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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In Florida, Rallying Citizen Scientists to Place an Ocean-Sized Problem Under the Microscope

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Young woman filling a one liter bottle with water along a marshy beach.

Florida Sea Grant has been teaching volunteers how to sample and examine Florida’s coastal waters for microplastics and educating the public on reducing their contribution to microplastic pollution. (Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Have you ever looked under a microscope at what’s in a sample of ocean water? What do you think you would find?

These days, chances are you would spot tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed).

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is giving people the opportunity to glimpse into Florida’s waters and see a microscopic world of plastic pollution up close. This project integrates citizen science—when volunteers contribute to scientific research—with education about microplastics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Maia McGuire of Florida Sea Grant. She’s leading the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, which is funded by a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, of which the Marine Debris Program is a part, has a long history of collaborating with Sea Grant programs across the nation on a range of issues, including marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded more than a dozen marine debris removal and prevention projects involving Sea Grant, and has participated in other collaborations with regional Sea Grant offices on planning, outreach, education, and training efforts. Many of these efforts, including the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, center on preventing marine debris by increasing people’s awareness of what contributes to this problem.

Combining Science with Action

Blue and white plastic fibers viewed under a microscope.

Volunteers record an average of eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, with seven of those eight identified as plastic fibers (viewed here under a microscope). (Credit: Maia McGuire, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

This latest effort, the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, involves building a network of volunteers and training them to collect one liter water samples from around coastal Florida, to examine those samples under the microscope, and then to assess and record how many and what kinds of microplastics they find.

“Everything is microscopic-sized,” explains McGuire. “We’re educating people about sources of these plastics. A lot of it is single-use plastic items, like bags, coffee cups, and drinking straws. But we’re finding a large number are fibers, which come from laundering synthetic clothes or from ropes and tarps.”

Volunteers (and everyone else McGuire’s team talks to) also choose from a list of eight actions to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution and make pledges that range from saying no to plastic drinking straws to bringing washable to-go containers to restaurants for leftovers. For those who opt-in, the project coordinators follow up every three months to find out which actions the pledgers have actually taken.

“It’s been encouraging,” McGuire says, “because with the pledge and follow up, what we’ve found is that they pledge to take 3.5 actions on average and actually take 3.5 actions when you follow up.”

She adds a caveat, “It’s all self-reported, so take that for what it’s worth. But people are coming up to me and saying, ‘I checked my face scrub and it had those microbeads.’ It’s definitely resonating with people.”

Microplastics Under the Microscope

The project has trained 16 regional coordinators, who are based all around coastal Florida. They in turn train the volunteer citizen scientists, who, as of June 1, 2016, have collected 459 water samples from 185 different locations, such as boat ramps, private docks, and county parks along the coast.

“Some folks are going out monthly to the same spot to sample,” McGuire says, “some are going out to one place once, and others are going out occasionally.”

After volunteers collect their one liter sample of water, they bring it into the nearest partner facility with filtration equipment, which are often offices or university laboratories close to the beach. In each lab, volunteers then filter the water sample, using a vacuum filter pump, through a funnel lined with filter paper. “The filter paper has grid lines printed on it so you’re not double counting or missing any pieces,” McGuire adds.

Once the entire sample has been filtered, volunteers place the filter paper with the sample’s contents into a petri dish under a microscope at 40 times magnification. “Because we’re collecting one liter water samples, everything we’re getting is teeny-tiny,” McGuire says. “Nothing really is visible with the naked eye.”

Letting the filter paper dry often makes identifying microplastics easier because microscopic plastic fibers spring up when dry. And they are finding a lot of plastic fibers. On average, volunteers record eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, and of those, seven are fibers. They are discovering at least one piece of plastic in nearly all of the water samples.

“If they have questions about if something is plastic, we have a sewing needle they heat in a flame,” McGuire says, “and put it under the microscope next to the fiber, and if it’s plastic, it changes shape in response to the heat.”

Next, volunteers record their data, categorizing everything into four different types of plastic: plastic wrap and bags, fibers, beads, or fragments. They use online forms to send in their data and log their volunteer information. McGuire is the recipient of all that data, which she sorts and then uploads to an online map, where anyone can view the project’s progress.

A Learning Process

Tiny white and purple beads piled next to a dime.

