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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NOAA Scientist Helps Make Mapping Vital Seagrass Habitat Easier and More Accurate

Shoal grass seagrass on a sandy ocean floor.

Seagrass beds serve as important habitat for a variety of marine life, and understanding their growth patterns better can help fisheries management and restoration efforts. (NOAA)

Amy Uhrin was sensing a challenge ahead of her. As a NOAA scientist working on her PhD, she was studying the way seagrasses grow in different patterns along the coast, and she knew that these underwater plants don’t always create lush, unbroken lawns beneath the water’s surface.

Where she was working, off the North Carolina coast near the Outer Banks, things like the churning motion of waves and the speed of tides can cause seagrass beds to grow in patchy formations. Clusters of bigger patches of seagrass here, some clusters of smaller patches over there. Round patches here, elongated patches over there.

Uhrin wanted to be able to look at aerial images showing large swaths of seagrass habitat and measure how much was actually seagrass, rather than bare sand on the bottom of the estuary. Unfortunately, traditional methods for doing this were tedious and tended to produce rather rough estimates. These involved viewing high-resolution aerial photographs, taken from fixed-wing planes, on a computer monitor and having a person digitally draw lines around the approximate edges of seagrass beds.

While that can be fairly accurate for continuous seagrass beds, it becomes more problematic for areas with lots of small patches of seagrass included inside a single boundary. For the patchy seagrass beds Uhrin was interested in, these visual methods tended to overestimate the actual area of seagrass by 70% to more than 1,500%. There had to be a better way.

Seeing the Light

Patches of seagrass beds of different sizes visible from the air.

Due to local environmental conditions, some coastal areas are more likely to produce patchy patterns in seagrass, rather than large beds with continuous cover. (NOAA)

At the time, Uhrin was taking a class on remote sensing technology, which uses airborne—or, in the case of satellites, space-borne—sensors to gather information about the Earth’s surface (including information about oil spills). She knew that the imagery gathered from satellites (i.e. Landsat) is usually not at a fine enough resolution to view the details of the seagrass beds she was studying. Each pixel on Landsat images is 30 meters by 30 meters, while the aerial photography gathered from low-flying planes often delivered resolution of less than a meter (a little over three feet).

Uhrin wondered if she could apply to the aerial photographs some of the semi-automated classification tools from imagery visualization and analysis programs which are typically used with satellite imagery. She decided to give it a try.

First, she obtained aerial photographs taken of six sites in the shallow coastal waters of North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary System. Using a GIS program, she drew boundaries (called “polygons”) around groups of seagrass patches to the best of her ability but in the usual fashion, which includes a lot of unvegetated seabed interspersed among seagrass patches.

Six aerial photographs of seagrass habitat off the North Carolina coast, with yellow boundary lines drawn around general areas of seagrass habitat.

Aerial photographs show varying patterns of seagrass growth at six study sites off the North Carolina coast. The yellow line shows the digitally drawn boundaries around seagrass and how much of that area is unvegetated for patchy seagrass habitat. (North Carolina Department of Transportation)

Next, Uhrin isolated those polygons of seagrass beds and deleted everything else in each image except the polygon. This created a smaller, easier-to-scan area for the imagery visualization program to analyze. Then, she “trained” the program to recognize what was seagrass vs. sand, based on spectral information available in the aerial photographs.

Though limited compared to what is available from satellite sensors, aerial photographs contain red, blue, and green wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum. Because plants absorb red and blue light and reflect green light (giving them their characteristic green appearance), Uhrin could train the computer program to classify as seagrass the patches where green light was reflected.

Classify in the Sky

Amy Uhrin stands in shallow water documenting data about seagrass inside a square frame of PVC pipe.

NOAA scientist Amy Uhrin found a more accurate and efficient approach to measuring how much area was actually seagrass, rather than bare sand, in aerial images of coastal North Carolina. (NOAA)

To Uhrin’s excitement, the technique worked well, allowing her to accurately identify and map smaller patches of seagrass and export those maps to another computer program where she could precisely measure the distance between patches and determine the size, number, and orientation of seagrass patches in a given area.

“This now allows you to calculate how much of the polygon is actually seagrass vegetation,” said Uhrin, “which is good for fisheries management.” The young of many commercially important species, such as blue crabs, clams, and flounder, live in seagrass beds and actively use the plants. Young scallops, for example, cling to the blades of seagrass before sliding off and burrowing into the sediment as adults.

