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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Detecting Change in a Changing World: 25 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Life between high and low tide along the Alaskan coast is literally rough and tumble.

The marine animals and plants living there have to deal with both crashing sea waves at high tide and the drying heat of the sun at low tide. Such a life can be up and down, boom and bust, as favorable conditions come and go quickly and marine animals and plants are forced to react and repopulate just as quickly.

But what happens when oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez enters this dynamic picture—and 25 years later, still hasn’t completely left? What happens when bigger changes to the ocean and global climate begin arriving in these waters already in flux?

Telling the Difference

Two people wearing chest waders sift for marine life in shallow rocky waters.

In 2011 NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka (right) sifts through the sediments of Alaska’s Lower Herring Bay, looking for the tiny marine life that live there. (Photo by Gerry Sanger/Sound Ecosystem Adventures)

In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit Alaska’s Prince William Sound, NOAA scientists, including marine biologist Gary Shigenaka and ecologist Alan Mearns, have been studying the impacts of the spill and cleanup measures on these animals and plants in rocky tidal waters.

Their experiments and monitoring over the long term revealed a high degree of natural variability in these communities that was unrelated to the oil spill. They saw large changes in, for example, numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles from year to year even in areas known to be unaffected by the oil spill.

This translated into a major challenge. How do scientists tell the difference between shifts in marine communities due to natural variability and those changes caused by the oil spill?

Several key themes emerged from NOAA’s long-term monitoring and subsequent experimental research:

  • impact. How do we measure it?
  • recovery. How do we define it?
  • variability. How do we account for it?
  • subtle connection to large-scale oceanic influences. How do we recognize it?

What NOAA has learned from these themes informs our understanding of oil spill response and cleanup, as well as of ecosystems on a larger scale. None of this, however, would have been apparent without the long-term monitoring effort. This is an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez experience: that monitoring and research, often viewed as an unnecessary luxury in the context of a large oil spill response, are useful, even essential, for framing the scientific and practical lessons learned.

Remote Possibilities

As NOAA looks ahead to the future—and with the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in our recent past—we can incorporate and apply lessons of the Exxon Valdez long-term program into how we will support response decisions and define impact and recovery.

The Arctic is a region of intense interest and scrutiny. Climate change is opening previously inaccessible waters and dramatically shifting what scientists previously considered “normal” environmental conditions. This is allowing new oil production and increased maritime traffic through Arctic waters, increasing the risk of oil spills in remote and changing environments.

If and when something bad happens in the Arctic, how do scientists determine the impact and what recovery means, if our reference point is a rapidly moving target? What is our model habitat for restoring one area impacted by oil when the “unimpacted” reference areas are undergoing their own major changes?

Illustrated infographic showing timeline of ecological recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Tracking the progress of recovery for marine life and habitats following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is no easy task. Even today, not all of the species have recovered or we don’t have enough information to know. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

Listening in

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka explores these questions as he reflects on the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the following Making Waves podcast from the National Ocean Service:

[NARRATOR] This all points back at what Gary says is the main take-away lesson after 25 years of studying the aftermath of this spill: the natural environment in Alaska and in the Arctic are rapidly changing. If we don’t understand that background change, then it’s really hard to say if an area has recovered or not after a big oil spill.

[GARY SHIGENAKA] “I think we need to really keep in mind that maybe our prior notions of recovery as returning to some pre-spill or absolute control condition may be outmoded. We need to really overlay that with the dynamic changes that are occurring for whatever reason and adjust our assessments and definitions accordingly. I don’t have the answers for the best way to do that. We’ve gotten some ideas from the work that we’ve done, but I think that as those changes begin to accelerate and become much more marked, then it’s going to be harder to do.”

 

Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research on its recovery over the past 25 years.


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After the Big Spill, What Happened to the Ship Exxon Valdez?

This is a post by Gary Shigenaka, a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Close-up of the ship's name on side of Exxon Valdez.

The last days of the Exxon Valdez: in the San Diego shipyard before the first name change. Photo from the collection of Gary Shigenaka, NOAA.

A popular myth exists that it is bad luck to rename a boat.  It is unclear whether this applies to “boats” as big as a 987-foot-long oil tanker, but it is possible that the ship originally known as the Exxon Valdez might be used to argue that the answer is “yes.”

When the Exxon Valdez was delivered to Exxon on December 11, 1986, it was the largest vessel ever built on the west coast of the U.S. On July 30, 1989, four months after it ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and caused the then-largest oil spill in U.S. waters, the crippled Exxon Valdez entered dry dock at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego—its original birthplace.