These purple and white microbeads are what microplastics extracted from facial scrub looks like next to a dime. Microbeads are being phased out of personal care products thanks to federal law. (Credit: Dave Graff)

“When I first wrote the grant proposal—a year and a half ago or more—I was expecting to find a lot more of the microbeads, because we were starting to hear more in the news about toothpaste and facial scrubs and the quantity of microbeads,” McGuire relates. “It was a little surprising at first to find so many [plastic] fibers. We have some sites near effluent outfalls from water treatment plants.”

However, McGuire points out that what they’re finding is comparable to what other researchers are turning up in the ocean and Great Lakes, except for one important point. Many of those researchers take water samples using nets with a 0.3 millimeter mesh size. By filtering through paper rather than a net, McGuire’s volunteers are able to detect much smaller microplastics, like the fibers, which otherwise would pass through a net.

“I think one big take-home message is there’s still so much we don’t know,” McGuire says. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge or research about what the impacts [of microplastics] actually are. We need a lot more research on this topic.”

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your contribution to plastic pollution, take the pledge with the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, and dive into the research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which are exploring:


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What You Can Do to Keep Plastic out of the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

A Starbucks coffee cup on a sandy beach by a seabird and people picking up trash.

Keeping a reusable mug in your bag or car can help you remember to opt out of much of the single-use plastic waste that inundates our lives. This coffee cup ended up on a beach in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, thousands of miles from the nearest city. (NOAA)

“Plastic doesn’t go away.” This point was really driven home for me after watching the video, “Open Your Eyes,” which is narrated by Jeff Bridges and produced by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. It serves to remind us how much single-use, disposable plastic we can go through in an average day—and the impacts of all that plastic on the natural world.

The majority of marine debris found around the world is made of plastic. The world’s more industrialized nations, including the United States, create a huge amount of plastic, and unfortunately too much of it ends up in earth’s waters and along its coastlines. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts [PDF] that in the future, as more countries become industrialized, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean will increase as well.

Reflecting on the pervasiveness of single-use disposable plastics, which are manufactured to be used once and thrown away, has forced me to look at my own behavior and ask myself, What types of plastic do I personally use in my daily life? How could we all use less plastic? And what could we do to keep the plastic we do use out of the ocean?

Here are a few areas to get started:

  1. Snacks. I tend to dash out of the house with grapes or apple slices in a plastic bag to eat while driving to work or the gym. A logical alternative would be to eat at home and skip the bag (eating in the car is a bad habit anyway!) or pack snacks in a reusable container.
  2. Coffee. On my way to work, I stop for a latte, complete with plastic lid so it won’t spill while I’m drinking it in the car. It would be better to drink it at the coffee shop in their ceramic mugs—it doesn’t take that long and doesn’t require a plastic lid. Better yet is to bring your own to-go mug.
  3. Grocery shopping. When I buy fresh fruits and vegetables, I could skip the provided plastic bags, or opt for paper or reusable mesh produce bags. Other things to consider at the supermarket: Buying foods like yogurt, cereal, and oatmeal in bulk, rather than single-serving packages; choosing a product packaged in cardboard or glass rather than plastic, such as cleaning products, ice cream, milk, condiments, and soda; and bringing your own grocery bags or boxes to get everything home.
  4. Eating out and on the go. At lunch I frequently buy salads to go in those plastic “clamshell” containers; better to bring food from home in a non-disposable container or buy something that doesn’t come encased in plastic. A lot of restaurants automatically include a straw in your iced tea or soda, so asking the wait staff to skip the straw when ordering makes sense (or bring your own glass or metal straw). Opt to drink water and other refreshing beverages out of a reusable glass or bottle, but if necessary, reuse and then recycle any plastic bottles and cups you do use. When taking food home or to-go, bring your own resusable containers and utensils, and skip the plastic forks, spoons, and to-go containers.
  5. Dry cleaning. Let your dry cleaners know you’d prefer to pick up your clean clothes without the plastic coverings.
  6. Cosmetics. Cosmetics and personal care manufacturers are phasing out polyethylene microbeads from cosmetics, cleansers, and toothpastes, which have been banned in the United States, but until the phase-out is complete, check labels and avoid products with “polyethylene” in the ingredients. Because of their tiny size, microplastics which are usually added to products as an abrasive (like exfoliants) pass through water treatment systems and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes.
  7. Trash cans. Open and overflowing trash cans (or recycling bins) don’t do much to keep trash off the street and out of our waterways. Use waste containers with a lid, and never toss trash on top of an overflowing trash can. Take it with you instead and recycle what you can.
  8. Beaches. When you visit the beach, pack out all your trash and pick up any trash you do see there (and report it with our Marine Debris Tracker smartphone app). Better yet, join beach cleanups to help remove trash from our waterways and coasts (which helps keep bigger plastics from breaking down into microplastics).
  9. Science. Join citizen scientists around the country and adopt a shoreline to help monitor how much and what kinds of plastic and other marine debris wash up each month. You can check out an existing project near you, such as the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project and the projects in National Marine Sanctuaries up and down the West Coast. Or start your own dedicated effort using these tools and resources and report your data to our national database.
  10. Community. We can all talk to our friends, family, students, or coworkers about the issue of plastics in the ocean and share this list of actions they can take too.