In addition, being able to better characterize the patterns of seagrass habitat could come in handy during coastal restoration planning and assessment. Due to local environmental conditions, some areas are more likely to produce patchy patterns in seagrass. As a result, efforts to restore seagrass habitat should aim for restoring not just cover but also the original spatial arrangement of the beds.

And, as Uhrin noted, having this information can “help address seagrass resilience in future climate change scenarios and altered hurricane regimes, as patchy seagrass areas are known to be more susceptible to storms than continuous meadows.”

The results of this study, which was done in concert with a colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have been published in the journal Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science.


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Kelp Forest Restoration Project Begins off Southern California Coast

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

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

After 15 years of scientific monitoring, research, and planning, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation (SMBRF), with funding and technical assistance from NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP), begins a large-scale kelp forest restoration project [PDF] off the coast of California’s Palos Verdes peninsula this July. SMBRF will bring kelp forests back to life in an area that has experienced a 75% loss of kelp canopy.

Nearly 100 acres of reef habitat along the Palos Verdes coast is covered by “urchin barrens,” where the densities of urchins are extremely high and kelp plants are non-existent. Sea urchins are spiny marine invertebrates that live on rocky reef substrates and feed mostly on algae. When sea urchin populations are kept stable, they are an important part of a healthy kelp forest ecosystem.

On the other hand, in an “urchin barren,” urchin densities get very high because predators rarely feed on urchins, preferring the greater cover and higher productivity of healthy kelp forests. The urchins in barrens are also in a constant state of starvation, continually expanding the barren area by eating every newly settled kelp plant before the kelp has a chance to grow. These urchins are of no value to fishermen and urchin predators because they are undernourished, small, and often diseased.

See what an urchin barren looks like:

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species.

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species. (NOAA/David Witting)

To bring back the kelp forests, volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups will assist SMBRF with removing urchins from the “urchin barrens” and allow for natural settlement of kelp plants. Divers’ removal of the urchins will allow for kelp plants to grow and mature, which can happen quickly since the plants often grow up to two feet per day.

Within a year, SMBRF expects that many of the characteristics of a mature kelp forest will return, including providing suitable fish habitat for important commercial and recreational fish species. The mature kelp forest will support greater numbers of urchin predators, such as birds, fish, crabs, lobsters, octopuses, sea stars, and sea otters, which will help to maintain more sustainable levels of urchin populations in the future.

NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program is providing funding for this project as part of its plan to restore fish habitat in southern California. MSRP was developed in 2001 following a case settlement against polluters that released the toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals DDTs and PCBs into the southern California marine environment. MSRP has allocated settlement funds to restore natural resources that were harmed by these chemicals, including impacts to fish habitat due to their presence in ocean sediments.

Learn more about the kelp forest restoration project [PDF], including details about how and where it will happen.

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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Small Boat Confirmed as First Japan Tsunami Debris to Reach California

Examining the Japanese skiff that washed up near Crescent City, Calif., on April 7, 2013. This is the first verified item from the Japan tsunami to appear in California. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

Examining the Japanese skiff that washed up near Crescent City, Calif., on April 7, 2013. This is the first verified item from the Japan tsunami to appear in California. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

The Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco has confirmed to NOAA that a 20-foot-long skiff found near Crescent City, Calif., is the first verified piece of Japan tsunami debris to turn up in California. Crescent City, a coastal town surrounded by redwoods, is only a twenty-mile drive from Oregon down the iconic, coastal Highway 101.

Once the skiff was found, the U.S. Coast Guard and the local sheriff’s office worked quickly to remove it from the shoreline. Help translating the Japanese writing on it came from further down the coast, from staff at California’s Humboldt State University. They traced the skiff to Takata High School, located in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, an area devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. A teacher from the school reportedly identified the vessel as belonging to them, which the Japanese Consulate has now confirmed.

A close up of the boat's hull reveals the many small gooseneck barnacles, a common open-ocean species. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

A close up of the boat’s hull reveals the many small gooseneck barnacles, a common open-ocean species. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

To date, 26 other marine debris items with a confirmed connection to the 2011 tsunami have washed up in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada’s British Columbia.

