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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Despite Threats, Celebrating Restoration Successes for Seabirds in California

Flocking seabirds on ocean surface with humpback whale tale and NOAA ship in the distance.

Thousands of seabirds flock around a diving humpback whale off Alaska’s Unalaska Island. The NOAA Ship OSCAR DYSON is in the distance. (NOAA)

Seabirds: You may see them perched along a fishing pier poised to scavenge or swooping for fish by the thousands out in the open ocean. This diverse group of marine birds serves as a valuable indicator [PDF] of the health of the ocean and what they have been telling us lately is that they face many threats.

Often victims of oil spills and other pollution, seabirds are threatened by a changing climate, hunting, and introduced species (such as rats or feral cats). In addition, they frequently get caught in fishing nets, a serious concern for many seabirds, particularly if they dive for food.

Yet it’s not all bad news for our feathered friends. Help is on the way.

Bait and Switch

While nearly 7,000 birds were estimated killed after the container ship Cosco Busan spilled heavy oil into San Francisco Bay in 2007, restoration projects are already underway. In 2014 alone, over $15 million was spread across more than 50 projects to enhance and restore beaches and habitat, including seabird habitat, around the Bay Area.

One project in particular is aimed at undoing the damage done to the threatened Marbled Murrelet. In order for these small, chubby seabirds to recover from this oil spill, they need some help keeping jays from eating their eggs. For three years in a row, a restoration project has been working on this in the old growth forests around campgrounds in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

From the Cosco Busan Oil Spill Trustee Council [PDF]: “In order to train jays not to eat murrelet eggs, hundreds of chicken eggs were painted to look like murrelet eggs, injected with a chemical that makes the jays throw up, and placed throughout the forest. Monitoring suggests the jays learn to avoid the eggs and may teach their offspring as well.”

Cleaning up the Neighborhood

Meanwhile, down the California coast, seabirds in the Channel Islands were suffering as a result of the pesticide DDT and industrial chemicals that were dumped into the ocean by local industries years ago. The birds themselves were contaminated by the pollution and their eggshells became dangerously thin, reducing reproduction—a notorious effect of DDT. On top of all that, human activities had been altering seabird habitat on these islands for years.

NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program has been focused on reversing this harmful trend with a number of projects to restore seabird nesting habitat, attract seabirds to the restored sites, and to remove non-native plants and animals on the Channel Islands and Baja California Pacific Islands.

On Scorpion Rock, a small islet located off the northeast coast of Santa Cruz Island, biologists have been transforming the inhospitable landscape for Cassin’s Auklets, a small open-ocean seabird. Scorpion Rock had been overrun with dense, non-native ice plant which prevented the seabirds from digging burrows to nest and provided little protection from predators.

Begun in 2008, the restoration of Scorpion Rock is nearly complete. The island now boasts a lush cover of 17 different native plant species, including shrubs that stabilize the soil and offer cover for nesting birds. That work has been paying off.

According to the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program: “Biologists have seen a 3-fold increase in the number of natural Cassin’s Auklets burrows since the project started. Over the last few years, biologists have also observed a lower number of dead adult auklets which means that the native plants are providing adequate cover from predators.”

In the final year of the project, the plan is to use sounds of breeding seabirds to attract greater numbers to the restored habitat on Scorpion Rock, and continue maintaining the native vegetation and monitoring the birds’ recovery.

Learn more about this and other seabird restoration projects in the Channel Islands and watch a video from 2010 about the restoration at Scorpion Rock during its earlier stages:


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After a Century Apart, NOAA and Partners Reunite a Former Wetland with San Francisco Bay’s Tides

Excavator removing earth from a breached barrier between tide waters in a slough and the new wetland.

The first of four breaches of tidal levees separating Cullinan Ranch from the tide waters of San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Scooping away the last narrow band of mud, a bright yellow excavator released a rush of brackish water into an area cut off from the tides for more than a hundred years.

The 1,200 acre field now filling with water, known as Cullinan Ranch due to its history as a hay farm, is once again becoming a tidal wetland.

On January 6, 2015, more than 100 people celebrated the reintroduction of tide waters to Cullinan Ranch in Solano County, California. For decades before, earthen levees had separated it from the nearby Napa River and San Pablo Bay, a northern corner of the San Francisco Bay Estuary.