These steps are just a start, but they’re all things we can do with minimum impact to our daily lives. Even incorporating one of these actions into your life can make a difference in the amount of plastic pollution in our ocean.

As the lead federal agency for addressing this problem, the NOAA Marine Debris Program funds research on the harmful effects of debris, such as plastics, to the marine environment and efforts to clean up our nation’s coastal waters. They have lots of education and outreach materials with more information about the many ways we, as individuals, can help remedy this growing problem of plastics in our ocean.


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Innovative Solutions to Tackling Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Washed Ashore founder Angela Haseltine Pozzi with a giant marlin statue made of marine debris.

Washed Ashore Executive Director Angela Haseltine Pozzi leads a lesson on how marine debris can be used as a powerful art medium to engage students on the topic while at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Behind her is one of her organization’s marine life sculptures crafted entirely from trash retrieved from the ocean and coasts. (NOAA)

You don’t have to get too fancy in order to help keep plastic and other marine debris out of the ocean. Solutions can be pretty simple: Reducing your use of single-use, “disposable” plastic items; picking up a plastic wrapper littered on the sidewalk; participating in a beach cleanup. (Stay tuned: we’ll get deeper into ways you can help later this week.)

Sometimes, however, the particulars of this problem can be more complex. Sometimes just getting people’s attention and encouraging them to take those simple actions require more creative approaches. We’ve rounded up a few projects that have our attention, projects which are aimed at making a dent in the many problems associated with ocean plastics.

Know of another notable ocean plastics project? Let us know in the comments or on social media using #OceanPlastics.

Turning what’s Washed Ashore into powerful pieces of art

A large, bright orange fish sculpture made from ocean trash, mostly plastic.

Washed Ashore rallies volunteers to clean beaches, using the collected debris to create larger-than-life sculptures of the marine life affected by ocean trash. Here, Henry the Fish stands outside Washed Ashore’s gallery in Bandon, Oregon. (NOAA)

Walking southern Oregon’s otherwise beautiful beaches, artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi began despairing how much plastic pollution seemed to appear on its shores. Inspired to turn that pollution into something more positive, she rallied volunteers to clean the beaches and turn the trash into sculptures of the marine life affected by plastic pollution. That’s how Washed Ashore was born. In addition to creating these larger-than-life recycled sculptures, Washed Ashore’s latest project, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, incorporates theater, movement, and creative writing into a curriculum for teaching students about marine debris.

From a sleek marlin to an inquisitive puffin, Washed Ashore’s mostly plastic, often massive sculptures serve as dramatic backdrops—and powerful ocean ambassadors—for these educational programs in zoos, aquariums, and museums around the country. According to Washed Ashore, since its inception in 2010, the program has processed 38,000 pounds of marine debris, turning it into more than 60 sculptures.

Transforming lost fishing nets into energy

Man using a forklift to place old fishing nets in a collection dumpster.

Since begun in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and diverted 3 million pounds of fishing gear from the ocean. (Credit: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation)

The Fishing for Energy partnership helps fishermen properly dispose of old and abandoned fishing nets and other gear—much of it plastic—at no cost to the fishermen. In addition to donating their own worn-out nets, some fishermen also directly retrieve lost fishing gear out of the ocean. After being collected and sorted, any metal parts are recycled, and everything else is converted into electricity, with roughly one ton of old nets producing enough electricity to power a house for 25 days.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation works with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. to carry out this partnership, which has expanded to include funding other projects that seek to prevent or remove lost fishing gear in U.S. coastal waters.  Since it started in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and kept 3 million pounds of fishing gear out of the ocean.

Rethinking “disposable” plastic at dinner time

Left: Salad in a to-go container with plastic fork and dressing cup. Right: Salad in a ceramic bowl with metal fork and dressing cup.

