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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Sea Urchins Battle to Save Hawaii Coral Reef

Tiny spikey sea urchins in palm of a hand.

Tiny sea urchin released in Kaneohe Bay to combat invasive algae. (NOAA)

Can tiny sea urchins save a Hawaiian coral reef? In Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay, with a little help from scientists, it appears they can.

Kaneohe Bay has been plagued for decades by two species of invasive algae that blanket the native coral reefs, blocking the sun. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners developed two methods to destroy the invaders, vacuuming them up, and releasing hungry native sea urchins to munch them away.

Since the urchin program started in 2011, hundreds of thousands of baby Hawaiian collector sea urchins (Tripneustes gratilla) have been released into targeted areas of the bay to gorge on the algae invaders. Although native to the bay, the collector sea urchin population was too low to battle the invasive algae. Using funds from a ship grounding a decade earlier, officials developed a sea urchin hatchery.

The State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, the Nature Conservancy, and NOAA created the Kaneohe Bay restoration plan from the settlement of the 2005 grounding of the ship M/V Cape Flattery on the coral reefs south of Oahu. The grounding, and response efforts to free the ship, injured 19.5 acres of coral.

Despite the injuries, the reef began recovering on its own. Rather than mess with that natural recovery, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources began restoring the coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay.

NOAA Fisheries has a video on the creation of the sea urchin hatchery, as well as details on the success of the sea urchin releases.

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000; however, this project fell under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damaged reefs in the following articles:

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?


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Restoration of an Injured Caribbean Coral Reef

Broken coral on ocean floor.

A coral cache location where fractured corals were protected prior to reef reattachment. NOAA

The waters surrounding the Puerto Rico archipelago are known for the diversity and beauty of the coral reefs. Those reefs are also under great pressure from population density, land uses, and shipping traffic.

On Oct.  27, 2009 the tanker Port Stewart grounded in coral reef habitat on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico near the entrance to Yabucoa Channel. The tanker was carrying 7 million gallons of oil. Local efforts freed the ship the same day it grounded without an oil spill but both the grounding and removal process caused extensive injury to the reef.

Nearly 93 percent of Puerto Rico’s coral reefs are rated as threatened, with 84 percent at high risk and among the most threatened in the Caribbean. The Port Stewart incident directly destroyed about 512 square meters (about 5,551 square feet) of the living coral reef. The injured habitat had a diverse community of soft corals (octocorals), sponges, and hard corals (scleractinian), including Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

When a reef is injured it’s important to take emergency restoration actions to salvage as many of the corals as possible. Following the grounding work began to triage corals and plan emergency restoration which lasted through 2010. This included surveying and mapping the area affected by the incident and salvaging as many living corals as possible. Emergency restoration efforts are designed to meet most of the actions needed to revive the injured reef.

Scuba diver underwater with string and plastic pipe grid.

Broken corals were draped on a floating coral array frame in order to grow bigger. Divers attached Acropora coral fragments, one of many coral types affected by the grounding. NOAA

In the Port Stewart case that included salvaging scleractinian corals, the hard reef-building animals that create skeletons under their skin. The skeletons are made from calcium carbonate and protect the coral animals and offer a base that other coral can attach themselves to, creating the reef community. The actions of emergency crews were able to save about 1,000 corals.

Scientists have monitored injured reef for the past six years and consider restoration efforts successful. According to monitoring reports, survivorship of reattached corals is comparable to that of naturally occurring corals in the area.

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico

 


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Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

Scuba diver underwater near rocks.

A diver rescued live coral for emergency reattachment. Photo taken less than 12 hours after grounding shows how fast NOAA mobilized. (Sea Ventures Inc. photo)

U.S. coral reefs are impacted by 3 ­- 4 large groundings a year.  On Dec. 15, 2009 the danger became reality near Guayanilla Bay, Puerto Rico when the liquid natural gas carrier Matthew grounded on the coral reef there causing substantial harm. It wasn’t just the grounding that injured the coral. During attempts to free the tanker the bow of the ship was moved from side to side causing further injury to the reef structure.

