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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Using Big Data to Restore the Gulf of Mexico

This is a post by Ocean Conservancy’s Elizabeth Fetherston.

If I ask you to close your eyes and picture “protection for marine species,” you might immediately think of brave rescuers disentangling whales from fishing gear.

Or maybe you would imagine the army of volunteers who seek out and protect sea turtle nests. Both are noble and worthwhile endeavors.

But 10 years of ocean conservation in the southeast United States has taught me that protecting marine species doesn’t just look like the heroic rescue of adorable species in need.

I’ve learned that it also looks like the screen of 1s and 0s from the movie The Matrix.

Let me explain.

Much of what goes on with marine life in the Gulf of Mexico—and much of the rest of the ocean—is too dark and distant to see and measure easily or directly. Whales and fish and turtles move around a lot. This makes it difficult to collect information on how many there are in the Gulf and how well those populations are doing.

In order to assess their health, you need to know where these marine species go, what they eat, why they spend time in certain areas (for food, shelter, or breeding?), and more. This information may come from a number of places—state agencies, universities, volunteer programs, you name it—and be stored in a number of different file formats.

Until recently, there was no real way to combine all of these disparate pixels of information into a coherent picture of, for instance, a day in the life of a sea turtle. DIVER, NOAA’s new website for Deepwater Horizon assessment data, gives us the tools to do just that.

Data information and integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing you to look for causes and effects that you might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

Of course, this idea is far from new. For years, NOAA and ocean advocates have both been talking about a concept known as “ecosystem-based management” for marine species. Put simply, ecosystem-based management is a way to find out what happens to the larger tapestry if you pull on one of the threads woven into it.

For example, if you remove too many baitfish from the ecosystem, will the predatory fish and wildlife have enough to eat? If you have too little freshwater coming through the estuary into the Gulf, will nearby oyster and seagrass habitats survive? In order to make effective and efficient management decisions in the face of these kinds of complex questions, it helps to have all of the relevant information working together in a single place, in a common language, and in a central format.

Screenshot of DIVER tool showing map of Gulf of Mexico and list of data results in a table.

A view of the many sets of Gulf of Mexico environmental data that the tool DIVER can bring together. (NOAA)

So is data management the key to achieving species conservation in the Gulf of Mexico? It just might be.

Systems like DIVER are set up to take advantage of quantum leaps in computing power that were not available to the field of environmental conservation 10 years ago. These advances give DIVER the ability to accept reams of diverse and seemingly unrelated pieces of information and, over time, turn them into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife.

The rising tide of restoration work and research in the Gulf of Mexico will bring unprecedented volumes of data that should—and now can—be used to design and execute conservation strategies with the most impact for ocean life in our region. Ocean Conservancy is excited about the opportunity for systems like DIVER to kick off a new era in how we examine information and solve problems.

Elizabeth Fetherston is a Marine Restoration Strategist with Ocean Conservancy. She is based in St. Petersburg, Florida and works to ensure restoration from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is science-based, integrated across political boundaries, fully funded, and inclusive of offshore Gulf waters where the spill originated.


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Like a Summer Blockbuster, Oil Spills and Hurricanes Can Take the Nation by Storm

Wrecked sailboats and debris along a dock after a hurricane.

The powerful wind and waves of a hurricane can damage vessels, releasing their fuel into coastal waterways. (NOAA)

From Twister and The Perfect Storm to The Day After Tomorrow, storms and other severe weather often serve as the dramatic backdrop for popular movies. Some recent movies, such as the Sharknado series, even combine multiple fearsome events—along with a high degree of improbability—when they portray, for example, a hurricane sweeping up huge numbers of sharks into twisters descending on a major West Coast city.

But back in the world of reality, what could be worse than a hurricane?

How about a hurricane combined with a massive oil spill? It’s not just a pitch for a new movie. Oil spills actually are a pretty common outcome of powerful storms like hurricanes.

There are a couple primary scenarios involving oil spills and hurricanes. The first is a hurricane causing one or more oil spills, which is what happened during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These kinds of oil spills typically result from a storm’s damage to coastal oil facilities, including refineries, as well as vessels being damaged or sunken and leaking their fuel.