The Clean Water Fund’s ReThink Disposable campaign works with San Francisco Bay-area food businesses and institutional food services to help them find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. (Credit: Clean Water Fund)

Plastic straws, cups, plates, bags, forks, and spoons turn up among the most frequently found items at beach cleanups year after year. Eating with these so-called “disposable” plastics creates huge amounts of waste, and the Clean Water Fund, with the support of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is working to stem this flow of food-related plastics coming from restaurants in California’s San Francisco Bay region.

Through their ReThink Disposable campaign, Clean Water Fund is collaborating with local food businesses and institutional food services by auditing their waste and helping to find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. They’re also working with the businesses to communicate to the public the benefits of cutting down on this type of waste and how it impacts the environment.

One of them, El Metate Restaurant, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, swapped plastic cutlery and salsa cups, previously provided to both dine-in and take-out customers, for reusable metal cutlery and ceramic salsa bowls. After implementing these changes, not only did El Metate manage to keep 493,711 disposable food ware items out of the landfill (and coastal waters) each year, but the changes improved the dining experience, increased dine-in customers, and is saving nearly $9,000 a year.

Diving deep into the belly of a whale to see impacts to wildlife

A circle of students and teachers with trash in the middle and the inflatable whale in the back of the gymnasium.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program takes students inside the belly of a 58-foot-long inflatable whale, Watson, to teach about the impacts of ocean trash on marine life. (Credit: University of North Carolina Wilmington)

Few things can communicate the scale of plastic’s impacts on wildlife like walking inside a life-sized inflatable whale and “dissecting” its organs to uncover the marine debris it’s swallowed. That’s exactly what middle and elementary school kids in rural North and South Carolina have the opportunity to do through the University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program, which received funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

People have found plastic bags, rope, juice packs, broken CD cases, and much more inside dead whales. Watson, the 58-foot-long inflatable right whale, offers students the chance to experience this reality close up and learn how they can take responsibility for keeping trash, no matter where it comes from, far away from the ocean and marine life. During the 2015-2016 school year, Watson the Whale traveled more than 8,000 miles and taught more than 9,500 students about how trash affects migrating marine species.


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Improving Currents Predictions for Washington Waters Will Help Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Oil Spills

Front of a kayak pushing through floating wood in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Kayakers and oil spill responders alike will appreciate the updated currents predictions NOAA is producing from a survey of Washington’s Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, and Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Courtesy of Amy MacFadyen)

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, NOAA oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

As a sea kayaking enthusiast who enjoys paddling the waters of Washington’s Puget Sound, I need to have up-to-date information about the currents I’m passing through. Accurate predictions of the strong tidal currents in the sound are critical to safe navigation, and kayak trips in particular need to be timed carefully to ensure safe passage of certain regions.

As a NOAA oceanographer and modeler, I also depend on accurate information about ocean currents to predict where spilled pollutants may travel in the marine environment.

Sound Information

These are two reasons I was excited to learn that NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) is performing a scientific survey of currents in the marine waters of the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They began in the south sound in the summer of 2015, deploying almost 50 devices known as Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers to measure ocean currents at various depths throughout the water column.

Work is getting underway this summer to continue gathering data. The observations collected during this survey will enable NOAA to provide improved tidal current predictions to commercial and recreational mariners. But these updated predictions will also help my line of work with oil spill response.

When oil spills occur at sea, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provides scientific support to the Coast Guard, including predictions of the movement and fate of the oil. Accurate predictions of the oil trajectory may help responders protect sensitive shorelines and direct cleanup operations.

Spills Closer to Home

U.S. Coast Survey nautical chart of Washington's Puget Sound in 1867.

A U.S. Coast Survey nautical chart showing the complex channels of Puget Sound when Washington was just a territory in 1867. (NOAA)

In the last few years, I’ve modeled oil movement for numerous spills and traveled on scene to assist in the oil spill response.

Seeing oil on the water and shorelines of places ranging from Santa Barbara, California, to Matagorda Island, Texas, I can’t help but think about both the possibility of a spill closer to my home in Puget Sound and our ability to model the movement of the oil there.

When oil spills in the marine environment, it spreads quickly, forming thin slicks on the ocean surface that are transported by winds and currents.

Puget Sound is a glacially carved fjord system of interconnected marine waterways and deep basins separated by shallower regions called sills.

Tidal currents in these narrow, silled connection channels can reach fairly swift speeds of up to 5-6 mph, whereas in the deep basins the currents are much slower (typically less than 1-2 mph).

