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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Rescuing Oiled Birds, Leave it to the Experts

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.

Yellow gloved hands holding bird's head with suds.

Oiled Northern Gannet is cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (FWS)

By Allison O’Brien, Department of the Interior

Birds, especially those that spend most of their time on the water, are vulnerable to the effects of oiling. Oil can clog feathers and cause them to mat, separate, or lose their natural waterproofing. Birds coated with oil may not be able to fly, may get sick from accidentally ingesting oil while trying to clean their feathers, or may drown from reduced buoyancy.

Many people love birds, and it’s normal to want to help during an oil spill – especially when you’re seeing photos of impacted birds on the news – but it’s a myth that just a bit of dish soap can restore an oiled bird to health. So, before you hit the beach with your scrub brush and your handy-dandy dish soap, read these answers to some frequently asked questions on how to help oiled birds.

What should I do if I see an oiled bird? 

If there is an established oiled wildlife reporting hotline available, then please, call it as soon as possible. If not, then call your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office.

 The bird seemed to be in distress, wouldn’t it be faster for me and my dog to chase it down and transport it in my trunk?

No – birds are wild animals. It’s important to let a trained professional with the appropriate safety gear (think safety goggles, gloves, etc.) handle bird removal. Plus, depending on the species, a permit may be needed to touch or handle it.

I’m actually less concerned with own my safety than with helping this bird. Is there a problem with the dog chase and trunk transport method?

Picture this: You reach into your fridge for a snack and, when you pull out your arm, it’s covered in a gooey, smelly substance. The next thing you know, aliens chase you, grab you, and take you away in the trunk of their spaceship. How would you feel? Confused?  Terrified? Exactly. Please, let a trained professional handle the bird rescue.

Two people hosing a bird in a sink.

An oiled gannet being cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. (FWS)

I saw an oiled bird, but I think it’s dead. Is it still worth calling it in?

Yes, other animals may see that bird as an easy meal and become ill from eating it, so it’s important the oiled bird to be removed by trained workers.

It seems like it would be faster for me to just grab the dead, oiled bird and bring it in – can I do that?

No, not only is a permit needed to handle the carcass, it is considered legal evidence and needs to be handled properly, and an appropriate chain of custody needs to be maintained.

Are there ever opportunities to volunteer to help clean birds?

Yes – Under some circumstances, the response officials may issue a public service announcement to request pre-trained volunteer assistance. A bird rehabilitation center is like a hospital emergency room, so please understand that it’s critical for any volunteers to have the appropriate training.

Is it true that liquid dish soap is used to clean oiled birds?

Yes it is. Specifically, Dawn dish soap (not antibacterial) has been approved for use in cleaning oiled birds.

Allison O’Brien is the Department of the Interior’s Regional Environmental Officer for the Pacific Northwest Region, covering Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. For more information, please visit https://www.doi.gov/oepc/regional-offices/portland.  


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

 

Dolphins on water surface.

Studies showed dolphins were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in significant environmental harm over a large area of the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent shorelines, and affected numerous species including endangered and threatened sea turtles and protected marine mammals. These populations will require significant restoration efforts to offset impacts from the spill.

A special issue of Endangered Species Research published Jan. 31, 2017, features 20 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on marine mammals and sea turtles.

The scientific studies, conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration authors and partners, document the unprecedented mortality rate and long-term environmental impacts of the oil’s exposure and presents a synthesis of more than five years’ worth of data collection, analysis, and interpretation. 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.

All of the data associated with the settlement is available publicly in the Data Integration Visualization Exploration and Reporting database, but the Endangered Species Research special issue is the first time this information on sea turtles and marine mammals has been compiled together in peer-reviewed scientific publications. Find out more about Deepwater Horizon here.

 

 


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10 Common Words with Uncommon Meanings in Spill Response

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom.

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite an effort to use plain language, government agencies often use jargon that only makes sense to insiders. Here is list of common words that can become head-scratchers when used in the context of spill response.

Boom

Not the loud deep resonating sound described in a dictionary. In oil response booms are floating, physical barriers to oil, made of plastic, metal, or other materials, which slow the spread of oil and keep it contained. Read more on the history of booms in spill response here.

Crude

A vulgar comment? Nope. in this case the spill response definition fits more into the traditional understanding of the word, something in a raw or unrefined state. Crude oil is unrefined petroleum, usually liquid, consisting of a mixture of hydrocarbons. Crude oil may be refined into any of hundreds of components, such as commercial gasoline, kerosene, heating oils, diesel oils, lubricating oils, waxes, and asphalts. Read more on crude and other oil types here.

Hazing

Usually defined as a rigorous initiation process into an organization of some sort, in spill response hazing is about exclusion, “hazing” methods are used to keep whales out of harm’s way. Read more about hazing methods here.

Mousse

The first thing that pops into the mind when someone uses the word mousse is that silky pudding-like dessert, or a product to sculpt unruly hair. In spill response, mousse is a term to describe a water-in-oil emulsion that resembles chocolate mousse in color and texture. These emulsions are often very stable, and often have a pudding-like consistency. Typically, a mousse forms when relatively fresh oil is exposed to strong wave action. Mousse colors can range from orange or tan to dark brown. A mousse may contain up to 75 percent water, and may have a volume up to four times that of the original oil. Learn how to make an oil and water mousse here.

Pancakes

Nope, not the breakfast food. In this case pancakes refer to isolated, roughly circular patches of spilled oil ranging in size from a few feet across to hundreds of yards (or meters) in diameter. These oil patches can form tarballs sometimes found along sandy beaches. Read more on tarballs here.

Pom-poms

Similar to the equipment used by many a cheer-squad member, pom-poms in spill response are used to absorb oil for removal. Made of synthetic fibers, pom-poms are used individually or tied on long ropes and used to catch oil as it leaches from beaches and rocky areas. Strings of pom-poms are effective in collecting oil in rock or difficult to reach areas where the tide rises and falls. Read about how pom-poms were used to cleanup an oil spill here.

SOS

Save our ship? How about Science of Oil Spills. Every year the Emergency Response Division educates emergency spill responders increasing their understanding of oil spill science. Read about SOS classes here.

Slick

Typically defined as something done in a smooth way, a slick is the common term used to describe a film of oil (usually less than 2 microns thick) on the water surface. Oil spilled on water absorbs energy and dampens out surface waves, making the oil appear smoother—or slicker—than the surrounding water. Read about oil slicks and sea turtles here.

Streamer

Those paper ribbons hanging from the ceiling at a party, right? Wrong. In spill response a streamer, also called fingers or ribbons, are narrow lines of oil, mousse, or sheen on the water surface, surrounded on both sides by clean water. Streamers result from the combined effects of wind, currents, and/or natural convergence zones. Often, heavier concentrations of mousse or sheen will be present in the center of a streamer, with progressively lighter sheen along the edges. Read about techniques for cleaning up streamers in oil spills here.

Weathering

OK, in this instance, the meaning used in spill response is similar to the general definition. In oil response weathering is the physical and chemical characteristics of oil interacting with the physical and biochemical features of the habitat where a spill occurs. These factors determine how the oil will behave and ultimately what will happen to it. Read more about weathering here.

 


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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