The second, far less common scenario is a hurricane blowing in during an existing oil spill, which is what happened during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Hurricane First, Then Oil Spills

Stranded and wrecked vessels are one of the iconic images showing the aftermath of a hurricane. In most cases those vessels have oil on board. And don’t forget about all the cars that get flooded. Each of these sources may contain relatively small amounts of fuel, but hurricanes can cause big oil spills too.

Additional damage is often caused by the storm surge, as big oil and chemical storage tanks can get lifted off their foundations (or sheared off in the case of the picture below).

A damaged boat setting on a  fuel dock.

A boat, displaced and damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in late summer of 2005 in the Gulf of Mexico, an area frequented by both hurricanes and oil spills. (NOAA)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 passed through the center of the Gulf of Mexico oil industry and caused dozens of major oil spills and thousands of small spills.

One of the largest stemmed from the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Dikes surrounding the oil tanks at the refinery were full from flood waters, so when a multi-million gallon tank failed, oil flowed easily into a nearby neighborhood, leaving oil on thousands of homes and businesses already reeling from the flood waters.

Hurricanes can also create navigation hazards that result in later spills. Hurricane Rita, hitting the Gulf in September 2005, sank several offshore oil platforms. While some were recovered, others were actually left missing. Several months later, the tank barge DBL 152 “found” one of these missing rigs, spilling nearly 2 million gallons of thick slurry oil after striking the sunken and displaced platform hiding below the ocean surface.

A large ship on its side, leaking dark oil on the ocean surface.

In November 2005, tank barge DBL 152 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. (Entrix)

Oil Spills and Then a Hurricane Hits

So what happens if a hurricane hits an existing oil spill?

This was a big concern during the summer of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. There was an ever-growing slick on the ocean surface, oil already on the shore, and lots of response equipment and personnel scattered across the Gulf cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill.

There was a lot of speculation as to what might happen as hurricane season began. Hurricane Alex, a relatively small storm, was the first test. The first impact came days before the storm, as response vessels evacuated the area. Hurricane Alex halted response efforts such as skimming and burning for several days. Hundreds of miles of oil booms protecting the shoreline were displaced by the growing surf.

As the hurricane passed through, floating oil was quickly dispersed by the powerful winds and waves, and the same wave energy buried, uncovered, and moved oil on the shore or in submerged mats of oil near the shoreline. Some oil was likely carried inland by sea spray and flood waters from the storm surge. Oil dissolved in the water column near the surface became even more dispersed, but the deep waters of the Gulf were well out of reach of the stormy commotion at the surface, and the leaking wellhead continued to gush.

But the Deepwater Horizon spill wasn’t the only time hurricanes have butted heads with a massive spill. In 1979, Mexico’s Ixtoc I well blowout in the southern Gulf of Mexico was hit by Hurricane Henri. The main impact of the hurricane’s winds was to dilute and weather the floating oil.

In some places along the Texas coast, beached oil was washed over the barrier islands into the bays behind them, while in other areas stranded oil was buried by clean sand. Many of these oiled areas were reworked a year later when Hurricane Allen battered the coast.

Preventing oil spills is a part of preparing for hurricanes. Coastal oil facilities and vessel owners do their best to batten down the hatches and get their vessels out of harm’s way, but we know that spills may still happen. Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, is a busy time for those of us in oil spill response, and we breathe a sigh of relief when hurricane season ends—just in time for winter storm season to begin.


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Latest NOAA Study Ties Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to Spike in Gulf Dolphin Deaths

Group of dolphin fins at ocean surface.

A study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that an unusually high number of dead Gulf dolphins had what are normally rare lesions on their lungs and hormone-producing adrenal glands, which are associated with exposure to oil compounds. (NOAA)

What has been causing the alarming increase in dead bottlenose dolphins along the northern Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the summer of 2010? Independent and government scientists have found even more evidence connecting these deaths to the same signs of illness found in animals exposed to petroleum products, as reported in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE.

This latest study uncovered that an unusually high number of dead Gulf dolphins had what are normally rare lesions on their lungs and hormone-producing adrenal glands.

The timing, location, and nature of the lesions support that oil compounds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused these lesions and contributed to the high numbers of dolphin deaths within this oil spill’s footprint.

“This is the latest in a series of peer-reviewed scientific studies, conducted over the five years since the spill, looking at possible reasons for the historically high number of dolphin deaths that have occurred within the footprint of the Deepwater Horizon spill,” said Dr. Teri Rowles, one of 22 contributing authors on the paper, and head of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, which is charged with determining the causes of unusual mortality events.

