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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Working to Help Save Sea Turtles

Leatherback sea turtle swimming. Image credit: NOAA.

The leatherback is the largest turtle–and one of the largest living reptiles–in the world. Leatherbacks are commonly known as pelagic (open ocean) animals, but they also forage in coastal waters, including the Gulf. Image credit: NOAA.

Sea turtles are among the most popular marine reptiles and have been in Earth’s ocean for more than 100 million years. Unfortunately, today sea turtles struggle to survive. Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are found in United States waters and all of those species are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the most devastating incidents to the survival of sea turtles was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Both during the spill and in the aftermath, we worked with the Office of Protected Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners, to understand the extent of harm to sea turtles from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

For instance, it’s estimated that between 56,000 to 166,000 sea turtles were killed because of the spill. A special issue of Endangered Species Research features 20 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on protected species such as sea turtles and marine mammals.

The scientific studies, conducted by NOAA and partners, document the unprecedented mortality rate and long-term environmental impacts of the oil’s exposure to sea turtles. Findings from these research studies, in addition to other studies on other parts of the ecosystem, formed the basis of the natural resources damage assessment settlement with BP for up to $8.8 billion.

Additionally, our environmental response management software allows anyone to download the data from a scientific study, and then see that data on a map.

Our studies not only documented the injuries to sea turtles and other Gulf of Mexico plant and animal species, but also helped the entire scientific community understand the effects of oil spills on nature and our coastal communities.

You can learn more about our work with sea turtles and our studies from Deepwater Horizon in the flowing articles:

How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

What’s It Like Saving Endangered Baby Sea Turtles in Costa Rica?

Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals

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

Oil and Sea Turtles: Biology, Planning, and Response

ERMA map of sea turtles in the Gulf. Image credit: NOAA.

This view of ERMA® Deepwater Gulf Response, our online mapping tool, displays sea turtle data from response efforts and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. This site served a critical role in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and remains a valuable reference. Image credit: NOAA


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Incident Responses for May 2017

Gray whale rising from the ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

Gray whales are found mainly in shallow coastal waters in the North Pacific Ocean. Image credit: NOAA

Every month our Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard on everything from running oil spill trajectories to model where the spill may spread, to possible effects on wildlife and fisheries, and estimates on how long the oil may stay in the environment.

In May, there were two incidents of dead gray whales in Washington state, one floating offshore near Long Beach, and another washed ashore in Bellingham Bay. In both cases, we were asked for trajectories.

In the case of a whale found floating at sea, we use our GNOME trajectory modeling software to map the possible drift route of the carcass. When a whale washes ashore, one of the things that officials need to know is how far they have to tow the carcass back out to sea to ensure it will not wash back to shore.

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:

 


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Counting People on the Beach is Not as Simple as it Sounds

Aerial view of people on beach. Image credit: NOAA.

In the aftermath of an oil spill, state and federal natural resource trustees often need to assess impacts to recreational use. This new manual focuses on onsite data collection using ground personnel and aerial photography. Image credit: NOAA

Imagine the perfect day at the beach, lying in the sand, fishing from the pier, maybe taking a boat out on the water. Then an oil spill occurs, and the beach is no longer a fun place to be.

When an oil spill or other pollutant keeps people from enjoying a natural area, it’s up to agencies like NOAA, acting as public trustees of affected areas, to determine how much recreational opportunities were lost. It’s part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

A new guide from the Assessment and Restoration Division, Best Practices for Collecting Onsite Data to Assess Recreational Use Impacts from an Oil Spill, is designed to help standardize the collection process.

The guide evolved from our experiences conducting the natural resource damage assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“We wanted to capitalize on the lessons learned during the Deepwater Horizon damage assessment, so we condensed our 1,119 page infield process manual into a portable guide that we could pull off the shelf and implement during any future oil spill,” said Adam Domanski, an economist who specializes in non-market valuation with the Assessment and Restoration Division.

The intention of the new guide is help any resource manager collect recreational use data and offers detailed information on:

  • Sampling Methods and Design
  • Onsite Data Collection Using Ground Personnel
  • Onsite Data Collection Using Aerial Photography
  • Safety Considerations for Data Collection
  • Data Entry and Processing Procedures

The guide is available at NOAA’s Damage, Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.


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NOAA Corps: 100 Years of Service

NOAA Ship rainer on ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Rainier’s officers, technicians, and scientists log the data that NOAA cartographers use to create and update the nation’s nautical charts with ever-increasing data richness and precision. Image credit: NOAA.

By Ensign Matthew Bissell, NOAA Corps

Can you name the seven uniformed services of the United States?

Most likely, you can name five—Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. You may even get to six if you know that the U.S Public Health Service has a uniformed division.

What is that seventh uniformed service?

