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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When Oil Spills Take You to Hawaii and the Yellowstone River in Two Days

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill.

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill on Jan. 19, 2015. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

We get called for scientific support between 100 and 150 times a year for oil spills, chemical releases, and other marine pollution events around the nation. That averages to two or three calls per week from the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but those calls aren’t nicely scheduled out during the week, or spread out regionally among staff in different parts of the country.

The date of an oil spill is just the starting point. Many of these pollution incidents are resolved in a day or two, but some can lead to years of work for our part of NOAA. Some oil spills make the national and regional news while others might only be a local story for the small coastal town where the spill took place.

To give you an idea, some of the incidents we worked on just last week took us from Hawaii one day to eastern Montana the next day—and we were already working on two others elsewhere. These incidents included a pipeline break and oil spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana; a mystery spill of an unknown, non-oil substance that resulted in birds stranded in San Francisco Bay, California; a tug boat sinking and releasing diesel fuel off of Oahu, Hawaii; and a fishing vessel grounded near Sitka, Alaska.

Aerial view of oil spilled along the edge of Yellowstone River.

View from an aerial survey of the spill site on the Yellowstone River, taken about six miles upstream from Glendive, Montana. (Montana Department of Environmental Quality)

The Yellowstone River spill involved a pipeline releasing oil as it ran under a frozen river. The source of the leaking oil has been secured, which means no more oil is leaking, but response operations are continuing. It is an interesting spill for several reasons. One is because the oil type, Bakken crude, is an oil that has been in the news a lot recently. More Bakken crude oil is being transported by train these days because the location of the oil fields is far from ports or existing pipelines. Several rail car accidents involving this oil have ended in explosions. Another reason the Yellowstone River spill is of particular interest is because the response has to deal with ice and snow conditions along with the usual challenges of dealing with an oil spill.

Watch footage of an aerial survey over the Yellowstone River and spilled oil:

The mystery spill in the San Francisco Bay Area is still a mystery at this point (both what it is and where it came from), but hundreds of birds are being cleaned in the meantime. The response is coordinating sampling and chemical analysis to figure out the source of the “mystery goo” coating these seabirds.

Marine diesel fuel dyed red in the ocean.

Marine diesel fuel, dyed red, is shown approximately seven miles south of Honolulu Airport on January 23, 2015. The spill came from a tugboat that sank off Barbers Point Harbor, Oahu, on January 22. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Meanwhile, the tugboat accident in Hawaii involved about 75,000 gallons of fuel oil leaking from a tugboat that sank in over 2,000 feet of water. All 11 crewmembers of the tugboat were safely rescued. We were helping forecast what was happening to the spilled oil and where it might be drifting. In addition, there was a lot of concern about endangered Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles in the area, but no oiled wildlife have been reported.

And that brings us to the fishing vessel grounded in Alaska. At this time the vessel is still intact and hasn’t spilled any of the 700 gallons of fuel believed to be onboard. Salvors are working to refloat the vessel. Fortunately, the crew had time to cap some of the fuel tank vents before abandoning ship, which may be helping prevent oil from being released. All four crew were safely rescued.

That makes four very different spills in four very different areas … and we have to be ready to respond with oil spill models and environmental expertise for all of them at the same time. But that’s just all in a day’s work at NOAA.


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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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Why Are Seabirds so Vulnerable to Oil Spills?

Out of the squawking thousands of black and white birds crowding the cliff, a single male sidled up to the rocky edge. After arranging a few out-of-place feathers with his sleek beak, the bird plunged like a bullet into the ocean below. These penguin look-alikes (no relation) are Common Murres. Found along the U.S. coast from Alaska to California, this abundant species of seabird dives underwater, using its wings to pursue a seafood dinner, namely small fish.

During an oil spill, however, these classic characteristics of murres and other seabirds work to their disadvantage, upping the chance they will encounter oil—and in more ways than one. To understand why seabirds are so vulnerable to oil spills, let’s return to our lone male murre and a hypothetical oil spill near his colony in the Gulf of Alaska.

