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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After an Oil Spill, How—and Why—Do We Survey Affected Shorelines?

Four people walking along a beach.

A team of responders surveying the shoreline of Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on May 12, 2010. They use a systematic method for surveying and describing shorelines affected by oil spills, which was developed during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. (U.S. Navy)

This is part of the National Ocean Service’s efforts to celebrate our role in the surveys that inform our lives and protect our coasts.

In March of 1989, oil spill responders in Valdez, Alaska, had a problem. They had a very large oil spill on their hands after the tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound.

At the time, many aspects of the situation were unprecedented—including the amount of oil spilled and the level of response and cleanup required. Further complicating their efforts were the miles and miles of remote shoreline along Prince William Sound. How could responders know which shorelines were hardest hit by the oil and where they should focus their cleanup efforts? Plus, with so many people involved in the response, what one person might consider “light oiling” on a particular beach, another might consider “heavy oiling.” They needed a systematic way to document the oil spill’s impacts on the extensive shorelines of the sound.

Out of these needs ultimately came the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique, or SCAT. NOAA was a key player involved in developing this formal process for surveying coastal shorelines affected by oil spills. Today, we maintain the only SCAT program in the federal government although we have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help develop similar methods for oil spills on inland lakes and rivers.

Survey Says …

SCAT aims to describe both the oil and the environment along discrete stretches of shoreline potentially affected by an oil spill. Based on that information, responders then can determine the appropriate cleanup methods that will do the most good and the least harm for each section of shoreline.

The teams of trained responders performing SCAT surveys normally are composed of representatives from the state and federal government and the organization responsible for the spill. They head out into the field, armed with SCAT’s clear methodology for categorizing the level and kind of oiling on the shoreline. This includes standardized definitions for describing how thick the oil is, its level of weathering (physical or chemical change), and the type of shoreline impacted, which may be as different as a rocky shoreline, a saltwater marsh, or flooded low-lying tundra.

After carefully documenting these data along all possibly affected portions of shoreline, the teams make their recommendations for cleanup methods. In the process, they have to take a number of other factors into account, such as whether threatened or endangered species are present or if the shoreline is in a high public access area.

It is actually very easy to do more damage than good when cleaning up oiled shorelines. The cleanup itself—with lots of people, heavy equipment, and activity—can be just as or even more harmful to the environment than spilled oil. For sensitive areas, such as a marsh, taking no cleanup action is often the best option for protecting the stability of the fragile shoreline, even if some oil remains.

Data, Data Everywhere

Having a common language for describing shoreline oiling is a critical piece of the conversation during a spill response. Without this standard protocol, spill responders would be reinventing the wheel for each spill. Along that same vein, responders at NOAA are working with the U.S. EPA and State of California to establish a common data standard for the mounds of data collected during these shoreline surveys.

Managing all of that data and turning it into useful products for the response is a lot of work. During bigger spills, multiple data specialists work around the clock to process the data collected during SCAT surveys, perform quality assurance and control, and create informational products, such as maps showing where oil is located and its level of coverage on various types of shorelines.

Data management tools such as GPS trackers and georeferenced photographs help speed up that process, but the next step is moving from paper forms used by SCAT field teams to electronic tools that enable these teams to directly enter their data into the central database for that spill.

Our goal is to create a data framework that can be translated into any tool for any handheld electronic device. These guidelines would provide consistency across digital platforms, specifying exactly what data are being collected and in which structure and format. Furthermore, they would standardize which data are being shared into a spill’s central database, whether they come from a state government agency or the company that caused the spill. This effort feeds into the larger picture for managing data during oil spills and allows everyone working on that spill to understand, access, and work with the data collected, for a long time after the spill.

Currently, we are drafting these data standards for SCAT surveys and incorporating feedback from NOAA, EPA, and California. In the next year or two, we hope to offer these standards as official NOAA guidelines for gathering digital data during oiled shoreline surveys.

To learn more about how teams perform SCAT surveys, check out NOAA’s Shoreline Assessment Manual and Job Aid.


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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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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Winter 2015

Two people talking on a beach with a ferry in the background.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of February 23–27, 2015 at the NOAA Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, January 9, 2015, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, January 16, 2015, via email.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

Additional SOS courses will be held in 2015 in Houston, Texas, (April 27–May 1, 2015) and Seattle, Washington (date to be determined).

