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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

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In Wake of Japan’s 2011 Tsunami, Citizen Scientists Comb California Beaches Counting Debris

Man with clipboard and bag walking on beach.

A volunteer counts and collects the marine debris washed up at Drakes Beach in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)

It all started more than five years ago on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. A devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan in 2011, ultimately sweeping millions of tons of debris from the coastline into the ocean. But it wasn’t until June the following year, in 2012, that a 66-foot-long Japanese dock settled on the Oregon coast and reminded the world how the ocean connects us.

NOAA’s Kate Bimrose explained how this event and the resulting concern over other large or hazardous items of Japanese debris spurred the start of NOAA monitoring programs on beaches up and down the West Coast and Pacific islands. She coordinates the program that monitors marine debris in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the north-central California coast.

Thanks to funding from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, the first surveys in this sanctuary near San Francisco took place in July 2012, a month after the Oregon dock made an appearance. No previous baseline data on debris existed for the shores along this California sanctuary. The only way anyone would know if Japan tsunami marine debris started arriving is by counting how much marine debris was already showing up there on a regular basis.

Training a Wave of Citizen Scientists

Graphic showing an example 100 meter stretch of beach with four 5 meter transects.

Following NOAA Marine Debris Program monitoring protocols, volunteers survey the same 100 meter (328 foot) stretch of beach each month, randomly choosing four sections to cover. Next, they record every piece of trash bigger than a bottle cap in those areas. (NOAA)

To find out how much trash and other manmade debris was washing up, Bimrose trained a small group of dedicated, volunteer “citizen scientists” to perform monthly surveys at four regular California beach sites. Three are located in Point Reyes National Seashore and one is in Año Nuevo State Park, but all are fed by the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Following NOAA Marine Debris Program monitoring protocols, once a month two volunteers head to the same 100 meter (328 foot) stretch of beach, using GPS coordinates to locate it. Next, they randomly pick four sections, each five meters (nearly 16.5 feet) long, to survey that day. This ensures they cover 20 percent of the area each time.

For those areas, the volunteers record every piece of trash they find that is at least the size of a bottle cap, or roughly an inch long. Having this size standard increases the reliability of the data being collected, providing a more accurate picture of what the ocean is bringing to each beach. NOAA is confident that volunteers are able to scan the sand and find the majority of items larger than an inch sitting on the surface of the beach.

Taking Things to the Next Level

Bottle with Asian characters on the cap.

While volunteers occasionally turn up debris bearing Asian characters, no items reported from this program have been confirmed from the 2011 Japan tsunami. (NOAA)

All of the data volunteers gather—from number of items to types of material found—gets entered into a national online database, which will allow NOAA to determine trends in where, what, and how much marine debris is showing up. Leaving the items behind reveals how debris concentrates and persists on shorelines, information which is lost when debris is hauled off the beach.

While gathering this information is useful, Bimrose admitted to one sticking point for her: none of the debris is cleaned up from these four beach locations.

“We want to be able to remove the debris,” she said. “It’s painful for all my volunteers to be out there and record it and not remove it.” However, the good news is that a June 2015 expansion to this monitoring program has added two new beach locations to the rotation, and after volunteers record the debris there, they pack it out. In addition, Bimrose takes out larger groups of one-time volunteers to those locations and trains them on site, creating a broader educational reach for the program.

Bimrose hopes to recruit local school groups as well as businesses to volunteer. Before each survey at the new locations, she introduces the sanctuary and the monitoring program, while passing around mason jars filled with the trash collected at past surveys to give volunteers an idea of what to expect.

These new monitoring sites receive more recreational use than the previous ones, and at least for the one at Ocean Beach, a heavily used shoreline in the heart of San Francisco, that means finding a lot more consumer trash left on the beach.

From clothes and cigarette butts to food wrappers and even toilet paper, the surveys at Ocean Beach are markedly different from those surveys further north at Drakes Beach, the other new site. There, volunteers count and remove mostly small, hard fragments of plastic that appear worn down by sun and sea, indicating the majority of the debris there is brought to shore by the waves, not beachgoers.

