gulf also provides habitat for fish, shrimp, shellfish, sea turtles, birds, and mammals.

Evaluating impacts from the spill

Considering these interdependencies during the assessment process was important. At the same time, it was impossible to test or examine every injured bird, every sickened dolphin, or every area contaminated with oil. That was cost prohibitive and scientifically impossible.

Instead, NOAA scientists evaluated representative samples of natural resources, habitats, ecological communities, ecosystem processes and linkages.

To do that, scientists made 20,000 trips to the field, to obtain 100,000 environmental samples that yielded 15 million records. This data collection and subsequent series of scientific studies formed the basis for the natural resources damage assessment that led to the largest civil settlement in federal history.

A short summary of the natural resource injuries:

Marshes injured

  • Plant cover and vegetation mass reduced along 350 to 720 miles of shoreline
  • Amphipods, periwinkles, shrimp, forage fish, red drum, fiddler crabs, insects killed

Harvestable oysters lost

  • 4 – 8.3 billion harvestable oysters lost

Birds, fish, shellfish, sea turtles, and dolphins killed

  • Between 51,000 to 84,000 birds killed
  • Between 56,000 to 166,000 small juvenile sea turtles killed
  • Up to 51% decrease in Barataria Bay dolphin population
  • An estimated 2 – 5 trillion newly hatched fish were killed

Rare corals and red crabs impacted

  • Throughout an area about 400 to 700 square miles around the wellhead

Recreational opportunities lost

  • About $527 – $859 million in lost recreation such as boating, fishing, and beach going
Top fish shows no oil bottom fish shows oil.

The top picture is a red drum control fish that was not exposed to oil, while the bottom red drum fish was exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil for 36 hours. The bottom fish developed excess fluid around the heart and other developmental deformities. This is an example of the many scientific studies conducted for the natural resources damage assessment. Image Credit: NOAA/Abt

What we shared

Those studies not only documented the injuries, but also helped the entire scientific community understand the effects of oil spills on nature and our communities. All of the scientific studies, including over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as all the data collected for the studies, are available to the public and the scientific community. Additionally, our environmental response management software allows anyone to download the data from a scientific study, and then see that data on a map.

We will be publishing new guidance documents regarding sea turtles and marine mammals by the end of 2017. These guides compile best practices and lessons learned and will expedite natural resources damage assessment procedures in the future.

Read more about Deepwater Horizon and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Tom Brosnan, Lisa DiPinto, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Showcasing Our Partnership with Coast Guard on Instagram

Ship's upper deck with rainbow.

A NOAA research team journeyed to the icy Arctic north of Alaska in 2014 on board the USCG Cutter Healy. A rain shower through Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands provided a rainbow, visible from an Arctic survey boat accompanying the Healy. (Credit NOAA)

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Response and Restoration will be taking over U.S. Coast Guard’s Instagram to showcase our long partnership.

Coming up at the end of this week, March 24, is the anniversary of Exxon Valdez – one of the largest oils spills in the nation’s history. However, our history actually goes back prior to Exxon Valdez to the grounding of the tanker Argo Merchant in 1976.

During the week, we’ll post photos of our work with the Coast Guard from our beginning to the present spotlighting our  work together in the Arctic, during hurricanes, Deepwater Horizon, and other incidents.

Head on over to USCG Instagram and view how we partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife.

Read these recent articles about our partnership:

5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Below Zero: Partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA


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Life at Sea or Scientist on Land: NOAA Corps Offers Both

Large white NOAA ship with mountains in background.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Credit: NOAA

By Cmdr. Jesse Stark, NOAA Corps

A life at sea, or a career conserving natural resources?

That was the choice I was contemplating while walking along the docks in Port Angeles, Washington, back in 1998. A chance encounter that day with the chief quartermaster of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ship Rainer showed me I could do both.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I spent my time exploring the woods, beaches, and tide pools. Every summer I reread Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” My first job was a as a deck hand on charter fishing boats out of Port Angeles.

So, when Quartermaster Bernie Greene invited me aboard that day and told me stories with a sense of adventure, I signed onto the Rainer as an able-bodied seaman, and we headed to Alaska. That first voyage had me hooked and I joined NOAA Corps, leading to my current assignment as the Northwest scientific support coordinator.