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Out of Sandy, Lessons in Helping Coastal Marshes Recover from Storms

Cleanup workers scoop oil out of an oiled marsh with containment boom around the edges.

After Sandy’s flooding led to an oil spill at a Motiva refinery, Motiva cleanup workers extract oil from Smith Creek, a waterway connected to the Arthur Kill, in Woodbridge, New Jersey, on November 5, 2012. (NOAA)

Boats capsized in a sea of grass. Tall trees and power lines toppled over. A dark ring of oil rimming marsh grasses. This was the scene greeting NOAA’s Simeon Hahn and Carl Alderson a few days after Sandy’s floodwaters had pulled back from New Jersey in the fall of 2012.

They were surveying the extent of an oil spill in Woodbridge Creek, which is home to a NOAA restoration project and feeds into the Arthur Kill, a waterway separating New Jersey from New York’s Staten Island. When the massive storm known as Sandy passed through the area, its flooding lifted up a large oil storage tank at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, New Jersey. After the floodwaters set the tank back down, it caused roughly 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel to leak into the creek and surrounding wetlands.

That day, the NOAA team was there with Motiva and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin what can be a long and litigious process of determining environmental impacts, damages, and required restoration—the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

In this case, however, not only did the group reach a cooperative agreement—in less than six months—on a restoration plan for the oiled wetlands, but at another wetland affected by Sandy, NOAA gained insight into designing restoration projects better able to withstand the next big storm.

Cleaning up the Mess After a Hurricane

Hurricanes and other large storms cause a surprising number of oil and hazardous chemical spills along the coast. After Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals leaking into coastal waters from damaged refineries, breached petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The ruptured tank at the Motiva Refinery was just one of several oil spills after the storm, but the approach in the wake of the spill is what set it apart from many other oil spills.

“Early on we decided that we would work together,” reflected Hahn, Regional Resource Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “There was a focus on doing the restoration rather than doing lengthy studies to quantify the injury.”

This approach was possible because Motiva agreed to pursue a cooperative Natural Resource Damage Assessment with New Jersey as the lead and with support from NOAA. This meant, for example, that up front, the company agreed to provide funding for assessing the environmental impacts and implementing the needed restoration, and agreed on and shared the data necessary to determine those impacts. This cooperative process resulted in a timely and cost-effective resolution, which allowed New Jersey and NOAA to transition to the restoration phase.

Reaching Restoration

Because of the early agreement with Motiva, NOAA and New Jersey DEP did not conduct exhaustive new studies detailing specific harm to these particular tidal wetlands. Instead, they turned to the wealth of data from the oil spill response and existing data from the Arthur Kill to make an accurate assessment of the oil’s impacts.

People driving small boats up a marshy river in winter.

A few days after the oil spill, Motiva’s contractors ferried the assessment team up Woodbridge Creek in New Jersey, looking for impacts from the oil. (NOAA)

From their shoreline, aerial, and boat surveys, they knew that the marsh itself had a bathtub ring of oil around the edge, affecting marsh grasses such as Spartina. No oiled wildlife turned up. However, the storm’s immediate impacts made it difficult to take water and sediment samples or directly examine potential effects to fish. Fortunately, the assessment team was able to use a lot of data from a nearby past oil spill and damage assessment in the Arthur Kill. In addition, they could rely on both general scientific research on oil spill toxicology and maps from the response team detailing the areas most heavily oiled.

Together, this created a picture of the environmental injuries the oil spill caused to Woodbridge Creek. Next, NOAA economists used the habitat equivalency analysis approach to calculate the amount of restoration needed to make up for these injuries: 1.23 acres of tidal wetlands. They then extrapolated how much it will cost to do this restoration based on seven restoration projects within a 50 mile radius, coming to $380,000 per acre. As a result, NOAA and New Jersey agreed that Motiva needed to provide $469,000 for saltwater marsh restoration and an additional $100,000 for monitoring, on top of Motiva’s cleanup costs for the spill itself.

To use this relatively small amount of money most efficiently, New Jersey DEP, as the lead agency, is planning to combine it with another, larger restoration project already in the works. While still negotiating which project that will be, the team has been eyeing a high-profile, 80-acre marsh restoration project practically in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile, the monitoring project will take place upstream from the site of the Motiva oil spill at the 67-acre Woodbridge Creek Marsh, which received light to moderate oiling. NOAA already has data on the state of the animals and plants at this previously established restoration site, which will provide a rare comparison for before and after the oil spill.