Survey Says

Long blue piece of boat insulation sitting on a table.

A volunteer surveying a beach in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary found this piece of insulation from an elite sailboat that broke apart in San Francisco Bay in 2012. The debris took two months to travel to a shoreline 60 miles north. (NOAA)

After four years of monitoring and roughly 150 surveys, what have they found so far on the north-central California coast? More than 5,000 debris items recorded in all, which, as Bimrose said, is “a good amount but not too crazy.”

Expanding to six survey sites from four only increases what they can learn about debris patterns in this area. As more data roll in, NOAA will able to outline the regional scope of the problem and see patterns between seasons, years, categories, and locations of debris accumulation. One thing that is likely not to change, however, is that plastic debris dominates. It constitutes about 80 percent of the trash found at all sites.

While volunteers occasionally turn up debris bearing Asian characters, no items reported from this program have been confirmed from the 2011 Japan tsunami. Through other partners associated with beach cleanups however, three pieces of Japan tsunami debris have been confirmed in California. The most recent was a large green pallet with Kanji lettering that landed on Mussel Beach just south of San Francisco. The discovery reinforces the importance of continuing to monitor debris along sanctuary beaches and shows us how items can persist in the ocean for years before sinking, breaking up, or landing on shore.

Another unusual example linking a piece of debris to the exact event that released it occurred in 2012. During a training run for the America’ Cup sailing race, an $8 million boat capsized and broke apart in San Francisco Bay on October 16, 2012. Two months later, one of Bimrose’s volunteers discovered a piece of insulation from that boat on a beach about 60 miles north.

Every month, Bimrose tags along with at least one pair of volunteers for their survey of one of the four “survey-only” beach sites. On one such occasion, one volunteer, an older gentleman, brought along his wife, who was puzzled by her husband’s constant chatter about “his” beach. According to Bimrose, a lot of the surveys could be considered rather clean or even monotonous. But even so, after a day walking and counting with him, the volunteer’s wife told her, “I totally get it, why he comes out here and rearranges his schedule to do this.”

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To Bring Back Healthy California Ocean Ecosystems, NOAA and Partners Are “Planting” Long-Lost Abalone in the Sea

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Diver placing PVC tube with small sea snails on the rocky seafloor.

A diver places a PVC tube filled with young green abalone — sea snails raised in a lab — on the seafloor off the southern California coast. (NOAA)

They weren’t vegetables but an excited group of scuba divers was carefully “planting” green abalone in an undersea garden off the southern California coast all the same. Green abalone are a single-shelled species of sea snail whose population has dropped dramatically in recent decades.

On a Wednesday in mid-June, these oceanic “gardeners”—NOAA biologist David Witting and divers from The Bay Foundation—released over 700 young green abalone into newly restored kelp forest areas near Palos Verdes, California. This was the first time in over a decade that juvenile abalone have been “outplanted,” or transplanted from nursery facilities, to the wild in southern California. This ongoing project is a partnership between NOAA, The Bay Foundation, Redondo SEA Lab, The Nature Conservancy, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Spawned and reared at The SEA Lab in Redondo Beach, California, all of the juvenile abalone were between two and four years old and were between a quarter inch and 3 inches in size. Biologists painstakingly tagged each abalone with tiny identifying tags several weeks prior to their release into the wild.

Leading up to outplanting day, microbiologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had to run rigorous tests on a sample of the juvenile abalone to certify them as disease-free before they were placed into the ocean. Several days before transferring them, biologists placed the abalone in PVC tubes with netting on either end for easy transport.

“This was just a pilot outplanting with many more larger-scale efforts to come in the near future,” stated David Witting from NOAA’s Restoration Center. “We wanted to go through all of the steps necessary to successfully outplant abalone so that it would be second nature next time.”