And like so many of them, the small, flat-bottomed boat that washed up in California was thick with gooseneck barnacles, a common and widespread filter feeder that attaches itself to floating objects in the open ocean. While unusual-looking, these barnacles are not invasive and have a fascinating historical myth purporting that a type of goose developed from gooseneck barnacles because they had similar colors and shapes (a typical-if-faulty basis for classifying life in earlier eras).

However, the influx of sea creatures aboard tsunami marine debris also brings the concern that aquatic species hitching a ride to North America may make themselves at home, possibly to the detriment of marine life and commerce communities here in the United States.

A submerged compartment in the back of the Japanese boat that washed up in Long Beach, Wash., provided a refuge for five striped beakfish. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

A submerged compartment in the back of the Japanese boat that washed up in Long Beach, Wash., provided a refuge for five striped beakfish. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

This issue was highlighted in the unusual case of another small Japanese boat lost in the 2011 tsunami. The Sai-shou-maru came ashore near Long Beach, Wash., on March 22, 2013, but the inside of it looked like a miniature aquarium. Five live fish were swimming about in a submerged compartment at the back of the boat. They were striped beakfish, a species native to coral reefs mainly in Japanese waters, sometimes found in Hawaii, but certainly not in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest coast.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology website, “Besides the five striped beakfish found in the open well of the boat when it washed ashore, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates 30 to 50 species of plants and animals were also on the Sai-shou-maru – including potential invasive species. State officials quickly removed the Sai-shou-maru from the beach and collected samples of potential invasive species including the fish, algae, anemones, crabs, marine worms and shellfish.”

However, most of the species arriving on marine debris are not invasive—even if they are hitchhikers.

Keep up with NOAA’s latest efforts surrounding the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/faqs.html.


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For Submerged Oil Pollution in Western Gulf of Mexico, Restoration Is Coming After 2005 DBL 152 Oil Spill

By Sandra Arismendez, Regional Resource Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

Imagine trying to describe the state of 45,000 acres of habitat on the ocean bottom—an area the size of over 34,000 football fields. And you have to do it without four of your five senses. You can’t touch it. You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it. You can’t hear it. Sometimes you can barely see a few inches in front of your scuba mask as you swim 60 feet below the surface in the murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But that was the task NOAA scientists faced seven years ago in the wake of a large offshore oil spill in the western Gulf of Mexico.

The DBL 152, shown here on November 13, 2005 shortly before capsizing, ended up discharging nearly 2 million gallons of a thick slurry oil, which sank to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX)

The DBL 152, shown here on November 13, 2005 shortly before capsizing, ended up discharging nearly 2 million gallons of a thick slurry oil, which sank to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX)

An Oily-Fated Journey

The oil was released from tank barge (T/B) DBL 152 as it was traveling from Houston, Texas, to Tampa, Fla., in November 2005.  While in transit, the barge struck the submerged remains of a pipeline service platform that collapsed a few months earlier during Hurricane Rita. The double-hulled barge was carrying approximately 5 million gallons of slurry oil, a type of oil denser than seawater, which meant as the thick oil poured out of the barge, it sank to the seafloor.

Heavy chains dragged absorbent material along the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico in order to detect submerged oil. (ENTRIX, 11/19/2005)

Heavy chains dragged absorbent material along the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico in order to detect submerged oil. (ENTRIX, 11/19/2005)

Eventually, the barge’s tug was able to tow it toward shore, hoping to ground and stabilize it in shallower waters. However, the barge grounded unexpectedly 30 miles from shore, releasing more oil and eventually capsizing. Approximately 1.9 million gallons of oil drained into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To find, track, and clean up the oil in these cloudy waters, oil spill responders used information from divers, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and oil trajectory models. Executing this process over such a large area of the seafloor took more than a year. While divers were able to recover an estimated 98,910 gallons of oil, some 1.8 million gallons more remained unrecovered.

NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) provides the unique scientific and technical expertise to assess and restore natural resources injured by oil spills like the DBL 152 incident as well as releases of hazardous substances and vessel groundings.  For more than 20 years, DARRP has worked cooperatively with other federal, tribal, and state co-trustees and responsible parties to assess the injuries and reverse the effects of contamination to our marine resources, including fish, marine mammals, wetlands, reefs, and other ocean and coastal habitats.

Oil Spill Sentinels in the Open Sea

So what happened to the other 1.8 million gallons of oil which were not feasible to clean up? Initially, the oil sank to the ocean bottom, creating a “footprint” of the impacted area.