With three more levee breaches planned by the end of January, restoration of this 1,500 acre site is nearly complete, with efforts to monitor the project’s progress to follow. Surrounded by state and federal wildlife lands, Cullinan Ranch will fill in a gap in coastal habitat as it becomes integrated with San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

How Low Can It Flow

For the most part, Cullinan Ranch will be covered in open water because years of farming, beginning in the 1880s, caused the land to sink below sea level. The open water will provide places for animals such as fish and birds—as well as the invertebrates they like to eat—to find food and rest after big storms.

However, some areas of the property will remain above the low tide level, creating conditions for the plant pickleweed to thrive. While a succulent like cacti, pickleweed can survive wet and salty growing conditions. (Fun fact: Some people enjoy cooking and eating pickleweed. When blanched, it apparently tastes salty and somewhat crispy.) The salt marsh harvest mouse, native to California and one of the few mammals able to drink saltwater, also will take advantage of the habitat created by the pickleweed in the recovering wetland.

Wildlife will not be the only ones enjoying the restoration of Cullinan Ranch. A major highway passes by the site, and Cullinan Ranch has experienced numerous upgrades to improve recreational access for people brought there by Highway 37. Soon anyone will be able to hike on the newly constructed trails, fish off the pier, and launch kayaks from the dock.

Turning Money into Marshes

The restoration of Cullinan Ranch from hay field to tidal wetland has been in the works for a long time, brought about by a range of partners and funding agencies, including NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Ducks Unlimited. NOAA provided several sources of funding to help finish this restoration project.

In addition to $900,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NOAA contributed $650,000 through a community-based restoration partnership with Ducks Unlimited and $1.65 million awarded for natural resource damages through the Castro Cove trustee council. The latter funding was part of a $2.65 million settlement with Chevron as a result of the nearby Chevron Richmond Refinery discharging mercury and oil pollution into Castro Cove for years. Cullinan Ranch and Breuner Marsh are the two restoration projects Chevron funded to make up for this pollution.

Map of San Francisco Bay showing locations of NOAA restoration projects.

NOAA is working on a number of tidal wetland restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Cullinan Ranch is one of the largest restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay, but it is far from the only one NOAA is involved with in the region. Helping reverse a century-long trend which saw many of the bay’s tidal wetlands disappear, NOAA has been working on a suite of projects restoring these historic and important coastal features in northern California.

Watch footage of the earthen levee being breached to reconnect the bay’s tide waters to Cullinan Ranch.


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Our Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2015

2014 written in the sand.

Good bye, 2014. Credit: Marcia Conner/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

While we have accomplished a lot in the last year, we know that we have plenty of work ahead of us in 2015.

As much as we wish it were so, we realize oil and chemical spills, vessel groundings, and marine debris will not disappear from the ocean and coasts in the next year. That means our experts have to be ready for anything, but specifically, for providing scientific solutions to marine pollution.

Here are our plans for doing that in 2015:

  1. Exercise more. We have big plans for participating in oil spill exercises and performing trainings that will better prepare us and others to deal with threats from marine pollution.
  2. Be safer. We work up and down the nation’s coastlines, from tropical to arctic environments. Many of these field locations are remote and potentially hazardous. We will continue to assess and improve our equipment and procedures to be able to work safely anywhere our services are needed.
  3. Keep others safe. We are improving our chemical response software CAMEO, which will help chemical disaster responders and planners get the critical data they need, when and where they need it.
  4. Get others involved. We are partnering with the University of Washington to explore ways average citizens can help contribute to oil spill science.
  5. Communicate more effectively. This spring, we will be hosting a workshop for Alaskan communicators and science journalists on research-based considerations for communicating about chemical dispersants and oil spills.
  6. Be quicker and more efficient. We will be releasing a series of sampling guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive data in the Arctic to support Natural Resource Damage Assessment and other oil spill science.
  7. Sport a new look. An updated, more mobile-friendly look is in the works for NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website. Stay tuned for the coming changes at http://www.darrp.noaa.gov.
  8. Unlock access to data. We are getting ready to release public versions of an online tool that brings together data from multiple sources into a single place for easier data access, analysis, visualization, and reporting. This online application, known as DIVER Explorer, pulls together natural resource and environmental chemistry data from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill damage assessment, and also for the Great Lakes and U.S. coastal regions.
  9. Clean up our act. Or rather, keep encouraging others to clean up their act and clean up our coasts. We’re helping educate people about marine debris and fund others’ efforts to keep everyone’s trash, including plastics, out of our oceans.
  10. Say farewell. To oil tankers with single hulls, that is. January 1, 2015 marks the final phase-out of single hull tankers, a direct outcome of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.


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How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

Staghorn coral fragments hanging on an underwater tree structure of PVC pipes.