Marine biologists from The Bay Foundation, along with Witting and other NOAA biologists, will be going out over the next six to twelve months to monitor the abalone—checking for survival rates and movement of the abalone. “We expect to find some abalone that didn’t survive the transfer to the wild but probably a good number of them will move into the cracks and crevices of rocky reef outcroppings immediately,” according to Witting.

Why Abalone?

PVC tube filled with green abalone lodged into the rocky seafloor.

After testing and refining the techniques to boost the population of green abalone in the wild, scientists then will apply them to help endangered white and black abalone species recover. (NOAA)

All seven abalone species found along the U.S. West Coast have declined and some have all but disappeared. White and black abalone, in particular, are listed as endangered through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Three abalone species (green, pinto, and pink) are listed as Species of Concern by NOAA Fisheries, a designation meant to protect the populations from declining further and which could result in an ESA listing. The two remaining abalone species, reds and flats, are protected and managed by states along the U.S. West Coast.

Historically, the main cause of abalone’s demise was a combination of overfishing and disease. Today, many other threats, such as poaching, climate change, oil spills, and habitat degradation, contribute to the decline of abalone and could impact the health of future populations.

The recent green abalone outplanting was one of the many steps needed to advance the recovery of all abalone species. Methods for rearing and outplanting are first being tested using green abalone because this species is more abundant in the wild. Once the methods are refined, they then will be employed to recover endangered white and black abalone—both species which are currently living on the brink of extinction.

What the Future Holds

A small green abalone eats red algae stuck to a plastic rack.

A young green abalone, reared in a lab in southern California, grazes on red algae. Raising these sea snails in a lab requires a lot of resources, prompting scientists to explore other approaches for boosting wild abalone populations. (Credit: Brenda Rees, with permission)

In particular, biologists are hoping to refine a technique they are coining “deck-spawning” as a way to outplant abalone in the future. Maintaining abalone broodstock and rearing them in a lab requires a lot of resources, funding, and time. This monumental effort has spurred biologists to develop an initially successful, alternate approach, which involves inducing mature, wild abalone to spawn on the deck of a boat.

The scientists then take the viable abalone larvae that develop and release them in a habitat where the young abalone are likely to settle and thrive. Immediately after spawning, the parent abalone can then be returned to the wild where they can continue to be a component of the functioning ocean ecosystem.

The green abalone outplanting project is part of a broader effort to restore abalone but is also playing an important role in work being led by The Bay Foundation with NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program to restore southern California’s kelp forests. In southern California, fish habitat has been harmed by decades of toxic pollution dumped into the marine environment. After clearing areas that would be prime kelp habitat if not for the unnaturally high densities of sick and stressed sea urchins, NOAA, The Bay Foundation, and our partners have seen kelp bounce back once given relief from those overly hungry urchins.

While abalone also eat seaweed, including kelp, they are a natural competitor of urchins in this environment and will help keep urchin populations in check, ultimately allowing a healthy kelp forest community to return.

Watch as divers transport the young abalone using PVC tubes and release them on the rocky seafloor off California’s coast:

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California, where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.

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From Natural Seeps to a Historic Legacy, What Sets Apart the Latest Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Cleanup worker and oiled boulders on Refugio State Beach where the oil from the pipeline entered the beach.

The pipeline release allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, shown here where the oil entered Refugio State Beach. (NOAA)

The response to the oil pipeline break on May 19, 2015 near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California, is winding down. Out of two* area beaches closed due to the oil spill, all but one, Refugio State Beach, have reopened.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided scientific support throughout the response, including aerial observations of the spill, information on fate and effects of the crude oil, oil detection and treatment, and potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore.

Now that the response to this oil spill is transitioning from cleanup to efforts to assess and quantify the environmental impacts, a look back shows that, while not a huge spill in terms of volume, the location and timing of the event make it stand out in several ways.

Seep or Spill: Where Did the Oil Come From?

This oil spill, which allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, occurred in an area known for its abundant natural oil seeps. The Coal Oil Point area is home to seeps that release an estimated 6,500-7,000 gallons of oil per day (Lorenson et al., 2011) and are among the most active in the world. Oil seeps are natural leaks of oil and gas from subterranean reservoirs through the ocean floor.