Although no oil was spilled, by the time the ship was removed a total of 3,200 square meters (about 34,444 square feet) of living coral reef was mangled or destroyed.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

In the aftermath of groundings, impacted corals are often broken, dislodged, or flipped over. These fragments are subject to abrasion, scour, and sedimentation, which ultimately result in death. Unchecked, these damages can result in additional reef loss and instability. However, if dislodged fragments can be collected and stabilized shortly after physical impacts then the probability of survival increases substantially. After the grounding a triage team of divers, which included NOAA, salvaged live corals from the rubble. The corals were cached in a safe, stable underwater area in an effort to keep them alive until they could be permanently reattached.

The emergency restoration actions lasted through 2010 and were designed to address most of the potential restoration actions that might be needed for the injured reef.  Emergency response efforts were able to save about 7,000 corals.

Restored coral reef.

Fully restored coral in Guayanilla Bay, Puerto Rico provides recreation and commercial benefits. NOAA

Species harmed included fractured and crushed hard corals (scleractinian), dislodged soft corals (octocorals). Staghorn coral, classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act were also injured and swaths of the sea floor were scraped and pulverized.

Coral reefs are one of the most economically valuable ecosystems on earth, providing hundreds of billions of dollars in food, jobs, recreational opportunities, and coastal protection. NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000.

You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico


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Remembering the Veterans That Served America and the Historic Shipwrecks They Left Behind

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts.

Did you know that over 20,000 shipwrecks rest on the ocean floor off our coasts? The past century of commerce and warfare has left us with this legacy of sunken vessels dotting the seafloor around the United States.

While some of these are naval vessels, a large proportion are merchant vessels destroyed during war time. These wrecks are skewed heavily to World War II casualties such as those fallen during the “Battle of the Atlantic.” Some wrecks, such as the Civil War casualty, the USS Monitor, have been listed as National Historic Landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of them, such as the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, are either civilian or military grave sites.

Beyond their military and historic significance, these wrecks also represent an enormous human toll. Today—on Veterans Day in the United States, Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other nations—we honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces of all nations, as well as those serving in the Merchant Marine, and commemorate those who gave their lives in that service.

The Terrible Cost of the Battle of the Atlantic

During World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from September 1939 until the defeat of Germany in 1945, German U-boats and warships (and later Italian submarines) were pitted against Allied convoys transporting military equipment and supplies across the Atlantic to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. This battle to control Atlantic shipping lanes involved thousands of ships and stretched across thousands of square miles of ocean.

A Coast Guard ship's crew watches an explosion in the water ahead.

On April 17, 1943, Coast Guardsmen on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer watch the explosion of a depth charge that blasted a Nazi U-boat’s hope of breaking into the center of a large convoy of ships. World War II left thousands of Allied and Axis ships — and soldiers — on the bottom of the ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The losses in the battle were staggering. Between January and June 1942 alone, this battle resulted in the sinking of almost 500 ships. Historians estimate that more than 100 convoy battles took place during the war, costing Britain’s Merchant Navy more than 30,000 men and around 3,000 ships. The terrible cost for the Germans was 783 U-boats and 28,000 sailors, about 75% of the U-boat force. Although casualty statistics vary, we know that the U.S. Merchant Mariners suffered the highest rate of marine casualties of any service in World War II.

While many of these sunken vessels in U.S. waters rest in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico, numerous wrecks, such as the S/S Montebello, can be found in the Pacific. And of course, the wartime toll was spread across the world’s oceans, touching nearly all parts of the globe.

NOAA’s Role with Undersea Wrecks

NOAA is involved with shipwrecks in a number of ways. The agency’s role ranges from offering scientific guidance to the U.S. Coast Guard during pollution responses, to stewarding the diverse natural and cultural resources including shipwrecks in national marine sanctuaries, to creating navigational charts that show the precise locations of wrecks that could hinder maritime traffic. Most of the 20,000 wrecks resting off our coasts are old and did not carry oil as fuel or hazardous cargo; however, some of the more recent wrecks have the potential to contain—and sometimes leak—oil.