Crab pot sentinels used to detect submerged oil on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX, Dec. 3, 2005)

Crab pot sentinels used to detect submerged oil on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX, Dec. 3, 2005)

Immediately following the spill, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, Texas state trustees, and the responsible party worked together to assess impacts to natural resources and habitats affected by the spill. Scientists collected and analyzed oil samples, bottom-dwelling animals living in the sediments, and samples of sediments and water taken in the oiled areas. In particular, creatures on the seafloor were at risk of being smothered or contaminated by the dense oil as it sank to the bottom.

As you might expect, assessing injuries to an area of the open ocean covering 34,000 football fields is no easy task, especially considering how difficult it is to detect the oily culprit itself. Because we couldn’t always see the submerged oil over such a large area, oil-absorbing pads were dragged systematically across miles of ocean to locate patches of oil. Underwater sorbent “sentinels,” oil-absorbing tools used to detect oil, also were placed and monitored strategically in the predicted path of the spilled oil to tell us if the footprint of the remaining oil at the ocean bottom was relatively stationary, and if not, in what general direction it was moving. Monitoring revealed the oiled area was moving and dissipating over time as it weathered due to exposure to physical forces such as currents.

The environmental assessment showed that fish and organisms living on or near the ocean floor (such as worms, clams, and crabs) were injured by the oil that sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. That submerged oil impacted approximately 45,000 acres of ocean floor. However, much of this area recovered over time as the oil naturally dissipated and weathering broke it up.

A Path Forward

Submerged oil from Tank Barge DBL 152 on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (EXTRIX, December 2005)

Submerged oil from Tank Barge DBL 152 on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (EXTRIX, December 2005)

In March 2013, NOAA released the Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan [PDF] for the DBL 152 incident, which demonstrates that restoration is possible for this oil spill. The plan outlines injuries to natural resources and proposes a restoration project to implement estuarine shoreline protection and salt marsh creation at the Texas Chenier Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Galveston Bay, Texas. The preferred shoreline protection and marsh restoration project proposed in the draft plan is designed to replenish the natural resources lost due to the oiling during the period both when they were injured and while they recovered.

Public comments can be submitted through April 15, 2013 by mailing written comments to: 

NOAA, Office of General Counsel, Natural Resources Section
Attn: Chris Plaisted
501 W. Ocean Blvd., Suite 4470
Long Beach, CA 90802

Or submitting comments electronically at www.regulations.gov (Docket I.D.:  NOAA-NMFS-2013-0034).

Following the close of the public comment period, NOAA will consider any comments and release a Final Restoration Plan. This comment period is the last step before restoration projects are selected and funding is sought from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for implementation.

Since the party responsible for the oil spill reached its legal limit of liability and is not obligated to pay further liabilities by law, NOAA will submit a claim to the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC), administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, to cover the cost of enacting the needed environmental restoration. The Pollution Funds Center serves as a safety net to help cover the costs of reclaiming our nation’s invaluable natural resources following these types of events.

Sandra Arismendez

Sandra Arismendez

Sandra Arismendez is a coastal ecologist and Regional Resource Coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.


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Japan Confirms Dock on Washington Coast Is Tsunami Marine Debris

A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012.

January 3, 2013 — A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate and reduce the spread of possible marine invasive species on the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

The Japanese Consulate has confirmed that a 65-foot, concrete-and-foam dock that washed ashore in Washington’s Olympic National Park in late December 2012 is in fact one of three* docks from the fishing port of Misawa, Japan. These docks were swept out to sea during the earthquake and tsunami off of Japan in March 2011, and this is the second dock to be located. The first dock appeared on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June 2012.

Using our trajectory forecast model, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration helped predict the approximate location of the dock after an initial sighting reported it to be floating somewhere off of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. When the dock finally came aground, it ended up both inside the bounds of NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park.

Japanese tsunami dock located on beach within Olympic National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

In order to minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies are moving forward with plans to remove the dock. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock is also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, representatives from Olympic National Park, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Sea Grant Program have ventured out to the dock by land several times to examine, take samples, and clean the large structure.

Initial results from laboratory testing have identified 30-50 plant and animal species on the dock that are native to Japan but not the United States, including species of algae, seaweed, mussels, and barnacles.

In addition to scraping more than 400 pounds of organic material from the dock, the team washed its heavy side bumpers and the entire exterior structure with a diluted bleach solution to further decontaminate it, a method approved by the National Park Service and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Government representatives are examining possible options for removing the 185-ton dock from this remote and ecologically diverse coastal area.