Preening in an Oil Sheen

After diving hundreds of feet beneath the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean, the male murre pops back to the surface with a belly full of fish—and feathers laminated in oil. This bird has surfaced from his dinner dive into an oil slick, a common problem for diving birds during oil spills. His coat of feathers, once warm and waterproof, is now matted. The oil is breaking up his interlocking layer of feathers, usually maintained by the bird’s constant arranging and rearranging, known as preening.

With his sensitive skin suddenly exposed not just to the irritating influence of oil but also to the cold, the male murre becomes chilled. If he does not repair the alignment of his feathers soon, hypothermia could set in. This same insulating structure also traps air and helps the bird float on the water’s surface, but without it, the bird would struggle to stay afloat.

Quickly, the freshly oiled seabird begins preening. But with each peck of his pointed beak into the plumage, he gulps down small amounts of oil. If the murre ingests enough oil, it could have serious effects on his internal organs. Impacts range from disrupted digestion and diarrhea to liver and kidney damage and destruction of red blood cells (anemia).

But oil can find yet another way of entering the bird: via the lungs. When oil is spilled, it begins interacting with the wind, water, and waves and changing its physical and chemical properties through the process of weathering. Some components of the oil may evaporate, and the murre, bobbing on the water’s surface, could breathe in the resulting toxic fumes, leading to potential lung problems.

Birds’-Eye View

Colony of murres on a rocky outcropping on the California coast.

Murres are very social birds, living in large colonies on rocky cliffs and shores along the U.S. West Coast. If disturbed by an oil spill, many of these birds may set off temporarily to find a more suitable home. (Creative Commons: Donna Pomeroy, Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License)

This single male murre is likely not the only one in his colony to experience a run-in with the oil spill. Even those seabirds not encountering the oil directly can be affected. With oil spread across areas where the birds normally search for food and with some of their prey potentially contaminated or killed by the oil, the colony may have to travel farther away to find enough to eat. On the other hand, large numbers of these seabirds may decide to up and move to another home for the time being.

At the same time that good food is becoming scarcer, these birds will need even more food to keep up their energy levels to stay warm, find food, and ward off disease. One source of stress—the oil spill—can exacerbate many other stresses that the birds often can handle under usual circumstances.

If the oil spill happens during mating and nesting time, the impacts can be even more severe. Reproducing requires a lot of energy, and on top of that, exposure to oil can hinder birds’ ability to reproduce. Eggs and very young birds are particularly sensitive to the toxic and potentially deadly properties of oil. Murres lay only one egg at a time, meaning they are slower to replace themselves.

The glossy-eyed male murre we are following, even if he manages to escape most of the immediate impacts of being oiled, would soon face the daunting responsibility of taking care of his fledgling chick. As young as three weeks old, his one, still-developing chick plops off the steep cliff face where the colony resides and tumbles into the ocean, perhaps a thousand feet to its waiting father below. There, the father murre is the chick’s constant caregiver as they travel out to sea, an energy-intensive role even without having to deal with the potential fallout from an oil spill.

Birds of a Feather Get Oiled Together

Like a bathtub filled with rubber ducks, murres form giant floating congregations on the water, known as “rafts,” which can include up to 250,000 birds. In fact, murres spend all but three or four months of the year out at sea. Depending on where the oil travels after a spill, a raft of murres could float right into it, a scenario which may be especially likely considering murre habitat often overlaps with major shipping channels.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, responders collected some 30,000 dead, oil-covered birds. Nearly three-quarters of them were murres, but the total included other birds which dive or feed on the ocean surface as well. Because most bird carcasses never make it to shore intact where researchers can count them, they have to make estimations of the total number of birds killed. The best approximation from the Exxon Valdez spill is that 250,000 birds died, with 185,000 of them murres.