In 2002, for example, the decaying wreck of the S/S Jacob Luckenbach (carrying supplies to support the Korean War) was identified as the source of mysterious, recurring oil spills that had killed thousands of seabirds and other marine life along California’s coast. Our office joined with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to remove the approximately 100,000 gallons of oil remaining in the wreck, protect the resources of the Great Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and restore critical seabird breeding habitat in the U.S. and Canada to make up for the harm caused by the oil releases.

Two divers and a shark swim next to a large shipwreck.

Knowing how shipwreck sites formed helps explain why sunken vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Leaking wrecks like the Jacob Luckenbach are one reason NOAA maintains a large database of shipwrecks, dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater cultural resources, known as the Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST) database.

Beginning in 2010, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries systematically analyzed a subset of those wrecks which could pose a substantial threat of leaking oil still on board. This work is part of NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project. (Read more about the work conducted and the final report (PDF).) After the report was completed in 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard has worked to incorporate the information and recommendations into their regional contingency plans.

NOAA also has the privilege of protecting shipwrecks and naval battlefields though its National Marine Sanctuaries office. The first NOAA national marine sanctuary was designated in 1975 to protect the U.S. Navy warship USS Monitor, and other sanctuaries have followed in these footsteps of preserving historic wrecks. Today, you can explore fascinating undersea wrecks at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the Great Lakes, and at other sanctuaries.

Wrecks and Reefs

Sometimes these submerged shipwrecks can serve as artificial reefs. Sunken wrecks are actually the most prevalent type of artificial reef. As artificial reefs, shipwrecks can create both amazing homes for a diversity of marine life and popular attractions for commercial and recreational fishers, divers, and snorkelers.

Occasionally, vessels are even sunk intentionally for this purpose. However, it can be very costly to prepare the vessels to become artificial reefs, which requires removing paints and other hazardous materials in the hull. Another consideration is the stability of the vessel and its danger to living things around it. For example, if the vessel is in shallow water, will it flip over in a storm and crush the new coral growing there? Could people or marine life get caught inside it? These considerations are why artificial reefs are often found in deep water and why establishing an artificial reef requires special review and permitting processes.

Through the study, protection, and promotion of our diverse legacy of undersea wrecks, national marine sanctuaries help us learn more about and celebrate our merchant marine and military history.

Explore Shipwrecks While Staying Dry

You can learn more about NOAA expeditions between 2008 and 2011, which explored the World War II wrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

You also can watch a video of researchers first discovering the long-lost location of the USS Monitor’s wreck in 1973 off the coast of North Carolina:

See what it’s like to dive among the many wrecks at the bottom of Lake Huron in Thunder Bay’s “Shipwreck Alley”:

Take a video tour of the wreck of the USS Arizona, sunk by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941, and pay homage to the members of the U.S. armed forces who gave their lives.

Video frame of a diver exploring a shipwreck.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping program.


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Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Tied to Further Impacts in Shallower Water Corals, New Study Reports

Sick sea fan with discolored branches and hydroids covering it.

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers found significant injuries in at least four species of sea fans along the Gulf’s continental shelf. Damage primarily took the form of overgrowth by hydroids (fuzzy marine invertebrates characteristic of unhealthy corals) and broken or bare branches of coral. (Credit: Ian MacDonald/Florida State University)

In the months and years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, damage and poor health were found in a swath of deep-sea coral reefs and related marine life at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Within roughly 16 miles of the leaking wellhead, researchers discovered sickened and damaged deep-sea corals, often coated in a clumpy brown material containing petroleum, and the sediments showed evidence of out-of-balance communities of tiny invertebrates inhabiting the seafloor sediments, whose diversity took a nose dive after the spill.

Now, a study published in October 2015 in the journal Coral Reefs reveals that this footprint of damage also extends to coral communities in shallower Gulf waters, up to 67 miles from the wellhead. In this latest study, researchers from NOAA, Florida State University, and JHT Inc. used video and images from remotely operated vehicles (ROV) to compare the health of corals on hard-bottom reefs in the “mesophotic zone” before and after the oil spill.