Accurate predictions of currents within the sound will be critical to forecasting oil movement. Today’s predictions for this region rely on limited amounts of data gathered from the 1930s-1960s. Thanks to both these current surveys and modern technological advances, we can expect significant progress in the accuracy of these predictions.

The information collected on the NOAA current surveys will also be used to support the creation of an Operational Forecast System for Puget Sound, a numerical model which will provide short-term forecasts of water level, currents, water temperature, and salinity—information that is critical to oil spill trajectory forecasting.

Making Safer Moves

A fuel barge in Puget Sound on a cloudy day.

With the methods for transporting oil through Washington rapidly shifting and the number of vessels carrying oil increasing, the risks for oil spills are changing as well. Here, a fuel barge passes through Puget Sound. (NOAA)

More accurate current and water level predictions are good for oil spill modeling, but they are even better for oil spill prevention by making navigating through our waterways safer.

Until fairly recently, 90% of the oil moving through Washington (mainly to and from refineries) traveled by ship. But by 2014, that number dropped to less than 60%, with rail and pipelines making up the difference.

Because the methods for transporting oil through Washington are shifting, the risks for oil spills shift as well. However, even with the recent increase in crude oil being delivered by train, the number of vessels transporting oil through state waters has gone up as well, increasing the risk of a large oil spill in Puget Sound.

With such a dynamic oil transportation system and last December’s repeal of a decades-long ban on exporting U.S. crude oil, the Washington Department of Ecology has decided to update its vessel traffic risk assessment for the Puget Sound. Results from the risk assessment will ultimately be used to inform spill prevention measures and help us become even better prepared to respond to a spill.

The takeaway? Both state and federal agencies are working to make Washington waters safer.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student, then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


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Studying Marine Life a Year After the Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach

One year after the pipeline oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, California, scientists from NOAA and our partners have been back to the site of the spill. They are gathering a new round of samples to help determine the health of the environment and marine life.

This May and June, these teams have been conducting comprehensive scientific surveys to collect data on three distinct but interconnected habitats within the impacted spill zone: sandy beach, subtidal, and rocky intertidal habitats.

Specifically, the surveys are examining:

  • talitrid (beach hopper or “sand flea”) populations in sandy beach habitats.
  • a variety of organisms in rocky intertidal habitat.
  • surfgrass in subtidal habitats.
  • fish, including grunion spawning on the beaches and surfperch in nearshore waters.

Information collected from these sampling efforts will be used to determine the amount of restoration needed to return the environment to the condition it would have been in if not for the spill, and to compensate the public for natural resource injuries and lost recreational opportunities. This is part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which evaluates the environmental impacts of pollution and implements restoration to make up for those effects.

Ten people stand in the beach surf pulling a seine net to shore.

Scientists pull in a seine net along a beach near Santa Barbara, California, about a year after the oil spill at Refugio State Beach. They are sampling fish known as surfperch to evaluate any impacts from the oil spill. (NOAA)

This pipeline spill occurred on May 19, 2015 and resulted in more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil being released on land, with a portion of the oil reaching the Pacific Ocean. Field teams documented dead fish, invertebrates, and other wildlife in the oiled areas following the spill. The spill also shut down fisheries, closed multiple beaches, and impacted recreational uses, such as camping, non-commercial fishing, and beach visits.

To submit a restoration project idea, please visit: http://bit.ly/refugiorestoration. Learn more about spill cleanup and response efforts at www.refugioresponse.com.


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How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

Head and upper body of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle coated in thick brown oil.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Sea turtles: These beloved marine reptiles have been swimming the seas for millions of years. Yet, in less than a hundred years, threats from humans, such as accidentally catching turtles in fishing gear (“bycatch”), killing nesting turtles and their eggs, and destroying habitat, have caused sea turtle populations to plummet. In fact, all six species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

As we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, oil spills represent yet another danger for these air-breathing reptiles that rely on clean water and clean beaches. But how exactly do oil spills affect sea turtles? And what do people do during and after an oil spill to look out for the well-being of sea turtles?

Living the Ocean Life

From the oil itself to the spill response and cleanup activities, a major oil spill has the potential to have serious negative effects on sea turtles. Part of the reason for this is because sea turtles migrate long distances and inhabit so many different parts of the ocean environment at different stages of their lives.

Graphic showing the life cycle of sea turtles in the ocean: egg laying; hatchling dispersal; oceanic feeding: small juveniles in sargassum; feeding on the continental shelf: large juveniles and adults, mating and breeding migration; and internesting near beach.