“These studies have increasingly pointed to the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons as being the most significant cause of the illnesses and deaths plaguing the Gulf’s dolphin population,” said Dr. Rowles.

A System out of Balance

In this study, one in every three dead dolphins examined across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had lesions affecting their adrenal glands, resulting in a serious condition known as “adrenal insufficiency.” The adrenal gland produces hormones—such as cortisol and aldosterone—that regulate metabolism, blood pressure and other bodily functions.

“Animals with adrenal insufficiency are less able to cope with additional stressors in their everyday lives,” said Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, the study’s lead author and veterinary epidemiologist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, “and when those stressors occur, they are more likely to die.”

Earlier studies of Gulf dolphins in areas heavily affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill found initial signs of this illness in a 2011 health assessment of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. NOAA scientists Dr. Rowles and Dr. Lori Schwacke spoke about the results of this health assessment in a 2013 interview:

“One rather unusual condition that we noted in many of the Barataria Bay dolphins was that they had very low levels of some hormones (specifically, cortisol) that are produced by the adrenal gland and are important for a normal stress response.

Under a stressful condition, such as being chased by a predator, the adrenal gland produces cortisol, which then triggers a number of physiological responses including an increased heart rate and increased blood sugar. This gives an animal the energy burst that it needs to respond appropriately.

In the Barataria Bay dolphins, cortisol levels were unusually low. The concern is that their adrenal glands were incapable of producing appropriate levels of cortisol, and this could ultimately lead to a number of complications and in some situations even death.”

Swimming with Pneumonia

Ultrasounds showing a normal dolphin lung, compared to lungs with mild, moderate, and severe lung disease.

Ultrasounds showing a normal dolphin lung, compared to lungs with mild, moderate, and severe lung disease. These conditions are consistent with exposure to oil compounds and were found in bottlenose dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, one of the most heavily oiled areas during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

In addition to the lesions on adrenal glands, the scientific team discovered that more than one in five dolphins that died within the Deepwater Horizon oil spill footprint had a primary bacterial pneumonia. Many of these cases were unusual in severity, and caused or contributed to death.

Drs. Rowles and Schwacke previously had observed significant problems in the lungs of dolphins living in Barataria Bay. Again, in 2013, they had noted, “In some of the animals, the lung disease was so severe that we considered it life-threatening for that individual.”

In other mammals, exposure to petroleum-based polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, through inhalation or aspiration of oil products can lead to injured lungs and altered immune function, both of which can increase an animal’s susceptibility to primary bacterial pneumonia. Dolphins are particularly susceptible to inhalation effects due to their large lungs, deep breaths, and extended breath hold times.

Learn more about NOAA research documenting the impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and find more stories reflecting on the five years since this oil spill.


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NOAA Launches New Data Management Tool for Public Access to Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Data

Two people launch a water column sampling device off the side of a ship.

Launching a device to take measurements in the water column during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. NOAA built the online tool DIVER to organize and provide access to these scientific data and the many others collected in the wake of the spill. (NOAA)

A flexible new data management tool—known as DIVER and developed by NOAA to support the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—is now available for public use. DIVER stands for “Data Integration, Visualization, Exploration and Reporting,” and it can be accessed at https://dwhdiver.orr.noaa.gov.

DIVER was developed as a digital data warehouse during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort and related damage assessment process, which has required collecting and organizing massive amounts of scientific data on the environmental impacts of the spill.

The tool serves as a centralized data repository that integrates diverse environmental data sets collected from across the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. It allows scientists from different organizations and laboratories located across the country to upload field data, analyses, photographs, and other key information related to their studies in a standardized format. DIVER thus brings together all of that validated information into a single, web-based tool.

In addition, DIVER provides unprecedented flexibility for filtering and downloading validated data collected as part of the ongoing damage assessment efforts for the Gulf of Mexico. The custom query and mapping interface of the tool, “DIVER Explorer,” provides both a data filter and review tools, which allow users to refine how they look for data and explore large data sets online. Query results are presented in an interactive dashboard, with a map, charts, table of results, metadata (data about the data), and sophisticated options for exporting the data.

View of DIVER Explorer map and query results for environmental impact data in the Gulf of Mexico.