Don’t feel bad if you can’t come up with it, you are not alone, even some members of the  military haven’t heard of the NOAA Corps, despite the service approaching its 100-year anniversary.

I experienced the Corps’ low profile first hand when I showed up for my physical screening at the military’s processing station in Los Angeles, California. I was denied entry because the security guard didn’t believe the NOAA Corps was a uniformed service. I only gained entry after proving its existence by pulling up a Wikipedia entry on my phone.

My NOAA Corps affiliation didn’t get me much further once inside.  All the other recruits received nametags that read Air Force, Coast Guard, or Marines, mine read XXX. I got more than a few questions about my Xs that day and my responses varied greatly—some more creative than others.

At that early stage in my NOAA Corps career, even I was largely unaware of the rich history and incredibly valuable service I was to become part of.

The Civil War to World War I

NOAA Corps officially began on May 22, 1917 (46 days after the nation entered World War I). To understand the origins of NOAA, and its commissioned Corps, we need to go even further back in history, to 1807 when President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill initiating the first survey of the nation’s coast. The result was the formation of the U.S. Survey of the Coast, later named the U.S. Coast Survey—the nation’s oldest scientific federal agency.

Initially consisting of civilian surveyors, cartographers, and engineers, as well as commissioned officers from the Army and Navy, the agency charted the nation’s waterways.

Once the Civil War erupted in 1861 the Army and Navy officers in the Coast Survey were recalled to their respective services. The survey’s remaining civilians volunteered their skills in support of the Union, serving in both the Army and Navy. In addition to providing valuable mapping and charting services to the Union forces, these civilian surveyors participated in naval blockades and other major offensive actions.

Army commands gave Coast Surveyors military rank while the Navy refused, leaving some coast surveyors in jeopardy of being hung as spies if captured.

When the war ended, the civilian surveyors and Naval officers returned to their charting mission. The scope of this work had now expanded to include a survey of the nation’s interior. In 1878 the U.S. Coast Survey was renamed the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to reflect this new responsibility.

Naval officers were again withdrawn for the Spanish-American War, never to return to the survey. For the next two decades, civilians were in command of the survey ships.

Then in 1915, Ernest Lester Jones, referred to as the father of the NOAA Corps, became director of the organization. With the nation’s involvement in World War I looming, one of Jones’s first actions as director was to publish the coast survey’s contributions to the Civil War. A step that eventually led to establishing the organization as a commissioned service.

Historical photo of old ship. Image credit: NOAA.

Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship SURVEYOR off Norfolk, Virginia, in 1919, showing Star and Chevron on stack for having taken part in WWI combat operations in the North Atlantic. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

NOAA Corps is born

In May 1917, a law established the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey as a commissioned, uniformed service allowing integration into other uniformed services and removing the threat of spying accusations if captured in the line of duty.

When we entered World War I, many survey officers assumed vital roles within the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. This integration into other services repeated during World War II.

After each wartime involvement, survey officers resumed their peacetime duties of surveying the nation’s coasts. These duties evolved to include worldwide oceanographic cruises, arctic expeditions, and national defense projects.

In 1970, a national scientific agency merger created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the survey became NOAA Corps.

The Corps today

Throughout the last 100 years, NOAA Corps officers have continued the important work of surveying the nation’s waterways and ensuring safe and open navigation for maritime commerce.

In addition to surveying, NOAA Corp officers serve as operational specialists aboard the nation’s research ships and airplanes, as well as in land-based positions within NOAA’s other divisions. Typically, a NOAA Corp officer will rotate between two-year sea assignments and three-year land based assignments throughout their careers.

After my initial experience in Los Angeles, I started a 16-week Basic Officer Training Course at the Coast Guard academy in Connecticut, along with 15 other NOAA Corps candidates. After graduation, my first assignment was aboard NOAA’s hydrographic survey vessel, Rainier. I spent two years on Rainier surveying coastal Alaska, updating nautical charts originally created by our NOAA Corps ancestors over one hundred years ago.

Technology has advanced our ability to map the sea floor since those early efforts. Still, it’s absolutely jaw-dropping how accurate the old charts are, given the limited technology of the time.

After two years at sea, I am now serving in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, continuing a proud NOAA Corps history of serving our nation through science.

 

Ensign Matt Bissell came to NOAA from the Ocean Institute in Southern California where he was a science educator and floating lab technician. Bissell has a Master of Science degree in Geographic Information Science and Technology and a Bachelor of Science degree in Earth System Science. Bissell now resides in Seattle with his wife and one-year-old daughter. Special thanks to Albert “Skip” Theberge, at the NOAA Central Library for help with this article.