The pipeline spill released a much greater volume of oil than the daily output of the local seeps. Furthermore, because it was from a single source, the spill resulted in much heavier oiling along the coast than you would find from the seeps alone.

A primary challenge, for purposes of spill response and damage assessment, was to determine whether oil on the shoreline and nearby waters was from the seeps or the pipeline. Since the oil from the local natural seeps and the leaking pipeline both originated from the same geologic formation, their chemical makeup is similar.

However, chemists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab were able to distinguish the difference by examining special chemical markers through a process known as “fingerprinting.”

Respecting Native American Coastal Culture

The affected shorelines include some of the most important cultural resource areas for California Native Americans. Members of the Chumash Tribe populated many coastal villages in what is now Santa Barbara County prior to 1800. Many local residents of the area trace their ancestry to these communities.

To ensure that impacts to cultural resources were minimized, Tribal Cultural Resource Monitors were actively engaged in many of the upland and shoreline cleanup activities and decisions throughout the spill response.

Bringing Researchers into the Response

The massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 highlighted the need for further research on issues surrounding oil transport and spill response. As a result, there was a great deal of interest in this spill among members of the academic community, which is not always the case for oil spills. In addition, the spill occurred not far from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

From the perspective of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, this involvement with researchers was beneficial to the overall effort and will potentially serve to broaden our scientific resources and knowledge base for future spills.

The Legacy of 1969

Another unique aspect of the oil spill at Refugio State Beach was its proximity to the site of one of the most historically significant spills in U.S. history. Just over 46 years ago, off the coast of Santa Barbara, a well blowout occurred, spilling as much as 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The well was capped after 11 days.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which was covered widely in the media, oiled miles of southern California beaches as well. It had such a devastating impact on wildlife and habitat that it is credited with being the catalyst that started the modern-day environmental movement. Naturally, the 2015 oil spill near the same location serves as a reminder of that terrible event and the damage that spilled oil can do in a short period of time.

Moving Toward Restoration

In order to assess the environmental impacts from the spill and cleanup, scientists have collected several hundred samples of sediment, oil, water, fish, mussels, sand crabs, and other living things. In addition, they have conducted surveys of the marine life before and after the oil spill.

The assessment, which is being led by the state of California, involves marine ecology experts from several California universities as well as federal and state agencies.

After a thorough assessment of the spill’s harm, the focus will shift toward restoring the injured natural and cultural resources and compensating the public for the impacts to those resources and the loss of use and enjoyment of them as a result of the spill. This process, known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, is undertaken by a group of trustees, made up of federal and state agencies, in cooperation with the owner of the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline. This group of trustees will seek public input to help guide the development of a restoration plan.

*UPDATED 7/10/2015: This was corrected to reflect the fact that only two area beaches were closed due to the spill while 20 remained open in Santa Barbara.

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On the Front Lines of an Oil Spill in My Own Backyard: A Report from Santa Barbara, California

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Oiled boulders on a California beach with cleanup workers in the distance.

NOAA has been involved with the May 19, 2015 oil spill resulting from a pipeline break at Refugio State Beach, near Santa Barbara, California, which released an estimated 100,000 gallons of crude oil, with a reported 21,000 gallons reaching the ocean. (Bill Stanley/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

When I first heard about the pipeline oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, California, a couple weeks ago, I felt concerned about the fact that it was only a few hours up the coast from where I currently live and work. I couldn’t stop thinking about what the long-term impacts would be to the beautiful beaches we have here in southern California.

As a NOAA communications specialist who had cut her teeth in providing communications support for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I thought I knew roughly what to expect when I was called in to help in Santa Barbara.

When I was asked to provide support for that oil spill in July 2010, oil had been gushing into the ocean for several months and was washing up on beaches bordering five states far from my home in California. I was able to get out into the field in Louisiana to see firsthand what an oiled marsh looks like, but that was months after the spill began. In addition, the massive scale of the response and damage assessment efforts made it tough to grasp the full picture of the spill.