Look for more information and updates on Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.

*[UPDATE 4/5/2013: This story originally stated that four docks were missing from Misawa, Japan and that “the first dock was recovered shortly afterward on a nearby Japanese island.” We now know only three docks were swept from Misawa in the 2011 tsunami and none of them were found on a Japanese island. This dock has now been removed from the Washington coast.]


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Eyes in the Sky to Boots on the Ground: Three Powerful Tools for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers. The Internet. Remote sensing. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been using all three to deal with the environmental aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At Restore America’s Estuaries’ recent conference on coastal restoration [PDF], three of my colleagues showed how each of these elements has become a tool to boost restoration efforts in the Gulf.

Managing Data

OR&R scientist George Graettinger explained how responders can use remote sensing technology to assess damage after a major polluting event, such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill. He has helped develop tools that allow both Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists and responders to visualize and manage the onslaught of data flooding in during an environmental disaster and turn that into useful information for restoration.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

The principle tool for this work is OR&R’s ERMA, an online mapping platform for gathering and displaying environmental and response data. During the Deepwater Horizon response, ERMA pulled in remote sensing data from several sources, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • MODIS and MERIS, NASA satellite instruments which each day captured Gulf-wide oceanic and atmospheric data and photos during the Deepwater Horizon response. While very effective in the open ocean, these sensors do not perform well in coastal waters [PDF].
  • AVIRIS, another NASA sensor which took high-resolution infrared imagery from a plane to estimate the amount of oil on the water surface. Its disadvantages included being able to cover only a small area and being limited by weather conditions.
  • SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), a satellite radar technology with super-fine spatial resolution. This technology actually transitioned from experimental to operational during the 2010 oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. While very effective at “seeing” through cloud cover to detect ocean features, SAR does not allow easy differentiation between thinner and thicker layers of oil on the water surface.

Managing People

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities.

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities. (NOAA)

“If you spill it, they will come,” declared Tom Brosnan, scientist and communications manager for our Assessment and Restoration Division, at his presentation. “They” were the hordes of volunteers offering their eager help after the 2010 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest oil spill in U.S. waters.

Brosnan outlined some of the many challenges of using volunteers productively during an oil spill: legal liability, safety, technical training, logistics, reliability. The National Response Team, a federal interagency group coordinating emergency spill response, has taken a strategic approach to these challenges by creating guidelines for incorporating volunteers into response activities [PDF].

Brosnan also pointed out other great opportunities for harnessing the energy of concerned citizens for environmental restoration. One example was partnering with Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, Wash. This is a community group soliciting and overseeing volunteer efforts to maintain already completed restoration projects making up for the decades of industrial pollution around Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.

Managing Communications

And no less important, explained NOAA communications specialist Tim Zink, is keeping people engaged after an oil spill is out of the public eye. For the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, this has been a challenge particularly during the environmental damage assessment process. Zink described the difficulties of continuing to communicate effectively after initial interest from the media has diminished, of many different government trustee organizations trying to speak with one unified voice, and of the need for communication with the public to be framed carefully within the legal and cooperative aspects of the case.

He cited something as simple as a well-run online presence: the Gulf Spill Restoration website. This is a joint effort representing no fewer than three federal government departments (Commerce, State, and Interior) and five state governments. Well-organized and user-friendly, this website serves as a one-stop source of information about the ongoing effort to evaluate and restore environmental injuries in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill.

Among the closing speakers at the conference, Dr. Dawn Wright, chief scientist at GIS software company Esri, reinforced the importance of communicating “inspired science” to policymakers, communities, and other stakeholders throughout the restoration process. As a GIS specialist, she spoke to the many types of sophisticated spatial analysis that are available to anyone with a smartphone. The average person now has unprecedented access to geographic data on earthquakes, flu epidemics, and sea level changes. However, it is up to us to decide how we use these data-rich maps—and other tools—to understand and tell the story of environmental restoration.


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NOAA at the Jersey Shore

Lifeguards prepare for another day of keeping swimmers safe.