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What we do to Help Endangered Species

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat. Image credit: NOAA

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. Image credit: NOAA

For over 40 years, the 1973 Endangered Species Act has helped protect native plants and animals and that habitats where they live, and many government agencies play a role in that important work. That’s one reason the United States celebrates Endangered Species Day every year in May.

The Office of Response and Restoration contributes to the efforts to protect these species in our spill response and assessment and restoration work.

When a spill occurs in coastal waters one priority for our emergency responders is identifying any threatened or endangered species living in the area near the spill.

  • At every spill or chemical release, our scientists need to take into account:
  • Is it breeding season for any protected species in the area?
  • Is any of the spill area nesting grounds for protected species?
  • Are protected species likely to come into contact with the spilled contaminant?
  • What are possible negative effects from the cleanup process on the protected species?

We assist the U.S. Coast Guard with a required Endangered Species Act consultation for spills to ensure those species are considered in any response action taken. We’ve also developed tools that can be used by all emergency responders and environmental resource managers to help protected endangered plants, animals, and their habitats.

Environmental Sensitivity Index maps identify coastal habitats and locations that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spills. ​The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the economic resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Threatened and​ Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily access data on federal or state listed threatened and endangered species for specific regions. These data are a subset of the larger, more complex environmental sensitivity index data and are a convenient way to access some of the more critical biological information for an area.

Environmental Resources Management Application, called ERMA®, is our online mapping tool that integrates static and real-time environmental data and allows users to investigate data in their area. There are hundreds of publicly available base layers including many endangered and threatened species. Environmental Sensitivity Index maps are available in this tool.

Marine debris affects endangered and threatened species including species of sea turtles, whales, seals, and corals. These fragile populations face a variety of stressors in the ocean including people, derelict fishing gear, trash, and other debris. To learn more about the dangers of marine debris on marine life check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

For more information on threatened and endangered species, and local events for Endangered Species Day, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For information on endangered and threatened marine species visit NOAA Fisheries.


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Safe Boating and Prevention of Small Oil Spills

Marina with recreational boats. Image credit: NOAA.

Recreational boaters and other small vessel operators can help protect marine life with a few simple precautions aimed at preventing oil from getting into the water. Image credit: NOAA

What does wearing a life jacket have in common with preventing oil spills? Wearing life jackets can save people’s lives; preventing small oil spills helps protect marine life.

National Safe Boating Week is May 22-26. As part of the campaign launch, the National Safe Boating Council, in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, is encouraging people to wear life jackets to work on May 19. The Coast Guard estimates that over 80 percent of the lives lost to drowning could have been preventing by wearing life jackets.

In addition to protecting themselves and their passengers, recreational boaters and other small vessel operators can help protect marine life with a few simple precautions aimed at preventing oil from getting into the water.

Though each one is small in volume, oil spills from small vessels add up. In Washington State, when you multiply this volume by the thousands of fishing and recreational boats on the water, they make up the largest source of oil pollution in Puget Sound, according to Washington Sea Grant.

“Small oils spills, whether a cup, a gallon or just a few drops, add up to a huge water quality problem; it is death by a thousand tiny cuts. Over time, it all adds up,” said Aaron Barnett, boating specialist at Washington Sea Grant.

Small Spills Prevention Checklist

It’s not difficult to prevent small-vessel oil spills, Washington Sea Grant has put together a checklist for simple maintenance and fueling tips.

Vessel maintenance

  • Tighten bolts on your engine to prevent oil leaks. Bolts can shake loose with engine use.
  • Replace cracked or worn hydraulic lines and fittings before they fail. Lines can wear out from sun and heat exposure or abrasion.
  • Outfit your engine with an oil tray or drip pan. You don’t need anything fancy or expensive; a cookie sheet or paint tray will do the trick.
  • Create your own bilge sock out of oil absorbent pads to prevent oily water discharge. Here’s a helpful how-to guide from Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough.

At the pump

  • Avoid overflows while refueling by knowing the capacity of your tank and leaving some room for fuel expansion.
  • Shut off your bilge pump while refueling – don’t forget to turn it back on when done.
  • Use an absorbent pad or a fuel collar to catch drips. Always keep a stash handy.

Even following these tips, accidents can still happen. When they do it’s important that boaters manage them effectively. Spills should immediately be contained and cleaned up with absorbent pads or boomed to prevent their spread. Notify the Coast Guard and your state spill response office, per federal law, and let the marina or fuel dock staff know about the incident, so they can assist.

To report an oil spill call the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center 800-424-8802.


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Preventing and Preparing for Oil Spills in the Arctic

Talking with NOAA Scientist Amy Merten about her time chairing the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group.

Ice bank in the Arctic ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

View off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Taken during a search and rescue demonstration for an Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group meeting. Image Credit: NOAA

As rising temperatures and thinning ice in the Arctic create openings for increased human activities, it also increases the potential for oil spills and chemical releases into the remote environment of the region.