The mesophotic zone of the ocean receives low levels of light but supports abundant fish, corals, and sponges. The reefs in this study are important sources of habitat, food, and shelter for various marine life. These vibrant reefs also support recreational and commercial fishing for species such as snapper and grouper. Located in a region called the “Pinnacle Trend,” they are at the edge of the continental shelf off Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, roughly 200-300 feet below the surface.

Previous oil spill studies focused on deep-sea coral communities 4,000 feet under the ocean, located near the leaking wellhead. While the Pinnacle Trend reefs are shallower and more remote, they were below the surface oil slick that persisted for several weeks.

What Lies Beneath

Three of the largest reefs at Pinnacle Trend—bearing the colorful names Alabama Alps Reef, Roughtongue Reef, and Yellowtail Reef—were located beneath the surface slick of Deepwater Horizon oil for three to five weeks in the summer of 2010. Located between 35 and 67 miles from the leaking well, corals on the reefs were likely to have been exposed to oil and dispersant that sank from the surface down toward the seafloor. These reefs were measured against two other reef sites more than 120 miles beyond the leaking well and below the Deepwater Horizon oil slick less than three days.

Graphic showing a profile of the Gulf of Mexico's seafloor habitats from shore out to the leaking wellhead.

A profile of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor habitats extending from the shore to depths around the Macondo wellhead. The mesophotic coral reefs in this study were located at the edge of the continental shelf. (NOAA/Kate Sweeney)

Because researchers had access to ROV footage of these coral reefs dating back as far as 1989, they could directly measure what level of injury could be considered “normal” for each reef. After all, this area of the Gulf is known to be susceptible to impacts from fishing methods that contact the sea bottom. Researchers suspect that fishing was the cause of injuries observed at the two sites far from the spill because lines were wrapped around many of the coral colonies.

Not a (Sea) Fan of Damaged Corals

The three reefs closer to the wellhead had less evidence of fishing but showed major declines in health after the oil spill in 2010. More than half of the coral colonies at these sites showed signs of damage by 2011, compared with less than 10% before the spill. In comparison, the sites further from the wellhead had no significant change before and after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In addition, injured corals the scientists noted in 2011 continued to deteriorate in the years that followed, “suggesting recovery of injured corals is unlikely,” said lead author Dr. Peter Etnoyer of NOAA. Healthy corals noted after the incident in 2011 remained healthy through the end of the study in 2014, suggesting the injured corals would have been healthy but for the spill.

The researchers in this most recent study noted significant injuries among at least four species of large gorgonian octocorals (sea fans) in the three impacted reefs. Injuries took the form of overgrowth by hydroids (fuzzy marine invertebrates characteristic of unhealthy corals) and broken or bare branches of coral. To a lesser extent, corals also appeared severely discolored, with eroded polyps, had lost limbs, or toppled over entirely.

An earlier study of these mesophotic reefs by some of the same scientists in the journal Deep Sea Research detected low levels of a petroleum compound known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in coral tissues and nearby seafloor sediments. The levels were low compared to sites near the wellhead, but at this point, no one yet has established what constitutes a toxic level of these compounds to marine life in mesophotic coral communities.

“The corals of the Pinnacle Trend require decades to reach maturity,” said Florida State University scientist Ian MacDonald, who also contributed to the study. “Recovery will require years and it may not be immediately apparent whether the injured colonies are being replaced with new settlements. Our task is to study the process—to learn as much as we can and to ensure that nothing impedes this vital natural process.”

“The results presented here may vastly underestimate the extent of impacts to mesophotic reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico,”  the researchers commented, since the reefs in this study represent less than 3 percent of the mesophotic reef habitat that was known to occur beneath the oil slick. “The reefs have some prospects for recovery since many healthy colonies remain,” said Etnoyer. NOAA and its partners on this study recommend efforts to protect and restore the Pinnacles Trend reefs in order to conserve the corals and fish along this part of the ocean floor.

Read more: At the Bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, Corals and Diversity Suffered After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill


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Watch Divers Restore Coral Reefs Hit by a Huge Ship in Hawaii

Coral reefs are not to be confused with underwater highways. Unfortunately for the corals, however, navigating huge ships is a tricky business and sometimes reefs do end up on the wrong side of the “road.” (One reason why having up-to-date navigational charts is so important!)