Still, it was important for me to see the impacts for myself, so that I could better tell the story about what happened and what NOAA and our partners were going to do to make it right.

From the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California

Fish being measured on a table.

After an oil spill, scientists collect lots of data on the potential impacts of the oil and response efforts to fish, birds, and wildlife. (NOAA)

This time, at Refugio State Beach, was different. I was stationed at a command center for those working to assess the environmental impacts of the spill only three days after a pipeline released up to 105,000 gallons of oil, with at least 21,000 gallons reaching the Pacific Ocean north of Santa Barbara.

From the start of this oil spill, I was able to see the inner workings of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and how complex and challenging this process can be for the scientists involved. Biologists, armed with notebooks and cameras, were diligently filling out paperwork and going over every painstaking detail of their data. Collecting good data is extremely important at this early stage because it will be used as evidence showing the oil spill’s potential impacts to wildlife and natural areas.

The next day I was asked to follow a team into the field to take photos of them collecting fish samples from one of the oil spill’s “hot zones.” At the stretch of Refugio State Beach where the majority of the oil cleanup activities were taking place, it was easy to be overwhelmed by the scene. There were a huge number of trucks, cars, buses, people in hard hats, reporters, and even an eating area with eight large tables set up under tents.

That day I was part of a team of nine people who would be sampling fish for oil contamination, with representatives from NOAA, the National Park Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and an environmental consulting firm representing Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the leaking pipeline. When we checked in with the on-site safety officer, he told us that we would need to wear Tyvek suits, booties taped around our calves, gloves, and hard hats.

Oil and Fish Don’t Mix

Out on the beach it was hard not to step in oil since it covered most of the cobble rocks lining the beach in a thick band. I watched as the team baited their hooks and cast their lines in the water. The fishing team spread out along the beach, making the job of running buckets of samples between those catching and processing the fish even more challenging.

Once I had finished taking photos, I began shuttling buckets of fish from the edge of the contaminated zone to a picnic table several yards away. There, two women were working hard to process the samples of fish that will later be analyzed for oil contaminants in a lab.

The team caught 18 barred surfperch in total, giving us a robust sample of the local population which might have been affected by the oil spill. It was a successful day of sampling, but at the same time, I found it difficult not to think about how all of that oil was going to be cleaned off of those rocks.

Working at the front line of the oil spill at Refugio State Beach was a unique experience for me, but it also feels a little too close to home. When I was responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I was stationed two hours away from the nearest coast and lived almost 2,000 miles away in California.

I found having an oil spill in your own backyard is much more personal and reminds me of how important it is to plan, train, and prepare for oil spills long before any oil hits the water.

For more information on the response to this oil spill, visit the Refugio Response Joint Information Center website.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California, where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.

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Transforming Dusty Fields into Vibrant Salt Marshes in San Francisco Bay

Vibrant marsh with lots of ducks and trucks on the highway in the background.

Just after the Cullinan Ranch restoration site was re-flooded, huge flocks of waterfowl began using the marsh, including Canvasback, Scaup, Northern Pintail, Mallards, and American Wigeon. (Ducks Unlimited)

What happens when you fill a dry, dusty 1,200 acre field at the northern edge of San Francisco Bay with tide waters unseen in that place for more than a century?

You get a marsh with a brand new lease on life.

In January 2015, this is exactly what took place at the salt marsh restoration site called Cullinan Ranch (known as that due to its history as a hay farm).

Check out the photos taken of the restoration site in November 2013, after the new boat ramp and wildlife viewing platform were built but before the levees holding back the bay were breached, and compare them with those taken in the same spot in January 2015, after the waters returned.

Brackish waters once again cover the low-lying area, long pushed down below sea level due to farming dating back to the 1880s. The presence of salt water has transformed this arid field into tidal wetland habitat, where birds, fish, and wildlife, such as the endangered Ridgway’s rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse, steelhead, Chinook salmon, and other fish can thrive.