The life cycle of a sea turtle spans multiple habitats across the ocean, from sandy beaches to the open ocean. (NOAA)

For starters, sea turtles hatch (and females later return as adults to lay eggs) on sandy beaches. Then, they head to the vast open ocean where the tiny young turtles drift, hide from predators, and grow among floating islands of seaweed called sargassum. Finally, as larger juveniles and adults, they swim to the shallower waters of the continental shelf and near shore, where they spend the majority of the rest of their lives.

If a large offshore spill releases oil into the open ocean, currents and winds can carry oil across all of the habitats where sea turtles are found—and into the potential path of sea turtles of every age—as it makes its way to shore.

Another reason sea turtles can be particularly vulnerable to ocean oil spills is simply because they breathe air. Even though sea turtles can hold their breath on dives for extended periods of time, they usually come to the surface to breathe several times an hour. Because most oils float, sea turtles can surface into large oil slicks over and over again.

The situation can be even worse for very young sea turtles living among floating sargassum patches, as these small turtles almost never leave the top few feet of water, increasing their exposure to a floating oil slick. Furthermore, ocean currents and winds often bring oil to the same oceanic convergence zones that bring sargassum and young sea turtles together.

Turtle Meets Oil, Inside and Out

So, we know the many places sea turtles can run into an oil spill, but how exactly do they encounter the oil during a spill?

Graphic showing how spilled oil in the ocean can affect sea turtles at all stages of life and across ocean habitats: Oil on the shoreline can contaminate nesting females, nests, and hatchlings; larger turtles can inhale oil vapors, ingest oil in prey or sediment, and become coated in oil at the surface; winds and currents create ocean fronts, bringing together oil, dispersants, and sargassum communities, causing prolonged floating oil exposure; juvenile turtles ingest oil, inhale vapors, and become fatally mired and overheated; prey items may also be killed by becoming stuck in heavy oil or by dissolved oil components; and sargassum fouled by oil and dispersants can sink, leaving sargassum-dependent animals without food and cover and vulnerable to predators. Dead sea turtles may sink.

The potential impacts of an oil spill on sea turtles are many and varied. For example, some impacts can result from sea turtles inhaling and ingesting oil, becoming covered in oil to the point of being unable to swim, or losing important habitat or food that is killed or contaminated by oil. (NOAA)

It likely starts when they raise their heads above the water’s surface to breathe. When sea turtles surface in a slick, they can inhale oil and its vapors into their lungs; gulp oil into their mouths, down their throats, and into their digestive tracts while feeding; and become coated in oil, to the point of becoming entirely mired and unable to swim. Similarly, sea turtles may swim through oil drifting in the water column or disturb it in the sediments on the ocean bottom.

Female sea turtles that ingest oil can even pass oil compounds on to their developing young, and once laid, the eggs can absorb oil components in the sand through the eggshell, potentially damaging the baby turtle developing inside. Nesting turtles and their hatchlings are also likely to crawl into oil on contaminated beaches.

Not the Picture of Health

Graphic showing how oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles: Cleaning oil from surface and subsurface shores with large machines deters nesting; booms and other barriers prevent females from nesting; response vessels can strike and kill sea turtles and relocation trawlers can inadvertently drown them; application of dispersants may have effects on sea turtles; and skimming and burning heavy oil may kill some sea turtles, while also exposing others to smoke inhalation.

Oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles as well. For example, oil containment booms along beaches can prevent nesting females from reaching the shores to lay their eggs. (NOAA)

Once sea turtles encounter oil, what are the impacts of that exposure?

Inhaling and swallowing oil generally result in negative health effects for animals, as shown in dolphins and other wildlife, hindering their overall health, growth, and survival. Lining the inside of sea turtles’ throats are pointy spines called esophageal papillae, which normally act to keep swallowed food inside while allowing water to be expelled. Unfortunately, these projections also seem to trap thick oil in sea turtles’ throats, and evidence of oil has been detected in the feces of oiled turtles taken into wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Oil can irritate sensitive mucus membranes around the eyes, mouth, lungs, and digestive tract of sea turtles, and toxic oil compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be absorbed into vital organ tissues such as the lungs and liver. Because sea turtles can hold their breath for long periods, inhaled oil has a greater chance of being absorbed into their bodies. Oil compounds that get passed from mother turtles to their young can interfere with development and threaten the survival of sea turtles still developing in the eggs.