Creating More Resilient Coasts

A storm as damaging as Sandy highlights the need for restoring wetlands. These natural buffers offer protection for human infrastructure, absorbing storm surge and shielding shorelines from wind and waves. Yet natural resource managers are still learning how to replicate nature’s designs, especially in urban areas where river channels often have been straightened and adjoining wetlands filled and replaced with shorelines armored by concrete riprap.

To the south in Philadelphia, Sandy contributed to significant erosion at a restored tidal marsh and shoreline at Lardner’s Point Park, located on the Delaware River. This storm revealed that shoreline restoration techniques which dampen wave energy before it hits the shore would help protect restored habitat and reduce erosion and scouring.

Out of this destructive storm, NOAA and our partners are trying to learn as much as possible—both about how to reach the restoration phase even more efficiently and how to make those restoration projects even more resilient. The wide range of coastal threats is not going away, but we at NOAA can help our communities and environment bounce back when they do show up on our shores.

Learn more about coastal resilience and how NOAA’s Ocean Service is helping our coasts and communities bounce back after storms, floods, and other disasters and follow #NOAAResilience on social media.


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Protecting, Restoring, and Celebrating Estuaries—Where Salt and Freshwater Meet

Collage: lighthouse, kids viewing wildlife, heron, canoe in water, flowers, and meandering wetlands.

Estuaries are ecosystems along the oceans or Great Lakes where freshwater and saltwater mix to create wetlands, bays, lagoons, sounds, or sloughs. (NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves)

As the light, fresh waters of rivers rush into the salty waters of the sea, some incredible things can happen. As these two types of waters meet and mix, creating habitats known as estuaries, they also circulate nutrients, sediments, and oxygen. This mixing creates fertile waters for an array of life, from mangroves and salt-tolerant marsh grasses to oysters, salmon, and migrating birds. These productive areas also attract humans, who bring fishing, industry, and shipping along with them.

All of this activity along estuaries means they are often the site of oil spills and chemical releases. We at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration often find ourselves working in estuaries, trying to minimize the impacts of oil spills and hazardous waste sites on these important habitats.

A Time to Celebrate Where Rivers Meet the Sea

September 20–27, 2014 is National Estuaries Week. This year 11 states and the District of Columbia have published a proclamation recognizing the importance of estuaries. To celebrate these critical habitats, Restore America’s Estuaries member organizations, NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and EPA’s National Estuary Program are organizing special events such as beach cleanups, hikes, canoe and kayak trips, cruises, and workshops across the nation. Find an Estuary Week event near you.

You and your family and friends can take a personal stake in looking out for the health and well-being of estuaries by doing these simple things to protect these fragile ecosystems.

How We Are Protecting and Restoring Estuaries

You may be scratching your head wondering whether you know of any estuaries, but you don’t need to go far to find some famous estuaries. The Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay are on the east coast, the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico, and San Francisco Bay and Washington’s Puget Sound represent some notable estuarine ecosystems on the west coast. Take a closer look at some of our work on marine pollution in these important estuaries.

Chesapeake Bay: NOAA has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense on cleaning up and restoring a number of contaminated military facilities around the Chesapeake Bay. Because these Superfund sites are on federal property, we have to take a slightly different approach than usual and are trying to work restoration principles into the cleanup process as early as possible.

Delaware Bay: Our office has responded to a number of oil spills in and adjacent to Delaware Bay, including the Athos oil spill on the Delaware River in 2004. As a result, we are working on implementing several restoration projects around the Delaware Bay, which range from creating oyster reefs to restoring marshes, meadows, and grasslands.

Puget Sound: For Commencement Bay, many of the waterways leading into it—which provide habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish—have been polluted by industrial and commercial activities in this harbor for Tacoma, Washington. NOAA and other federal, state, and tribal partners have been working for decades to address the contamination and restore damaged habitat, which involves taking an innovative approach to maintaining restoration sites in the Bay.

Further north in Puget Sound, NOAA and our partners have worked with the airplane manufacturer Boeing to restore habitat for fish, shorebirds, and wildlife harmed by historical industrial activities on the Lower Duwamish River, a heavily used urban river in Seattle. Young Puget Sound Chinook salmon and Steelhead have to spend time in this part of the river, which is a Superfund Site, as they transition from the river’s freshwater to the saltwater of the Puget Sound. Creating more welcoming habitat for these fish gives them places to find food and escape from predators.