According to Ducks Unlimited biologist Craig Garner, whose organization has been a key player in this site’s restoration, “When the ranch was newly flooded, we saw a tremendous response by waterfowl. Large numbers of birds were recorded using the area, particularly Canvasback,” a species of diving duck.

Could it be that Cullinan Ranch provides California wildlife with a new refuge from the current scarcity of freshwater habitats further inland? Garner suggests, “Though it is tough to gauge without waterfowl survey data, I would say that Cullinan Ranch could be offsetting the effects of drought conditions on diving duck habitat at all” levels of the tidal cycle.

Of course, people will also be able to enjoy this transformation occurring at Cullinan Ranch via the new recreational facilities. (Launching your boat into a dry field probably wouldn’t be much fun, after all.)

But it’s not just fun and games. People will benefit from this renewed salt marsh acting as a natural filter, increasing the quality of the water passing through it on the way to the bay and its fisheries, and as a sponge for moderating flooding during storms. The plant life growing in the marsh also serves to capture and hold excess carbon dioxide from the nearby urban areas. In addition, taking out the 19th-century levees holding out the bay’s tides reduces the chances of a catastrophic failure and cuts out the expense of maintaining poorly built levees.

Watch as the last satisfying scoops of the muddy barrier disappear and salty waters rush in:

Excavator removing a dirt levee and allowing tide waters to rush into a dry marsh.

Taking out the first levee at the Cullinan Ranch marsh restoration project in central California in January 2015. (NOAA)

Learn more about the efforts to restore this tidal wetland and another long-dry area known as Breuner Marsh. Both of these restoration projects were made possible with funding from a natural resource damage assessment settlement paid by Chevron to make up for years of dumping mercury and oil pollution from its Richmond, California, refinery into the shallow waters of nearby Castro Cove. NOAA partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to achieve the 2010 Chevron settlement and contribute to these two important restoration projects.

In the fall of 2014, Breuner Marsh also saw the return of its daily infusion of saltwater and is looking more and more like a natural salt marsh and less like the next site of urban development.

Aerial view of marsh with tide waters channeling across the shore.

An aerial view of the tide waters retaking their normal course at the restoration site Breuner Marsh on San Francisco Bay in the fall of 2014. (Castro Cove Natural Resource Damage Trustees)

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Restoration Efforts Hatch Hope for Endangered Seabirds on California’s Channel Islands

This is a post by Jennifer Boyce, biologist with NOAA’s Restoration Center and Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

Santa Barbara Island is a world apart. Only one square mile in area, it is the smallest island in the Channel Islands National Park, located off the coast of Southern California and lone dwelling place for some unique species of animals and plants.

The island has no land predators, which makes it a haven for seabirds. But human threats to seabirds, including industrial pollution and introduced species, have left their mark even on this haven. Seabird populations began dropping as pollution thinned their eggshells to the breaking point and exotic plants replaced their native nesting habitat.

So imagine the excitement when biologists recently discovered the first ever nests of the rare and threatened Scripps’s Murrelet among two areas restored on the island for their benefit.

A petite, black-and-white seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet also is threatened by predators introduced to its breeding colonies and by oil spills. While Santa Barbara Island has the largest colony of Scripps’s Murrelet in the United States, the State of California listed this bird as a threatened species [PDF] in 2004 and it currently is a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (under a previous name, Xantus’s Murrelet).

Hatching a Better Home

Close up of a murrelet chick's head.

This newly hatched chick was born at Landing Cove, a habitat restoration area on Santa Barbara Island. Its birth gives hope to a threatened species of seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet. (Andrew Yamagiwa, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

Each spring, murrelets lay one or two eggs in crevices and burrows beneath Santa Barbara Island’s native shrubs. They need the structure and cover provided by native plant communities to protect their nests. Unfortunately, the native shrubs on Santa Barbara Island have been decimated for decades by introduced grazers. Ranchers used to graze sheep on the island, inadvertently bringing non-native plants with them. These and other grazers allowed the non-native plants to proliferate and prevent the few remaining patches of native vegetation from recolonizing the island.