The trip south from Prince William Sound had not been without incident. Divers discovered hull plates hanging from the frame 70 feet below the surface that had to be cut away, and a 10 mile oil slick trailing behind the ship for a time prevented it from entering San Diego Bay.

New Law, New Name

Ship Exxon Mediterranean in Trieste, Italy, July 1991.

Exxon Mediterranean in Trieste, Italy, July 1991. Photo by Arki Wagner, used with permission.

Nearly a year and $30 million later, the ship emerged for sea trials as the Exxon Mediterranean.  The Exxon Valdez had suffered the ignominy—and corporate hardship—of effectively being singled out in U.S. legislation (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 [PDF]) and banned from a specific U.S. body of water:

SEC. 5007. LIMITATION.

Notwithstanding any other law, tank vessels that have spilled more than 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989, are prohibited from operating on the navigable waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska.

(33 U.S.C. § 2737)

With this banishment institutionalized in U.S. law, Exxon Shipping Company shifted the operational area for the ship to the Mediterranean and the Middle East and renamed it accordingly.  In 1993, Exxon spun off its shipping arm to a subsidiary, Sea River Maritime, Inc., and the Exxon Mediterranean became the Sea River Mediterranean.  This was shortened to S/R Mediterranean.

In 2002, the ship was re-assigned to Asian routes and then temporarily mothballed in an undisclosed location.

A Ship Singled Out?

Exxon filed suit in federal court challenging the provisions of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that had banned its tanker from the Prince William Sound trade route.  In November 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Oil Pollution Act and its vessel prohibition provision (the Justice Department noting that to that time, 18 vessels had been prevented from entering Prince William Sound).  While Sea River had argued that the law unfairly singled out and punished its tanker, and that there was no reason to believe that a tanker guilty of spilling in the past would spill in the future, the three-judge panel disagreed unanimously.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the landmark law resulting from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, legislated the phase-out of all single-hulled tankers from U.S. waters by 2015. On October 21, 2003, single-hulled tankers carrying heavy oils were banned by the European Union.  A complete ban on single-hulled tankers was to be phased in on an accelerated schedule in 2005 and 2010. There remains pressure to eliminate single-hulled tankers from the oil trade worldwide, so their days are clearly numbered.

In 2005, the S/R Mediterranean was reflagged under the Marshall Islands after having remained a U.S.-flagged ship for 20 years (reportedly in the hopes that it eventually would have been permitted to re-enter the Alaska – U.S. West Coast – Panama route for which it had been designed).  The ship’s name became simply Mediterranean.

In 2008, ExxonMobil and its infamous tanker finally parted ways when Sea River sold the Mediterranean to a Hong Kong-based shipping company, Hong Kong Bloom Shipping Co., Ltd. The ship was once again renamed, to Dong Fang Ocean, and reflagged under Panamanian registry.  Its days as a tanker also came to an end, as the Dong Fang Ocean was converted into a bulk ore carrier at Guangzhou CSSC-Oceanline-GWS Marine Engineering Co., Ltd., China.

The Dong Fang Ocean labored in relative anonymity in its new incarnation until November 29, 2010.  On that day, it collided with another bulk carrier, the Aali in the Yellow Sea off Chengshan, China. Both vessels were severely damaged; the Dong Fang Ocean lost both anchors, and the Aali sustained damage to its ballast tanks.  The Dong Fang Ocean moved to the port of Longyan with assistance by tugs.

The End Is Near

With this last misfortune, the final countdown to oblivion began in earnest for the vessel-formerly-known-as-Exxon-Valdez.  In March 2011, the ship was sold for scrap to a U.S.-based company called Global Marketing Systems (GMS). GMS in turn re-sold it to the Chinese-owned Best Oasis, Ltd., for $16 million.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

Intending to bring the Oriental Nicety, as it had been renamed yet one last time, ashore at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, Best Oasis was blocked by a petition filed by Delhi-based ToxicsWatch Alliance with the Indian Supreme Court on the grounds that the ship could be contaminated with asbestos and PCBs. ToxicsWatch Alliance invoked the Basel Convention, which restricts the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes for disposal. However, an environmental audit required by the court showed no significant contamination, and in July 2012, the Oriental Nicety was cleared to be brought ashore for its final disposition. The ship was reportedly beached on August 2, 2012.