Lifeguards prepare for another day of keeping swimmers safe on Brigantine. (NOAA)

Imagine your first trip to the ocean: walking along a sandy beach, listening to the sounds of waves and shorebirds, appreciating the smell of salt in the wind.  I was surprised to read recently that beaches only gained popularity as places to relax and enjoy during the past century. Before that, according to author John Gillis, the coast was associated with ship wrecks, danger, and the hard labor accompanying fishing and maritime industry. This trend changed when beaches became more accessible, and people began to see the shore as a refuge and even “sanctuary.”

My family vacationing on Brigantine in the 1960s.

My family vacationing on Brigantine in the 1960s. (Vicki Loe)

I still return to the same beach in Brigantine, New Jersey, which I visited every year as a child. I am happy to say that, in spite of the increased residential development of that island, it seems not much has changed since I started vacationing there in the 1960s. However, the future of our beaches is uncertain when faced with threats such as climate change and sea level rise, severe hurricanes, overdevelopment, oil spills, and marine debris.

With all of this in mind during my annual visit there last week, I looked at the Jersey shore with new eyes. I realized how appreciative I am of the work that NOAA and other organizations do to preserve our beaches so that future generations can continue to enjoy them the way I have been able to.

A little girl takes tentative steps into the surf while holding on to mom's hand.

A little girl takes tentative steps into the surf while holding on to mom’s hand. (NOAA)

Brigantine is only one of the many small ocean communities that generations of Americans look forward to visiting along our coasts each year. It is a barrier island just north of Atlantic City. Settled in 1890, it is now home to nearly 9,500 residents.  The island is less than seven miles long, with the entire northern third of the island devoted to a wildlife refuge.

Uninhabited by humans, the refuge is composed of sand dunes, maritime forest, and tidal marsh. During the summer visitors can see a variety of endangered birds, including Piping Plover, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher, and Least Tern. When I was there last September, I watched a pod of bottlenose dolphins playing near the shore. That was shortly after Hurricane Irene made landfall near Brigantine on the morning of August 28, causing significant beach erosion and flooding.

A young girl goes surf fishing with her father in the early evening.

A young girl goes surf fishing with her father in the early evening. (NOAA)

In the developed area to the south, most of the beaches are guarded during the day in the summer to keep swimmers safe. In the evenings, after people have gone home with their umbrellas and beach chairs, the remainder surf, fish, and walk the beach. Boating and recreational fishing are a big part of life on the bay side of the island.

What does NOAA do to protect coastal areas like this around the country? The National Weather Service provides valuable information on weather conditions, including severe weather warnings.

Recently, they helped guide the development of a smartphone application that gives the U.S. Coast Guard, beach lifeguards, and researchers a way to report and receive up-to-date warnings on dangerous rip currents, which have been a particular problem for swimmers this past year.

NOAA also provides nautical charts for the coastal waterways surrounding islands like Brigantine to ensure safe navigation for commercial and recreational boating and fishing as well as commercial shipping.

Kids play in the sand the same way they have for generations.

Kids play in the sand the same way they have for generations. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration works closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on hazardous waste sites in coastal areas to protect human health and minimize damage to NOAA marine resources. When an accident or hazardous substance release occurs, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program works to assess injury and implements rehabilitation and restoration.

Additionally, the Office of Response and Restoration has customized an online mapping tool called ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application) for this part of the Atlantic coast. ERMA integrates data such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers. This tool would be especially valuable in the case of an oil spill, for example.

Guidelines for visitors reduce the risk of injury or stress to the North Brigantine Natural Area.

Guidelines for visitors reduce the risk of injury or stress to the North Brigantine Natural Area. (NOAA)

The NOAA Marine Debris Program provides education on the harm caused by man-made litter polluting the ocean and coasts. Even this year, beaches not far from Brigantine reported sightings of medical waste washing up near the shore. The program also provides valuable information to fishers on the proper disposal of monofilament fishing line, which can entangle and injure birds and other wildlife.

Through a partnership with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (based on Brigantine) responds to marine mammals and turtles in distress along all of New Jersey’s waterways and oversees their rehabilitation and release back into the wild.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

Frank Csulak is a good example of one of the many individuals who has devoted his career to the preservation of our coastal resources. Csulak is NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator and has worked for the Office of Response and Restoration in New Jersey for years. Raised on the New Jersey shore, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the area. Through his tireless work, he helps reduce the influence of pollution on the waterways and shores of the Mid-Atlantic states.

So, the next time you visit the Jersey shore, you can thank Frank Csulak, NOAA, and our many partners for delivering another beautiful day at the beach.