Once inside their systems, oil can impede breathing and heart function in sea turtles, which can make diving, feeding, migrating, mating, and escaping predators more difficult. Being heavily covered in oil likewise impedes sea turtles’ abilities to undertake these activities, which puts them at risk of exhaustion and dehydration. In addition, dark oil under a hot summer sun can heat up turtles to dangerous temperatures, further jeopardizing their health and even killing them. In fact, sea turtles heavily coated in oil are not likely to survive without medical attention from humans.

Another, less direct way oil spills can affect the health of sea turtles is by killing or contaminating what they eat, which, depending on the species, can range from fish and crabs to jellyfish to seagrass and algae. In addition, if oil kills the sargassum where young sea turtles live, they lose their shelter and source of food and are forced to find suitable habitat elsewhere, which makes them more vulnerable to predators and uses more energy.

Spill response and cleanup operations also can harm sea turtles unintentionally. Turtles can be killed after being struck by response vessels or as a result of oil burning and skimming activities. Extra lighting and activity on beaches can disrupt nesting and hatchling turtles, as well as incubating eggs.

Help Is on the Way

A person holding a small clean Kemp's Ridley sea turtle over a blue bin.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle ready to be returned to the wild after being cleaned and rehabilitated during an oil spill. (NOAA)

The harm that oil spills can cause to sea turtles is significant, and estimating the full suite of impacts to these species is a long and complicated process.  There are some actions that have been taken to protect these vulnerable marine reptiles during oil spills. These include activities such as:

  • Performing rescue operations by boat, which involve scooping turtles out of oil or water using dip-nets and assessing their health.
  • Taking rescued turtles to wildlife rehabilitation centers to be cleaned and cared for.
  • Monitoring beaches and coastlines for injured (and sometimes dead) turtles.
  • Monitoring nesting beaches to safeguard incubating nests.
  • Conducting aerial surveys to assess abundance of adults and large juvenile turtles potentially in the footprint of an oil spill.

Finally, the government agencies acting as stewards on behalf of sea turtles, as well as other wildlife and habitats, will undertake a scientific evaluation of an oil spill’s environmental impacts and identify restoration projects that make up for any impacts.

As an example, read about the impacts to sea turtles from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, details about how they were harmed, and the proposed restoration path forward.


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University of Washington Helps ITOPF and NOAA Analyze Emerging Risks in Marine Transportation

Huge container ship MSC Oscar being guided by two small ships into port.

Massive container ships, carrying unprecedented amounts of fuel and cargo, are one of many developments in marine transportation that also is bringing new risks of oil spills to the high seas. Shown here is the MSC Oscar, one of the largest container ships in the world. (Credit: kees torn, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White.

A warming climate is opening up new shipping routes—and hence, new avenues for trade—through the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice shrinks and thins. Developing technologies have also allowed for mega-ships (unprecedented in size) and newer cargoes to begin transiting the ocean. These developments could bring new or greater hazards, including oil spills, for the maritime shipping network worldwide.

Our group of three graduate students at the University of Washington, with the support of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, sought to understand how the world’s shipping dynamic has changed in recent years and how these emerging challenges in marine transportation will affect that dynamic. The ITOPF, NOAA, and the marine industry can consider these emerging risks in marine transportation as they plan for the future.

Here’s what we found.

A Changing Climate

Based on climate changes that have already occurred, ports are likely to experience more intense storm events and increased precipitation. In the more distant future, this greater degree of storminess will combine with sea level rise, causing both the probabilities and consequences of risk to marine transportation to increase.

Given the resources and services that ports provide, climate change could seriously impact the efficiency of the greater maritime transportation network. While infrastructure risks can be mitigated, it is important to note that according to experts in the field interviewed during this project, the majority of ports have made few preparations or plans for sea level rise related to climate change.

Although Arctic climate change is creating new shipping opportunities, these come with great challenges for the marine transportation system, especially in the second half of this century. At sea, the retreat of sea ice is accompanied by an increase in storminess, increasing risks to ships and shipping infrastructure from storm surge and waves. On land, permafrost has already begun to thaw, contributing to impacts to infrastructure, including railroads, ice roads, airstrips, and pipelines.

Taken together, the changing Arctic climate will require changes in the marine transportation system both at sea and on land. These changes include improved infrastructure along shipping routes, harbors of refuge, search and rescue capabilities, ice-breaking services, and coordination among organizations with a central role in spill response.