While this population of seabirds certainly suffered from this oil spill (perhaps losing up to 40 percent of the population), murres began recovering within a few years of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Surprisingly resilient, this species is nonetheless one of the most studied seabirds [PDF] precisely because it is so often the victim of oil spills.


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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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Wishing You a Happy Donut Day (Free of Frying Oil Spills)

A mug, ruler, and NOAA chart with a stack of donuts, one decorated with the NOAA logo.

Happy Donut Day from NOAA!

Tomorrow we celebrate National Donut Day.

As scientists who work in oil spill response, and who also love these oil-fried creations, we know that donut oil can harm the environment almost as severely as the oils that are typically spilled on our coastlines and rivers.

When we talk about “oil” spills, we are generally referring to petroleum-based oils—the naturally occurring products, such as crude oil, found in geologic formations. But the oil and fats that we use to fry our food come from animals (e.g., lard/tallow, butter/ghee, fish oil) or from seeds and plants (e.g., palm, castor, olive, soya bean, sunflower, rape-seed). Like petroleum products, these oils can spill when they are stored or transported. When an accident occurs, large quantities of oil can spill into rivers, lakes, and harbors.

Although vegetable oils and animal fats are not as acutely toxic as many petroleum products, spills of these products can still result in significant environmental damage. Like petroleum oils, vegetable oils and animal fats and their components can have both immediate and long-term negative effects on wildlife and the environment when they:

  • Coat the fur or feathers of wildlife, and even smother embryos if oil comes in contact with bird eggs.
  • Suffocate marine life by depleting the oxygen in the water.
  • Destroy future and existing food supplies, breeding animals, and habitats.
  • Produce rancid odors.
  • Foul shorelines, clog water treatment plants, and catch fire when ignition sources are present.
  • Form products that linger in the environment for many years.

Many non-petroleum oils share similar physical properties with petroleum-based oils; for example, they don’t readily dissolve in water, they both create slicks on the surface of water, and they both form water-oil mixtures known as emulsions, or “mousse.” In addition, non-petroleum oils tend to be persistent, remaining in the environment for long periods of time.

Firefighters in Madison County, Wisc., had to deal with 16 million pounds of butter melting and flowing out of the burning refrigerated warehouse. The butter is visible here in the dug-out channels.

In the Great Butter Fire of May 3, 1991, firefighters in Madison County, Wisc., had to deal with 16 million pounds of butter melting and flowing out of a burning refrigerated warehouse. The butter, which threatened a nearby creek and recently restored lake, is visible here in the dug-out channels. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

In our earlier blog post, Recipes for Disaster, we describe spills of coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and even butter, which emergency responders across the United States have had to address. In addition to the oil spill response tools and resources we use to mitigate spills of all types, EPA’s explanation of the rules that apply to animal fats and vegetable oil spill planning and response, and response techniques suggested by ITOPF and CEDRE, researchers are finding new ways to clean up spills of vegetable oils.

For example, at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers have found that adding dry clay to spilled oil results in formation of oil-mineral combinations that sink to the bottom of the water. The process works best under conditions of relatively low mixing in the water, and is acceptable only if the oil can be broken down naturally in the sediment.

Back to National Donut Day and things that can be broken down naturally in your stomach. Enjoy your glazed, jelly-filled, or frosted-with-sprinkles delight however it is prepared—with vegetable oil, shortening, or maybe coconut oil. And if you’re thinking of enjoying your donut with a glass of milk, start thinking about what might happen when milk spills into our waters.


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Watch Bald Eagle Restoration Come Alive in California’s Channel Islands

On the heels of Endangered Species Day, we take a look at the incredible recovery story of the Bald Eagle, which teetered on the edge of extinction in the second half of the twentieth century, in part due to impacts from people releasing the pesticide DDT into the environment.

By the early 1960s Bald Eagles had disappeared from southern California’s Channel Islands after chemical companies near Los Angeles discharged into the ocean millions of pounds of the toxic chemicals DDT and PCBs [PDF], both of which stay in the environment for a very long time. Once DDT worked its way up the marine food chain to the eagles, it weakened the shells of their eggs, causing the parent eagles to crush the eggs before they could hatch.