NOAA uses coral nurseries to help corals recover after traumatic events, such as a ship grounding. Hung on a tree structure, the staghorn coral shown here will have a better chance of surviving and being transplanted back onto a reef. (NOAA)

The cringe-inducing sound of a ship crushing its way onto a coral reef is often the beginning of the story. But, thanks to NOAA’s efforts, it is not usually the end. After most ship groundings on reefs, hundreds to thousands of small coral fragments may litter the ocean floor, where they would likely perish rolling around or buried under piles of rubble. However, by bringing these fragments into coral nurseries, we give them the opportunity to recover.

In the waters around Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, NOAA works with a number of partners in various capacities to maintain 27 coral nurseries. These underwater safe havens serve a dual function. Not only do they provide a stable environment for injured corals to recuperate, but they also produce thousands of healthy young corals, ready to be transplanted into previously devastated areas.

Checking into the Nursery

When they enter coral nurseries, bits of coral typically measure about four inches long. They may come from the scene of a ship grounding or have been knocked loose from the seafloor after a powerful storm. Occasionally and with proper permission, they have been donated from healthy coral colonies to help stock nurseries. These donor corals typically heal within a few weeks. In fact, staghorn and elkhorn coral, threatened species which do well in nurseries, reproduce predominantly via small branches breaking off and reattaching somewhere new.

In the majority of nurseries, coral fragments are hung like clothes on a clothesline or ornaments on trees made of PVC pipes. Floating freely in the water, the corals receive better water circulation, avoid being attacked by predators such as fireworms or snails, and generally survive at a higher rate.

After we have established a coral nursery, divers may visit as little as a few times per year or as often as once per month if they need to keep algae from building up on the corals and infrastructure. “It helps if there is a good fish population in the area to clean the nurseries for you,” notes Sean Griffin, a coral reef restoration ecologist with NOAA.

Injured corals generally take at least a couple months to recover in the nurseries. After a year in the nursery, we can transplant the original staghorn or elkhorn colonies or cut multiple small fragments from them, which we then use either to expand the nursery or transplant them to degraded areas.


One of the fastest growing species, staghorn coral can grow up to eight inches in a year while elkhorn can grow four inches. We are still investigating the best ways to cultivate some of the slower growing species, such as boulder star coral and lobed star coral.

Growing up to Their Potential

In 2014, we placed hundreds of coral fragments from four new groundings into nurseries in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This represents only a fraction of this restoration technique’s potential.

After the tanker Margara ran aground on coral reefs in Puerto Rico in 2006, NOAA divers rescued 11,000 salvageable pieces of broken coral, which were reattached at the grounding site and established a nursery nearby using 100 fragments from the grounding. That nursery now has 2,000 corals in it. Each year, 1,600 of them are transplanted back onto the seafloor. The 400 remaining corals are broken into smaller fragments to restock the nursery. We continue to grow healthy corals in this nursery and then either transplant them back to the area affected by the grounded ship, help restore other degraded reefs, or use some of them to start the process over for another year.

Nurseries in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands currently hold about 50,000 corals. Those same nurseries generate another 50,000 corals which we transplant onto restoration sites each year. Sometimes we are able to use these nurseries proactively to protect and preserve corals at risk. In the fall of 2014, a NOAA team worked with the University of Miami to rescue more than 200 threatened staghorn coral colonies being affected by excessive sediment in the waters off of Miami, Florida. The sedimentation was caused by a dredging project to expand the Port of Miami entrance channel.

We relocated these colonies to the coral nurseries off Key Biscayne run by our partners at the University of Miami. The corals were used to create over 1,000 four-inch-long fragments in the nursery. There, they will be allowed to recover until dredge operations finish at the Port of Miami and sedimentation issues are no longer a concern. The corals then can either be transplanted back onto the reef where they originated or used as brood stock in the nursery to propagate more corals for future restoration.


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When Ships Threaten Corals in the Caribbean, NOAA Dives to Their Rescue

Growing less than a quarter inch per year, the elaborate coral reefs off the south coast of Puerto Rico originally took thousands of years to form. And over the course of two days in late April 2006, portions of them were ground into dust.

The tanker Margara ran aground on these reefs near the entrance to Guayanilla Bay. Then, in the attempt to remove and refloat the ship, it made contact with the bottom several times and became grounded again. By the end, roughly two acres of coral were lost or injured. The seafloor was flattened and delicate corals crushed. Even today, a carpet of broken coral and rock remains in part of the area. This loose rubble becomes stirred up during storms, smothering young coral and preventing the reef’s full recovery.