NOAA has a long history of supplying scientific support to oil spills, starting with the Argo Merchant incident in 1976, and NOAA Corps history stretches back even farther to President Thomas Jefferson’s order for the first survey of the nation’s coast.

Today, the corps’ commissioned officers command NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft, and also rotate to serve within each of NOAA’s other divisions. That combination of duties offers a breadth of experience that I draw upon in my current post in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration‘s Emergency Response Division.

Man in uniform holding little girl inside ship.

Commander Jesse Stark holding daughter Izzie on NOAA Ship Pisces after a ceremony in Pascagoula, Mississippi at a ceremony donating an anchor to the city for its “Anchor Village,” a retail park constructed near the ship’s homeport after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA

In the event of an oil spill or chemical release, the U.S. Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing clean-up activities; the scientific support coordinator’s role is to provide scientific expertise and to communicate with other affected agencies or organizations to reach a common consensus on response actions.

During my 18-year career as a corps officer, I’ve had eight permanent assignments, four on ships and four on land in three different NOAA divisions. Those different assignments allowed me to develop skills in bringing resources and differing perspectives together to work toward a common goal. Often, operating units get stagnant and stove-piped, and having new blood with new perspective and outlook rotating through alleviates some of that.

It’s also enabled me to build relationships across different divisions and tie together processes and practices among the different operating units, and sometimes, competing ideologies.

As an example, my first land assignment was with NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division in Portland, Oregon. While there, I produced a GIS-based distribution map of each recorded ocean catch of salmon and steelhead by watershed origin. While this project involved mainly technical aptitude and data mining, I was also involved with writing biological opinions on research authorizations of endangered salmon species.

This required coordination of many competing and differing viewpoints on management of these species. Consensus had to be reached and often an impasse had to be broken among people with deep passions on these issues.

One of my most challenging assignments was in 2010 when I was executive officer of NOAA Ship Pisces that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

During the Deepwater Horizon response, the normal collecting of living marine resource data was replaced with a new process of collecting water and sediment samples better suited to the situation. The incident also showed how industry and government can, and must, work side by side for the good of the public and natural resources.

All of these skills together are proving to come in handy as a science coordinator, where in any given situation there can be as many as five different federal agencies, three state agencies, and several private companies with differing opinions. I’m happy to put my skills and experiences to good use in teamwork building and consensus for the greater good.

 

Commander Stark joined NOAA’s Emergency Response Division in August 2016. Stark’s last assignment was commanding officer of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson in Alaska. Stark started in NOAA as a seaman on the NOAA Ship Rainier in 1998 and was commissioned into the NOAA Corps in 1999. 


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NOAA Scientist Supports Alaska Pipeline Leak Response

Beluga whale dorsal in ocean.

An endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale dorsal. National Marine Fisheries has more information on the whales. (Credit NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is assisting the U.S. Coast Guard in responding to a leaking natural gas pipeline in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

The leak was first reported to federal regulatory agencies on Feb. 7, by Hilcorp Alaska, LLC, which owns the pipeline located about 3.5 miles northeast of Nikiski, Alaska.

The 8-inch pipeline runs 4.6 miles from the shoreline to Hilcorp’s Platform A and then branches off to three other platforms in the inlet. The natural gas is used for fuel to support ongoing operations, as well as heating, and other life support functions.

The pipeline continues to leak between 200,000 and 300,000 cubic feet of processed natural gas a day into the inlet. This processed natural gas is 99% methane. The company said the presence of ice is preventing divers from conducting repairs, and the sea ice is not expected to melt until April.

Once notified of the leak, the U.S. Coast Guard contacted the scientific support coordinator in Alaska, Catherine Berg. She was asked for information on the expected area presenting flammability concerns in support of cautionary notices being broadcast to mariners. As scientific support coordinator, Berg routinely provides scientific and technical support during response for oil spills and hazardous materials releases in the coastal zone, helping to assess the risks to people and the environment.