However, thanks to the efforts of NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and our partners, including the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Bald Eagles have made a comeback in southern California’s Channel Islands.

Learn more about this notable conservation work in this Thank You Ocean Report video podcast:

“This program has been 30 years in the making and after that amount of time we have finally started to see natural hatching out on the islands,” says bird biologist Annie Little of the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. “I think it shows the persistence of these types of chemicals in the environment and that restoration doesn’t happen overnight.”

But it does happen with a lot of hard work and dedication. Between 2006 and 2013, a total of 81 Bald Eagle chicks have hatched in the Channel Islands. You can watch the eagles’ recovery in real time as they build nests and hatch chicks on the islands via the Bald Eagle web cams.

Also from Thank You Ocean, here’s an everyday action you can take to protect the ocean and the animals dependent on it: “Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and keep trash and chemicals out of storm drains. Polluted water from storm drains flows into the sea and can harm marine life and the environment.”


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What Have We Done for Endangered Species Lately?

Floating brown pelican.

The brown pelican, a successfully recovered species, was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Endangered species have a tough time of it. These plants and animals have been trampled, hunted, contaminated, and pushed out of their homes by humans to the point that their very existence on this planet becomes dangerously uncertain. In the United States, this is when the federal government steps in to list a species as threatened or endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Over 40 years later, this critical piece of legislation has had many successes in protecting native animals and plants and the natural areas where they live—perhaps most notably bringing back the national symbol, the bald eagle, from the brink of extinction. Yet with more than 1,500 types of animals and plants remaining threatened or endangered in the United States, we still have more work to do.

On May 16, 2014, we’re going to take the time to recognize this very important national conservation effort by celebrating Endangered Species Day and the many ways, big and small, each of us can help save our nation’s incredible array of plants and animals from extinction—like the now-recovered brown pelican!

Tools for Protecting Species During Oil Spills

So, what has NOAA been doing for endangered species? One example is the Office of Response and Restoration’s special data mapping tools that come into play during oil spills.

When an oil spill occurs along the coast, one priority for our office is identifying whether any threatened or endangered species live in the area near the spill. The responders dealing with the spill have to take into account factors such as what time of year these protected species are breeding or how they might come into contact with spilled oil or the response. This means knowing whether young Chinook salmon may be migrating out to sea through an estuary where a ship may have accidentally discharged fuel. Or knowing if the beaches where spill responders need to clean up oil are also important nesting grounds for a shorebird such as the piping plover.

Our biologists and ecologists help provide this kind of information during an oil spill response, but our office also produces tools to organize and display all of this information for both NOAA and oil spill planners and responders outside our agency. One of these tools is NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps. These maps characterize coastal environments and wildlife based on their sensitivity to spilled oil. The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

A related Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool, the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases, make up a subset of the original ESI data from our maps. These data focus on the coastal species and habitats that are federally and/or state listed as endangered, threatened, protected, or as a species of concern. These databases offer a more user-friendly option to access some of the most critical biological information for a region.

In the example below, you see a map of Great South Bay from the Long Island ESI atlas. The colored shapes (red, blue, green, and maroon) indicate where the piping plover, shortnose sturgeon, eastern mud turtle, and seabeach amaranth occur in June.

Screen capture of Environmental Sensitivity Map showing habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York.

Habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York. (NOAA)

Using the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily gather complex information for a region, such as groupings of species with similar habitat preferences and feeding styles, threatened and endangered status, concentration, and life history summaries. This tool also features the ability to search for presence of a species in a particular month or season. You can take a look at these data, pulled from our many state and federal partners, for anywhere in the United States using this online map application.

What You Can Do

If you’re not an oil spill planner or responder, how can you help protect endangered species? Learn what you can do, such as protecting habitat by planting native rather than invasive plants in your yard, in this podcast from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Or find an Endangered Species Day event this weekend near you.

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