Changing Patterns of Trade

Rough seas pound the hull of support ship USNS Arctic as it sails alongside aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

A changing climate opens up greater potential for marine traffic in the Arctic, but it is accompanied by an increase in storms and other threats to maritime infrastructure. Here, rough seas pound the hull of support ship USNS Arctic as it sails alongside aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman during a mission to the Arctic. (U.S. Navy)

An increase in maritime activity surrounding both the Panama and Suez Canals could increase the risk of incidents in these areas, especially as infrastructure development around them increases. Larger canals will allow for bigger ships, which will make more concentrated port calls. This means that the vessels will spend more time in ports and unload more cargo. This is expected to be most common on the eastern seaboard of the United States as the Panama Canal expands.

In addition, the lifting of the American ban on crude oil exports could impact imports and exports of both crude and refined products. Much of the increase in oil exports from the United States would head to Europe and Asia.

The Arctic is receiving considerable emphasis as an emerging trade shortcut for maritime shipping, especially from Asian nations, but currently the majority of the activity in this region comes from tourism, mining, and fossil fuel extraction. This includes marine traffic supplying these activities as well as the transport of extracted resources.

Developing Technologies

Recently, the marine transportation system witnessed the introduction of the “mega-container ship.” A “mega-container ship” could be considered any container ship over 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. However, the largest “mega-container ship” to date can handle 18,000 TEUs. The development of these vessels has brought a safer, more fuel-efficient method of transportation for shipping containers throughout the world.

However, these massive vessels potentially increase the consequences of pollution-related incidents, as they carry larger amounts of fuel and cargo, which could result in larger oil spills. Incidents involving these vessels may also be more difficult for salvage and response organizations to mitigate as they would have to remove more fuel and cargo from larger disabled ships.

Another vessel to watch is the LNG carrier. These vessels transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), which requires special attention to temperature and pressure for it to remain in liquid form. U.S. imports and exports of LNG are expected to increase. This will require monitoring during transit, as well as safe handling practices while being loaded and unloaded in port.

Increased vessel automation potentially introduces new risks via reduced crew size and increasing bridge automation, even though enhanced bridge automation ostensibly represents a safety improvement. For example, if a vessel is being operating by a “minimally manned crew,” crew members may find it harder to meet required rest hours, becoming fatigued. In a situation where a fatigued crewmember is operating automated equipment on the bridge, the chances for human error increase. Additionally, if that equipment fails, fatigued crewmembers might find themselves relying largely on their own technical skills to mitigate the risks—all while fatigued.

Finally, we’ve noted concern over the introduction of new ship propulsion fuels, such as LNG. The emergency response community lacks experience with LNG propulsion fuel incidents, leaving some uncertainty surrounding the probability and consequences of such an accident. As LNG is further adopted as a propulsion fuel, the supporting infrastructure to transport it will have to be updated as well. Training for safe handling and transport of the fuel will also need to be further introduced to crews and ports in order to mitigate the associated risks of managing this fuel.

Conclusions

Response organizations will need to emphasize new contingency planning and condition monitoring and assessment in response to these changes in the marine transportation system. For example, there is a fairly high certainty regarding how sea-level rise and other climate change–associated impacts will affect ports in coming years, and ports will need to take the changing environment into account in their planning and preparedness to reduce the likelihood of future incidents associated with these changes.

This contrasts with the Arctic where there are higher uncertainties associated with the emerging risks outlined here. In the Arctic, response organizations will need to focus on monitoring the evolution of climate change impacts and shipping activities as well as participate in the development of mitigation actions. All parties will need to identify the steps that will lead to safe Arctic shipping, salvage, and pollution response.

While there is no one complete solution to address all risks, our analysis offers information relevant to multiple sectors of the maritime transportation network. By forging relationships among these sectors, response organizations will be able to better develop the most comprehensive responses to address pressures and gaps emerging as a result of the changing environment, changing patterns of trade, and developing technologies. And hopefully these organizations will be even better prepared for the oil spills of the future, no matter the scenario.

Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White are Master’s candidates at the University of Washington (UW) in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs working with faculty advisors Robert Pavia and Thomas M. Leschine. The team completed the research of emerging risks in marine transportation for the International Tanker Owner Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and was provided additional assistance in their research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The students completed this research over the course of an academic year as part of the thesis/capstone requirement for the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the UW. Our team would like to thank our sponsor, ITOPF, as well as NOAA for providing additional assistance. To contact the authors, please email Robert Pavia at bobpavia@uw.edu.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of ITOPF, NOAA, or the U.S. federal government.

Photo of MSC Oscar: kees torn,  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license