Shanta Barley, writing for Nature, penned a wry obituary as a lead-in to her article about the last days of the ship:

The Oriental Nicety (née Exxon Valdez), born in 1986 in San Diego, California, has died after a long struggle with bad publicity.

Editor’s note: Use Twitter to chat directly with NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka about the Exxon Valdez and its impacts on Alaska’s marine life and waters on Monday, March 24 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. Follow the conversation at #ExxonValdez25 and get the details: http://1.usa.gov/1iw2Y6W.

Gary Shigenaka.

Gary Shigenaka.

Gary Shigenaka is one of the original biological support specialists in the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Even though his career with NOAA has spanned decades, Gary’s spill response experience began with the Exxon Valdez. He has worked countless spills since then, in the U.S. and internationally. He also currently oversees a number of response-related research efforts and represents the U.S. Department of Commerce on the Region 10 Regional Response Team.


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Abandoned Vessels: Drifting Across the Pacific Ocean Since 1617

Adrift Japanese fishing vessel.

The derelict Japanese fishing vessel RYOU-UN MARU drifts more than 125 miles from Forrester Island in southeast Alaska. The fishing vessel has been drifting unmanned at sea since the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami more than a year ago (U.S. Coast Guard, Air Station Kodiak).

You might have already heard about the rusted-out, abandoned fishing vessel adrift off British Columbia, Canada. The 170 foot (53 meter) long vessel is the Ryou-Un Maru, a squid boat that broke free from a dock in Hokkaido, Japan, after the March 11, 2011 tsunami. Fortunately, no one was on board when the tsunami happened.

Over the past year it has drifted across the Pacific Ocean and was first observed in Canadian waters. The U.S. Coast Guard is now tracking the drift of the vessel, which entered U.S. waters March 31, 2012, and currently it is about 155 nautical miles away from Baranof Island in southeast Alaska.

The drift of the vessel confirms what generations of beach combers have known for a long time. The Pacific Ocean currents form a giant conveyor belt that carries flotsam (floating items) across the Pacific. Over the years I’ve found glass fish floats, glass bottles, and other Japanese items that have washed up along the coast of Washington state where I live.

But a big fishing vessel—that must be something really unusual—or is it?

In 2003, the 97-foot ship Genei Maru #7 caught fire and was abandoned at sea about halfway between Japan and the United States. This “ghost ship” ran aground on Kodiak, Alaska, after drifting at sea, crewless, for five months. And in 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard found an abandoned coal barge adrift off the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, which had wandered across the Pacific from Russia.

Cover page of historical record of drifting Japanese vessels.

The document, “Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands,” was originally published in 1872.

But there is evidence that vessels have been drifting across the Pacific for a long time. Check out this old document from 1872, “Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands.”

Some archaeologists think that Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast have been strongly influenced by the effects of foreign shipwrecks. Artifacts from shipwrecks, including metals and other technologies, may have been used by these tribes (Quimby, G. I. 1985. Japanese Wrecks, Iron Tools, and Prehistoric Indians of the Northwest Coast. Arctic Anthropology 22(2): 7–15.).

And the blog A Blast From the Past has a lengthy discussion on historical and more recent cases of vessels washing across the Pacific.

The oldest record is from 1617, when an abandoned Japanese ship was found near Acapulco, Mexico, but there are likely many other wrecks that went unrecorded because the vessels probably stranded in areas then inhabited only by native tribes.

The March 2011 tsunami certainly added to the amount of debris floating across the Pacific. If you find items you think might be from the tsunami, you can report them to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.


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Follow the Race to Refuel Nome, Alaska

The city of Nome, Alaska, is running short of fuel and an unusual winter delivery is underway to resupply the remote, icebound community. Nome is located on the northern edge of the Bering Sea, along the far western corner of the state. This fall, a severe storm prevented the last scheduled fuel delivery, and now the port is icebound, preventing regular fuel barges from reaching the area. Now, a U.S. icebreaker and a Russian tanker are battling the pack ice to deliver 1.3 million gallons of heating oil and gasoline.

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

BERING SEA – The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012. The two vessels departed Dutch Harbor for Nome on Jan. 3, 2012, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As of Thursday, the tanker Renda and the icebreaker Healy were less than 100 miles from Nome and breaking through ice two to three feet thick, making their journey slow but steady. Weather in Nome includes temperatures 20–30 degrees below 0°F and wind chill dropping to 45–50 below 0°F. Without the delivery, Nome could run short of fuel before a barge delivery becomes possible in late spring when the ice starts breaking up.