NOAA and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources have been working on a restoration plan for this area, a draft of which they released for public comment in September 2014 [PDF]. In order to stabilize these rubble fields and return topographic complexity to the flattened seafloor, they proposed placing limestone and large boulders over the rubble and then transplanting corals to the area.

This is in addition to two years of emergency restoration actions, which included stabilizing some of the large rubble, reattaching around 10,500 corals, and monitoring the slow comeback and survival of young coral. In the future, even more restoration will be in the works to make up for the full suite of environmental impacts from this incident.

Caribbean Cruising for a Bruising

Unfortunately, the story of the Margara is not an unusual one. In 2014 alone, NOAA received reports of 37 vessel groundings in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. About half of these cases threatened corals, prompting NOAA’s Restoration Center to send divers to investigate.

After a ship gets stuck on a coral reef, the first step for NOAA is assessing the situation underwater. If the vessel hasn’t been removed yet, NOAA often provides the salvage company with information such as known coral locations and water depths, which helps them determine how to remove the ship with minimal further damage to corals. Sometimes that means temporarily removing corals to protect them during salvage or figuring out areas to avoid hitting as the ship is extracted.

Once the ship is gone, NOAA divers estimate how many corals and which species were affected, as well as how deep the damage was to the structure of the reef itself. This gives them an idea of the scale of restoration needed. For example, if less than 100 corals were injured, restoration likely will take a few days. On the other hand, dealing with thousands of corals may take months.

NOAA already has done some form of restoration at two-thirds of the 18 vessel groundings with coral damage in the region this year. They have reattached 2,132 corals to date.

What does this look like? At first, it’s a lot of preparation. Divers collect the corals and fragments knocked loose by the ship; transport them to a safe, stable underwater location where they won’t be moved around; and dig out any corals buried in debris. When NOAA is ready to reattach corals, divers clear the transplant area (sometimes that means using a special undersea vacuum). On the ocean surface, people in a boat mix cement and send it down in five-gallon buckets to the divers below. Working with nails, rebar, and cement, the divers carefully reattach the corals to the seafloor, with the cement solidifying in a couple hours.

Protecting Coral, From the Law to the High Seas

Corals freshly cemented to the seafloor.

Corals freshly cemented to the seafloor. After a couple weeks, the cement becomes colonized by algae and other marine life so that it blends in with the reef. (NOAA)

Nearly a third of the total reported groundings in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands this year have involved corals listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In previous years, only 10 percent of the groundings involved threatened corals. What changed this year was the Endangered Species Act listing of five additional coral species in the Caribbean.

Another form of protection for corals is installing buoys to mark the location of reefs in areas where ships keep grounding on them. Since these navigational aids were put in place at one vulnerable site in Culebra, Puerto Rico this summer, NOAA hasn’t been called in to an incident there yet.

But restoring coral reefs after a ship grounding almost wouldn’t be possible without coral nurseries. Here, NOAA is able to regrow and rehabilitate coral, a technique being used at the site of the T/V Margara grounding. Stay tuned because we’ll be going more in depth on coral nurseries, what they look like, and how they help us restore these amazingly diverse ocean habitats.


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Before Breaking Ground for Restoration, Digging for Signs of the Past

This is a post by Carl Alderson of NOAA’s Restoration Center.

Birds flying over a flooded field with a nuclear power plant in the distance.

Glossy Ibis flocking to an accidental wet meadow, left by the farmer’s plow in early spring 2003 at Mad Horse Creek. Salem Nuclear Power Plant in the distance. (NOAA)

Looking across the open fields of the surrounding farm community, I am reminded of the long history of both European and Native American settlement in this portion of southwest New Jersey. Before Europeans arrived in the 17th century, this area was part of Lenape Indian territory.

Today, however, it is the site of a future restoration project at Mad Horse Creek Fish and Wildlife Management Area.

In partnership with the State of New Jersey, I’m involved in an effort to restore nearly 200 acres of degraded marshland, wet meadow, and grassland in this part of Salem County.

The restored habitat will provide food as well as roosting and nesting habitat for birds. This is one of many projects NOAA and our partners have developed as part of the restoration plan in the wake of the 2004 Athos I oil spill, which killed nearly 12,000 birds along the nearby Delaware River.

The Artifacts of Nature

Numerous historical artifacts have been uncovered on lands surrounding Mad Horse Creek, so it’s important that before we begin restoring the natural habitat, we make sure we are preserving any colonial or Native American artifacts that might be hidden beneath these fields.