San Francisco Bay: In 2007 the M/V Cosco Busan crashed into the Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into California’s San Francisco Bay. Our response staff conducted aerial surveys of the oil, modeled the path of the spill, and assessed the impacts to the shoreline. Working with our partners, we also evaluated the impacts to fish, wildlife, and habitats, and determined the amount of restoration needed to make up for the oil spill. Today we are using special buoys to plant eelgrass in the Bay as one of the spill’s restoration projects


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10 Unexpected Reasons to Join This Year’s International Coastal Cleanup

Volunteers in a boat use nets to remove debris from waters in Honolulu.

Volunteers collect debris from the water during the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup in Honolulu, Hawaii. (NOAA)

There are plenty of obvious reasons to join the more than half a million other volunteers picking up trash during this year’s International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 20, 2014. Keeping our beaches clean and beautiful. Preventing sea turtles and other marine life from eating plastic. Not adding to the size of the garbage patches.

But just in case you’re looking for a few less obvious incentives, here are 10 more reasons to sign up to cleanup.

Weird finds from the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

Weird finds from the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

After this one day of cleaning up trash on beaches across the world, you could:

  1. Furnish a studio apartment (fridge, TV, complete bed set? Check).
  2. Get ready for an upcoming wedding with the wedding dress and veil, top hat, and bowties that have turned up in the past.
  3. Outfit a baby (including clothes, bottles, high chairs, and baby monitor).
  4. Find your lost cell phone.
  5. Adopt a cyborg sea-kitty.
  6. Make friends with the 200,000+ others participating in the United States.
  7. Get some exercise (and fresh air). In 2013, U.S. volunteers cleaned up 8,322 miles of shoreline.
  8. Create a massive marine debris mosaic mural with the nearly 2.3 million, less-than-an-inch long pieces of plastic, foam, and glass found on beaches worldwide.
  9. Stock up the entire United States with enough fireworks to celebrate Fourth of July (and then organize a Fifth of July cleanup).
  10. Help you and your neighbors benefit millions of dollars by keeping your local beaches spic-and-span.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the International Coastal Cleanup and we’ll be right there pitching in too. Last year NOAA volunteers across the nation helped clean up more than 1,000 pounds of debris from our Great Lakes, ocean, and waterways in Washington, D.C.; Alabama; Washington; Oregon; California; and Hawaii.

Join us on Saturday, September 20 from 9:00 a.m. to noon and help keep our seas free of trash with any one (or all) of these 10 easy steps:

10 things you can do for trash-free seas. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

10 things you can do for trash-free seas. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

You can find more trashy facts in the Ocean Conservancy’s 2014 Ocean Trash Index.


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Diving for Debris: Washington’s Success Story in Fishing Nets out of the Ocean

The scale of the challenges facing the ocean—such as overfishing, pollution, and acidification—is enormous, and their solutions, achievable but complex. That is why the impressive progress in cleaning up a major problem in one area—Washington’s Puget Sound—can be so satisfying. Get a behind-the-scenes look at this inspiring progress in a new video from NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant on the Northwest Straits Foundation net removal project.

For over a decade, the Northwest Straits Foundation, supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies, and many others, has been removing lost and abandoned fishing nets from the inland ocean waters of Puget Sound.

A problem largely invisible to most of us, these fishing nets are a legacy of extensive salmon fishing in the Puget Sound which is now much diminished. Lost during fishing operations, the nets are now suspended in the water column or settled on the seafloor, where they snare dozens of marine species, including marine birds and mammals, and degrade the ocean habitat where they were lost. Made of plastic, these nets do not degrade significantly and continue to catch and kill animals indiscriminately for many years.

Man on a boat removing derelict nets from Puget Sound.

Removing derelict nets south of Pt. Roberts in Washington’s Puget Sound. (NOAA)

However, with the help of highly skilled divers, the foundation has removed over 4,700 of these lost nets from Puget Sound. They estimate there are fewer than 900 left in the area and, working with local commercial fishers, have a good handle on the small number of nets currently lost each year.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has collaborated on or funded over 200 projects to research, prevent, and remove marine debris from waters around the United States. You can learn more about our other projects, such as the Fishing for Energy program, at clearinghouse.marinedebris.noaa.gov.

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