NOAA is providing weather and ice data to the ships and helping identify routes with lighter icepack. NOAA is also working on contingency plans and safety measures to ensure a safe fuel transfer.

nome-fuel-transfer-preparation_coast-guard-charly-hengen

BERING SEA – The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012. The two vessels departed Dutch Harbor for Nome on Jan. 3, 2012, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Crews are working in Nome to be ready for the tanker’s arrival later this week, but even then, the delivery will be challenging. The ice next to shore is much thicker, which will prevent the tanker from getting close to shore. The ship Renda is equipped with more than a mile of hose that will be strung across the ice to reach the port. The exact transfer date remains unknown at this time, because there are still operational issues pending. Weather will play a big factor in the timing and ability to make this happen.

The fuel delivery to Nome brings to mind another famous wintertime resupply effort—the 1925 race to bring diphtheria medicine to Nome. An epidemic was raging and blizzards prevented aircraft from delivering the medicine to the snowbound city. A dogsled relay carried the medicine across the state. The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates this historic event.

Check out the links below to track the ships’ progress and images of the icebreaking:

Track the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy
http://www.sailwx.info/shiptrack/shipposition.phtml?call=NEPP

Hourly photos from Healy
http://icefloe.net/Aloftcon_Photos/index.php?album=2012


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Oil Spills Don’t Take a Holiday

As we get ready for Thanksgiving, I am reminded of a couple oil spills that have occurred over that weekend in the past. Most of our work takes place each day from 9-5, but when a spill happens, we respond 24-7 regardless of holiday schedules.

On November 26, 1997, the day before Thanksgiving, the M/V Kuroshima, a 368-foot frozen seafood freighter, broke away from its anchorage during a severe storm. While the vessel was attempting to move to a safer anchorage, winds in excess of 100 knots blew the freighter into Second Priest Rock near the entrance of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, puncturing several of the vessel’s fuel tanks. The disabled vessel subsequently ran aground at Summer Bay, spilling about 39,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

M/V Kuroshima run aground.

M/V Kuroshima run aground in Summer Bay, Alaska. Credit: Jim Severns, Dutch Harbor, with permission.

Fans of “The Deadliest Catch” know these waters—and their dangers—well. The fishing vessels pass this point on their way to and from the Bering Sea fishing grounds. And this incident lived up to that deadly reputation. Two of the ship’s crew were killed during the grounding.

I flew up to Dutch Harbor to help with the response. Late fall in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands is not the best flying weather, and the airport is challenging even during good weather. The airport’s runway is bordered on one side by a drop off into the ocean and the side of a hill on the other. Both ends drop off into open water, with mountains guarding the approach. Winds buffeted the plane, and I remember the airplane taking a couple shaky passes at the runway—one of the shortest commercial runways in North America—before landing.  You can get a sense of what it is like to land there from this video [leaves this blog].

After that flight I vowed to increase my life insurance.

Dutch Harbor runway.

Final approach to Dutch Harbor, Alaska (on a calm day). Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

Bitter cold and high winds also hampered the cleanup and salvage of the ship and its spilled contents. It took four months to refloat the vessel, and cleanup lasted for over a year.

Shoreline cleanup in Summer Bay Lake, Alaska.

Shoreline cleanup along Summer Bay Lake, Alaska, December 1997, following M/V Kuroshima oil spill. Credit: Ruth Yender, NOAA.

The damage assessment and restoration effort for the spill took several years. The final restoration plan [PDF], prepared by the state and federal natural resource trustees in consultation with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, addressed five areas of impacts: birds, vegetation, intertidal shellfish, salmon, and recreation. A settlement was reached in 2002 for natural resource damages, totaling approximately $650,000.

The recreational projects prompted some interesting challenges and solutions. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, claims can be made for the lost use of natural resources; in this case, the spill affected the prime recreational beach for the city of Unalaska. As compensation for the lost recreational opportunities during the spill, one project funded a summer outdoor recreation camp for the Qawalangin Tribe. While there, the students learned traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and participated in other cultural and environmental activities with Unangan elders. We also arranged for further chemical analysis of the shellfish tissues and educated the community on the safety of the local seafoods.

While the spill response and restoration was successful, the story of the ship doesn’t end well. After the M/V Kuroshima was refloated, it was repaired, sold to a Latvian company and renamed the M/V Linkuva. On June 20, 2000, the ship and 18 crewmembers were lost in Hurricane Carlotta off Acapulco, Mexico.