Since 2006, NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program has been restoring this habitat for murrelets and other seabirds on Santa Barbara Island, caring for the thousands of native plants they have placed along its dry slopes. Uncovering two nests in two different restoration plots this spring means the project has reached a major milestone.

The older of the two restoration plots where eggs were found, Landing Cove was first planted with native shrubs in December 2008. It can take several years for the shrubs to mature enough to become suitable seabird nesting habitat. One egg was discovered there—on Earth Day, of all days—under a large native shrub planted during restoration efforts. Then, just this week, biologists confirmed that this egg had in fact hatched into a healthy murrelet chick.

The second restored area, Beacon Hill, was planted more recently in 2012, giving biologists both a thrill and surprise to find a second murrelet nest under a native bush planted as part of the project. These nests are a testament to all of the hard work of scientists, restoration experts, and volunteers over the last ten years.

More Than One Way to Break an Egg

Funding to restore these threatened seabirds actually originates in events dating more than half a century earlier.

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of the pesticide DDT and the industrial chemicals known as PCBs were discharged into ocean waters off the southern California coast. Most of the DDT originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California.

DDT released into the ocean near California’s Palos Verdes shelf spread through the food chain, eventually reaching seabirds and causing thinning in their eggs laid on the Channel Islands. The eggshells became so thin that when the adults would sit on the eggs to warm them they would break.

In 2001, following a lengthy period of litigation, NOAA and other federal and state agencies reached a settlement with the responsible parties, establishing the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. The program is working to restore populations of these rare seabirds and their habitat in the Channel Islands.

Restoration Efforts Taking Flight

Adult murrelet with a chick.

Scripps’s Murrelets only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts. (Gaby Keeler, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

A member of the auk family (which includes Puffins), Scripps’s Murrelets take the term “seabird” to new limits. Murrelets spend almost their entire lives at sea, only coming to land to lay their eggs and hatch their young. Their chicks live up to being a seabird as well, spending only two days on the island before tumbling into the ocean to join their parents—leaving before they can even fly.

These small birds only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts.

One of the goals of the Santa Barbara Island restoration project is to remove the non-native plants at selected areas identified as high quality nesting habitat. Biologists are restoring these areas by then planting native species with the help of lots of volunteers.

This work is by no means easy. To date, over 30,000 plants have been put into the ground. All of the native plants in the project are grown from seed on the island, and growing a mature plant takes six to eight months. One of the challenges to growing these plants is that Santa Barbara is a desert island with no natural water source. All the water needed for raising the native plants must be transported by a National Park Service boat, and moved onto the island by crane in large 400 gallon tanks.

A permanent nursery, which employs water-saving techniques, was constructed on the island to reduce the amount of water that needs to be sent to the island. Recently a drip irrigation system also has been installed at the restoration sites and is greatly improving plant survivorship while reducing water needs.

The two nests found this spring are great signs that the restoration efforts are successful and helping to restore this endangered seabird and others to this unique island. We look forward to finding many more nests in the future. In the meantime, check out this video detailing our efforts to restore seabird habitat on Santa Barbara Island:

Jennifer BoyceJennifer Boyce works for the NOAA Restoration Center, based in Long Beach, California. Jennifer serves as the NOAA trustee on several oil spill restoration Trustee Councils throughout California and is the Program Manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

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Three and a Half Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Oil Spills

Lakeview oil gusher surrounded by sandbags.

The largest oil spill in the United States actually took place in 1910 in Kern county, California. The Lakeview #1 gusher is seen here, bordered by sandbags and derrick removed, after the well’s release had started to subside. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Like human-caused climate change and garbage in the ocean, oil spills seem to be another environmental plague of modern times. Or are they?