This was the case for corals damaged off the Hawaiian island of Oahu in February of 2010 when the cargo ship M/V VogeTrader ran aground and was later removed from a coral reef in Kalaeloa/Barber’s Point Harbor.

NOAA’s Restoration Center and the State of Hawaii worked quickly to implement emergency restoration (using what look like laundry baskets), using special underwater scientific techniques and technologies, and ultimately restoring the reef after getting some help from vacuums, power washers, and even winter storms.

See divers transform these Hawaiian corals from crushed to flush with marine life:

In the end, these efforts are all part of how we work to help make the ocean a better place for corals and the many other types of marine life that rely on them.


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This Is How We Help Make the Ocean a Better Place for Coral

Large corals on the seafloor.

The ocean on its own is an amazing place. Which is why we humans like to explore it, from its warm, sandy beaches to its dark, mysterious depths. But when humans are involved, things can and often do go wrong.

That’s where we come in. Our corner of NOAA helps figure out what impacts have happened and what restoration is needed to make up for them when humans create a mess of the ocean, from oil spills to ship groundings.

In honor of World Ocean Day, here are a few ways we at NOAA make the ocean a better place for corals when ships accidentally turn them into undersea roadkill.

First, we literally vacuum up broken coral and rubble from the seafloor after ships run into and get stuck on coral reefs. The ships end up crushing corals’ calcium carbonate homes, often carpeting the seafloor with rubble that needs to be removed for three reasons.

  1. To prevent it from smashing into healthy coral nearby.
  2. To clear space for re-attaching coral during restoration.
  3. To allow for tiny, free-floating coral babies to settle in the cleared area and start growing.

Check it out:A SCUBA diver using a suction tube to vacuum coral rubble from the seafloor during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.Sometimes, however, the broken bits get stuck in the suction tube, and you have to give it a good shake to get things moving. SCUBA divers shaking a suction tube to clear it on the seafloor.Next, we save as many dislodged and knocked over corals as we can. In this case, popping them into a giant underwater basket that a boat pulls to the final restoration site.

SCUBA diver placing coral piece into a large wire basket on the seafloor during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.Sometimes we use “coral nurseries” to regrow corals to replace the ones that were damaged. This is what that can look like:

Staghorn coral fragments hanging on an underwater tree structure of PVC pipes.Then, we cement healthy corals to the seafloor, but first we have to prepare the area, which includes scrubbing a spot for the cement and coral to stick to.

SCUBA diver scrubbing a spot on the seafloor for the cement and coral to stick to.(And if that doesn’t work very well, we’ll bring out a power washer to get the job done.)

SCUBA diver using a power washer to clear a spot on the seafloor for the cement and coral to stick to during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.Finally, we’re ready for the bucket of cement and the healthy coral.

SCUBA diver turning over a bucket of cement on the seafloor during coral restoration after the VogeTrader ship grounding.

Instead of cement, we may also use epoxy, nails, or cable ties to secure corals to the ocean floor.

After all that work, the seafloor goes from looking like this:

View of seafloor devoid of coral before restoration.To this:

View of seafloor covered with healthy young coral and fish after restoration due to the VogeTrader grounding.

Ta-da! Good as new, or at least, on its way back to being good-as-new.

When that’s not enough to make up for all the harm done to coral reefs hit by ships, we look for other restoration projects to help corals in the area, like this project to vacuum invasive algae off of coral reefs in Oahu.

Watch how this device, dubbed the “Super Sucker,” works to efficiently remove the yellow-brown algae that is smothering the corals:

Or, as another example of a coral restoration project, we set sail each year to the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to pull more than 50 tons of giant, abandoned fishing nets off of the pristine coral reefs.

In 2014, that included removing an 11 ton “monster net” from a reef:

For the most part, the coral restoration you’ve seen here was completed by NOAA and our partners, beginning in October 2013 and wrapping up in April 2014.

These corals were damaged off the Hawaiian island of Oahu in February of 2010 when the cargo ship M/V VogeTrader ran aground and was later removed from a coral reef in Kalaeloa/Barber’s Point Harbor.