I’ve been working with Vincent Maresca, a Senior Historic Preservation Specialist with the State of New Jersey to develop plans for a Phase I archaeological investigation of the area. Using a disk cultivator (a machine typically used to cultivate soil between rows of plants), we will be disking all 200 acres of the restoration site, turning over the soil at a depth of 18 inches.

Once we get a rainstorm, we can expect any artifacts in the soil to be revealed. At that point, it will take a team of 12 people two weeks to walk the site, one person to a row, looking for exposed shards of pottery or other objects. Anything we find will be placed into collection bags and identified with the GPS location.

If we find historical artifacts at the Mad Horse Creek restoration area, we will begin a Phase II archaeological investigation. This likely would involve digging more extensive excavation pits in the immediate area of each find to uncover other potential artifacts.

The people who do this work are known as field archaeologists. They typically have a degree in anthropology or archaeology and receive specialized training in testing and excavating archaeological sites; screening the soil for evidence; washing, bagging, and labeling artifacts; and completing field inventories of their findings.

When Restoration Meets Preservation

No restoration work will begin until we complete this archaeological search. At all times, NOAA makes sure to consult with historic preservationists on each of our sites in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act.

In the first part of the process we ask for input from state experts like Vincent Maresca. Those experts determine whether we should do an archaeological evaluation of the site based on the likelihood of finding artifacts, as was the case at Mad Horse Creek. If the likelihood is high, we then seek input from the federal agency known as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

I don’t know what we’re going to find at Mad Horse Creek, if anything, but as we near Thanksgiving, I am particularly thankful to be working on a project that is working to restore and preserve both our natural and cultural treasures.


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After Opening up a Pennsylvania Creek for Fish, Watching Recovery Follow

This is a guest post by Laura Craig, Ph.D., Associate Director of River Restoration, American Rivers.

Excavator removes a rock dam from a stream.

Restoring Darby Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, meant tearing down three now-defunct mill dams. Here, the Hoffman Park dam at Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, comes down. (American Rivers)

Early settlement along Pennsylvania’s Darby Creek relied upon dams to turn the water wheels of mills, powering economic growth. However, as time wore on, the dams on this tributary of the Delaware River fell into disrepair and these days no longer serve a function. Instead, they have been blocking the passage of fish along this creek. That is, until now.

In late summer of 2012, American Rivers and our project partners, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program  and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, began tearing down some of those now-defunct dams as part of a multi-year effort to restore Darby Creek. Initiated in 2007, the effort involved removing three dams near Philadelphia: Darby Borough Dam, Hoffman Park Dam, and Kent Park Dam. In addition, we took out a set of abandoned railroad piers and realigned an 800 foot section of the creek.

We removed these barriers to improve passage for a range of resident and migratory fish, including American shad, hickory shad, alewife, river herring, American eel, bass, shiners, and suckers. The project also aims to enhance stream habitat, alleviate flooding, benefit public safety, and restore free-flowing conditions along the creek.

Green plants growing along a stream.

Shown in 2014, this portion of Darby Creek now features restored shoreline habitat with stabilizing structures. (American Rivers)

Overall, the Darby Creek Restoration Project connected 2.6 miles of upper stream to the lower 9.7 miles, which link directly to the Delaware River. It was here in 2004 when the Athos I tanker spilled oil that would spread along miles of the Delaware and its tributaries similar to Darby Creek.

This $1.6 million dollar effort to restore Darby Creek was funded primarily by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment settlement from the Athos I oil spill. Additional funding came from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Growing Greener Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. All restoration activities were completed in June 2013, but we are still monitoring the restored areas to ensure the area is recovering.

At the former dam locations we are already seeing recovery of shoreline areas planted with a diverse mix of seed, shrubs, and trees. Restoring vegetation along the creek stabilizes exposed soil and reduces erosion in the short term and provides shade, habitat, and food sources over the long term. We are also observing positive changes to stream habitat as a result, including fewer actively eroding banks and less fine sediment clouding the creek’s waters.

In terms of fisheries, we are noting a shift since the dams were removed toward a resident community of fish that prefer free-flowing water conditions. While we haven’t yet encountered any migratory fish at the former dam locations, this fall fisheries biologists with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission came across several pods of very young blueback herring in the tidal portion of the creek, near where it joins the Delaware River at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. This is great news, because it suggests that blueback herring are using the lower part of the tributary as a nursery. In future years we hope to see them advance up the creek to the locations where the dams were removed.

For more information on the Athos I oil spill and the resulting restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos and http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/northeast/athos/restore.html.

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