The human relationship with oil may be older than you think. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, that relationship may date back more than 13,000 years. Archaeologists have discovered a long history of Native Americans using oil from the area’s natural seeps, including the Yokut Indians creating dice-like game pieces out of walnut shells, asphalt, and abalone shells. At an archaeological site in Syria, the timeline extends back even further: bitumen oil was used to affix handles onto Middle Paleolithic flint tools dating to around 40,000 BC.

As history has a tendency to repeat itself, we can benefit from occasional glimpses back in time to place what is happening today into a context beyond our own fast-moving lives. When it comes to oil spills, you may be surprised to learn that this history goes far beyond—and is much more complicated than—simply the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spills.

Based on the research of NOAA oil spill biologist Gary Shigenaka, here we present three and a half things you probably didn’t know about the history of oil spills.

1. Oil spills have been happening for more than 150 years, but society has only recently started considering them “disasters.”

If you look back in time for historical accounts of oil spills, you may have a hard time finding early reports. When the first oil prospectors in Pennsylvania would hit oil and it almost inevitably gushed into the nearby soil and streams, people at the time saw this not as “environmental degradation” but as a natural consequence of the good fortune of finding oil. In an 1866 account of Pennsylvania’s oil-producing Venango County, this attitude of acceptance becomes apparent:

When the first wells were opened…there was little or no tankage ready to receive it, and the oil ran into the creek and flooded the land around the wells until it lay in small ponds.  Pits were dug in the ground to receive it, and dams constructed to secure it, yet withal the loss was very great…the river was flooded with oil, and hundreds of barrels were gathered from the surface as low down as Franklin, and prepared as lubricating oil.  Even below this point oil could be gathered in the eddies and still water along the shore, and was distinctly perceptible as far down as Pittsburgh, one hundred and forty miles below.

2. The largest oil spill in the United States didn’t take place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 but in the California desert a hundred years earlier.

But similar to the Deepwater Horizon, this oil spill also stemmed from a runaway oil well. In Maricopa, California, the people drilling Lakeview Well No. 1 lost control of the well, which would eventually spew approximately 378 million gallons of oil into the sandy soil around it. The spill lasted more than a year, from March 14, 1910 until September 10, 1911, and only ceased after the well collapsed on itself, leaving a crater in the desert surrounded by layers of oil the consistency of asphalt.

3. The Alaskan Arctic is not untouched by oil spills; the first one happened in 1944.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice. This ship likely caused the first major oil spill in Alaskan Arctic waters in August 1944. (U.S. Navy)

NOAA and many others are doing a lot of planning in case of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. But whatever may happen in the future, in August of 1944, Alaska Native Thomas P. Brower, Sr. witnessed what was likely the first oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. The U.S. Navy cargo ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington grounded on a sandbar near Barrow, Alaska. To lighten the ship enough to get off the sandbar, the crew apparently chose to release some of the oil it was carrying. In a 1978 interview, Brower describes the scene and its impacts on Arctic wildlife:

About 25,000 gallons of oil were deliberately spilled into the Beaufort Sea…the oil formed a mass several inches thick on top of the water. Both sides of the barrier islands in that area…became covered with oil.  That first year, I saw a solid mass of oil six to ten inches thick surrounding the islands.

…I observed how seals and birds who swam in the water would be blinded and suffocated by contact with the oil.  It took approximately four years for the oil to finally disappear. I have observed that the bowhead whale normally migrates close to these islands in the fall migration … But I observed that for four years after that oil spill, the whales made a wide detour out to sea from these islands.

And because the last point refers more to oil than oil spills, we’re counting it as item three and a half:

3½. The oil industry probably saved the whales.

Cartoon of whales throwing a ball with banners.

On April 20, 1861, this cartoon appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair in the United Kingdom. It hails the “Grand ball given by the whales in honor of the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania.” (Public Domain)

The drilling of the first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859 touched off the modern oil industry in the United States and beyond—and likely saved the populations of whales, particularly sperm whales, being hunted to near-extinction for their own oil, which was used for lighting and lubrication. The resulting boom in producing kerosene from petroleum delivered what would eventually be a lethal blow to the whaling industry, much to the whales’ delight.


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