Because of the nature of the release, in this case, Berg is providing technical support to the Coast Guard and the state as requested, drawing upon similar networks and expertise.

You can read more about NOAA’s work in response and restoration in Alaska in the following articles:

An Oiled River Restored: Salmon Return to Alaskan Stream to Spawn

At the Trans Alaska Pipeline’s Start, Where 200 Million Barrels of Oil Begin their Journey Each Year

Alaska ShoreZone: Mapping over 46,000 Miles of Coastal Habitat

See What Restoration Looks Like for an Oiled Stream on an Isolated Alaskan Island

Melting Permafrost and Camping with Muskoxen: Planning for Oil Spills on Arctic Coasts

National Marine Fisheries has more information on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

 


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Hold on to Those Balloons: They Could End Up in the Ocean

Sea turtle being held.

Balloon debris can be harmful for wildlife, which may ingest or get entangled in it. Here, a sea turtle was found after ingesting balloon debris, likely mistaking it for food. (Photo Credit: Blair Witherington, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

By NOAA Marine Debris Program

Balloons are a type of marine debris that many people don’t think about. Often used for celebrations or to commemorate special events, balloons are frequently intentionally or accidentally released into the environment. Unfortunately, once they go up, they must also come down; balloons released into the air don’t just go away, they either get snagged on something such as tree branches or electrical wires, deflate and make their way back down, or rise until they pop and fall back to Earth where they can create a lot of problems.

Balloon debris can be ingested by animals, many of which easily mistake it for real food, and can entangle wildlife, especially balloons with attached ribbons. Balloon debris can even have an economic impact on communities, contributing to dirty beaches which drive away tourists, or causing power outages from mylar balloons covered in metallic paint and their ribbons tangling in power lines.

Balloon debris is a national issue and unfortunately, the Mid-Atlantic is not immune. Over a period of five years (2010-2014), 4,916 pieces of balloon litter were found in Virginia by volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup, with over 3,000 of those pieces found on ocean beaches. In 2014, 236 volunteers found over 900 balloons in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia in a three-hour period. Recent surveys of remote islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore documented up to 40 balloons per mile of beach. These statistics suggest that this Mid-Atlantic area is appropriate to research the balloon debris issue and to create an education and outreach program that could then be used in other states. So the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, with funding support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is doing just that. They’re exploring the issue of intentionally-released balloons and targeting that behavior through a social marketing campaign.

Blue and white balloon on beach.

Balloons that are intentionally or accidentally released have to come down somewhere! Unfortunately, they often find their way into our waterways or ocean. (Photo Credit: Russ Lewis)

So what can you do to help reduce balloon debris in the Mid-Atlantic and throughout the country? Consider using alternate decorations at your next celebration such as paper streamers or fabric flags. Rather than giving your child a helium balloon on a string, fill it with air and attach it to a stick—they still get the feeling of it floating above their heads without the risk of losing it into the environment. Most importantly, don’t intentionally release balloons into the air. With increased awareness about the issue, we can all work to reduce this very preventable form of marine debris in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.


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Is Marine Debris Spreading Invasive Species?

Plant growing on cement wall.

A close-up of marine life found on a derelict dock from Japan that washed up on Agate Beach in Newport, Oregon. Credit: Oregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science Center

If you ask a gardener what a weed is, the answer is likely to be any plant growing where they don’t want it. Invasive species, be they plant, animal, or insect, are much more harmful than an unwanted plant in a well-tended garden.

Invasive species are interlopers that muscle out natives by outcompeting them for resources, like food and shelter. Left unchecked, the invaders can lead to the extinction of native plants and animals. In the marine environment, this can result in damaging local economies and fundamental disruptions of coastal and Great Lakes wildlife habits.

Invasive species can colonize a new area via the ballast water of oceangoing ships, intentional and accidental releases of aquaculture species, aquarium specimens or bait, and marine debris.

Growing concern about increasing amounts of marine debris in our oceans has led scientists to research the potential for invasive species to hitch rides on debris and carry them to new areas across the globe.

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has a new report exploring the subject. Read “Marine Debris as a Potential Pathway for Invasive Species” for detailed information.