Planning emergency response operations for the Arctic falls to the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group, an Arctic Council body. The emergency working group has representatives from each of the member states with expertise in oil spill response, search and rescue, and response to radiological events.

NOAA’s Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch, will finish her two-year stint as chair of the working group in May 2017. The chair is elected every two years from among the working group’s members including: Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, the United States and permanent participants. Merten served on the working group for 5 years before becoming chair. She will leave the position on May 11, 2017. Jens Peter Holst-Andersen, from the Kingdom of Denmark will be the new chair at the next meeting in Vologda, Russia.

Merten, who holds a doctorate in marine sciences/environmental chemistry, shared her insights into the complexities of planning for emergencies in the remote regions of the Arctic and about what it’s like working with other nations to protect the Arctic environments.

What are the biggest challenges facing spill response in the Arctic? 

There are many; remote locations, short windows of open-water and daylight in which to respond, and lack of infrastructure—you can’t send a massive response community to Arctic communities there is not enough food, hotel space, or fuel to sustain larger groups.  Lack of communication is another challenge. Things that we take for granted working at moderate temperatures (cameras, GPS), don’t work at cold temperatures. For search and rescue, there is not adequate hospital space or expertise. Therefore, if a large cruise ship gets into trouble in the Arctic, the rescue, triage and sustainability of the passengers will be a major challenge.

Why is it important to have international cooperation when developing response plans?

Each country has unique experiences and may have developed a way to respond to oil spills in ice or Arctic conditions that can be shared with other countries facing potential spills in ice. Because of the remoteness of the Arctic, with little to no infrastructure, particularly in the United States and Canada, countries will have to rely on equipment and support from others.

Additionally, there are parts of the Arctic Ocean that are international waters, and should a vessel founder there, the countries would collectively respond. We share thoughts on high-risk scenarios, best practices, and identification of research needs. We also share ideas and findings on the latest technologies in communications, oil-in-ice modeling, data management and response technologies.

How does communication with other countries during an emergency work?

We have an up-to-date communication list and protocol. This is part of our agreement, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. We also practice our communication connectivity once a year, and conduct an international exercise every two years.

What role do satellites have in preparing for and responding to emergencies in the region?

We rely on satellite information for monitoring conditions (weather and ice) and vessel traffic. We would certainly rely on satellite data for an incident in order to plan the response, monitor the extent of the oiling, and understand the weather and ice conditions.

How do the member countries work to share plans so that emergency response is not being duplicated?

This is one of the functions of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. It ensures we communicate about domestic projects and plans that may benefit the other nations to maximize the collective effectiveness and avoid duplications.

NOAA’s online environmental mapping tool for the region, Arctic ERMA, now includes polar projections; do the other council countries use Arctic ERMA?

They use it during our joint exercises, and we use it to visualize other working group projects, like the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement-led Pan-Arctic response assets database. We also discuss sharing data across systems and are developing data sharing agreements.

What are the three biggest threats to the Arctic environment? 

Keeping it a peaceful governance, climate change, and oil spills/chemical spills.

Why is the Arctic environment important to the United States?

Arctic weather and climate affects the world’s oceans, weather, and climate, including the Lower 48. The Arctic is replete with energy, mineral, and fishing resources. The Arctic is inhabited by indigenous communities with unique lifestyles that are threatened and need protection. The Arctic is also home to unique flora and fauna that are important for biodiversity, ecological services, and overall healthy environments.  As the Arctic becomes more accessible, national security pressures increase.

 What would be the worst types of oil spills in the Arctic?

This is a hard question to answer but I’d say a spill of a persistent oil that occurs in broken ice during freeze up or thawing periods. During freeze up because it will be difficult to respond, and difficult to track the oil.

During thawing because it’s the emergence of primary production for the food web, hunting subsistence practices would be threatened and it could be unsafe to respond due to of the changing ice conditions. It all depends on how far away and difficult it is to get vessels, aircraft, people, and skimmers onsite, and in a way they can operate safely in a meaningful way.

A “worst spill” doesn’t have to be a “large” spill if it impacts sensitive resources at key reproductive and growth cycles, or if it impacts Arctic communities’ food security, subsistence activities, and ways of life.

How has being chair added to your understanding of the emergency response in the Arctic?

I think it’s increased my concern that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” a spill will happen. The logistics of a response will be complicated, slow, and likely, fairly ineffective. The potential for long-term impacts on stressed communities and stressed environments is high. I do have a good feeling that international cooperation will be at its best, but the challenges are daunting for all of us.

Amy Merten on boat with sea and ice behind her. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA scientist Amy Merten in the Arctic. Merten is chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and served as chair of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. Image credit: NOAA.