A view of DIVER Explorer query results shown in an interactive dashboard. (NOAA)

In addition to the DIVER Explorer query tools, this website presents a detailed explanation of our data management approach, an explanation of field definitions and codes used in the data warehouse, and a robust help section.

Currently, DIVER provides access to nearly 4 million validated results of analytical chemistry from over 50,000 samples of water, tissue, oil, and sediment collected by federal, state, academic, and nongovernmental organizations to support the Deepwater Horizon damage assessment. As additional data sets become publicly available they will be accessible through the DIVER Explorer tool.

Read the announcement of this tool’s public launch from the NOAA website.


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NOAA Builds Tool to Hold Unprecedented Amounts of Data from Studying an Unprecedented Oil Spill

This is a post by Benjamin Shorr of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the seventh in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. In the wake of this massive pollution release, NOAA and other federal and state government scientists need to determine how much this spill and ensuing response efforts harmed the Gulf of Mexico’s natural resources, and define the necessary type and amount of restoration.

That means planning a lot of scientific studies and collecting a lot of data on the spill’s impacts, an effort beginning within hours of the spill and continuing to this day.

Scientists collected oil samples from across the Gulf Coast. Oil spill observers snapped photographs of oil on the ocean surface from airplanes. Oceanographic sensors detected oil in the water column near the Macondo wellhead. Biologists followed the tracks of tagged dolphins as they swam through the Gulf’s bays and estuaries. Scientists are using this type of information—and much more—to better understand and assess the impacts to the Gulf ecosystem and people’s uses of it.

But what is the best way to gather together and organize what would become an unprecedented amount of data for this ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment process? Scientists from across disciplines, agencies, and the country needed to be able to upload their own data and download others’ data, in addition to searching and sorting through what would eventually amount to tens of thousands of samples and millions of results and observations.

First, a Quick Fix

Early on, it became clear that the people assessing the spill’s environmental impacts needed a single online location to organize the quickly accumulating data. To address this need, a team of data management experts within NOAA began creating a secure, web-based data repository.

This new tool would allow scientific teams from different organizations to easily upload their field data and other key information related to their studies, such as scanned field notes, electronic data sheets, sampling protocols, scanned images, photographs, and navigation information. Graphic with gloved hands pouring liquid from sample jar into beaker and numbers of samples, results, and studies resulting from NOAA efforts. While this data repository was being set up, NOAA needed an interim solution and turned to its existing database tool known as Query Manager. Query Manager allowed users to sort and filter some of the data types being collected for the damage assessment—including sediment, tissue, water, and oil chemistry results, as well as sediment and water toxicity data—but the scope and scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill called for more flexibility and features in a data management tool. When NOAA’s new data repository was ready, it took over from Query Manager.

Next, a New Data Management Solution

As efforts to both curtail and measure the spill’s impacts continued, the amount and diversity of scientific data began pouring in at unprecedented rates. The NOAA team working on the new repository took stock of the types of data being entered into it and realized a database alone would not be enough. They searched for a better way to not only manage information in the repository but to organize the data and make them accessible to myriad scientists on the Gulf Coast and in laboratories and offices across the country.

Building on industry standard, open source tools for managing “big data,” NOAA developed a flexible data management tool—known as a “data warehouse”—which gives users two key features. First, it allows them to integrate data sets and documents as different as oceanographic sensor data and field observations, and second, it allows users to filter and download data for further analysis and research.

Now, this data warehouse is a little different than the type of physical warehouse where you stack boxes of stuff on row after row of shelves in a giant building. Instead, this web-based warehouse contains a flexible set of tables which can hold various types of data, each in a specific format, such as text documents in .pdf format or images in .jpg format.

Screenshot of data management tool showing map with locations of various data.

NOAA’s data management tool allows users to integrate very different data sets and documents, such as water and oil samples and field observations, as well as filter and download data for further analysis and research. (NOAA)

To fill this digital warehouse with data, the development team worked with the scientific and technical experts, who in many cases were out collecting data in places impacted by the oil spill, to establish a flow of information into the appropriate tables in the warehouse. In addition, they standardized formats for entering certain data, such as date, types of analysis, and names of species.

Manual and automated checks ensure the integrity of the data being entered, a process which gets easier as new data arrive in the warehouse and are incorporated into the proper table. The process of standardizing and integrating data in one accessible location also helps connect cross-discipline teams of scientists who may be working on different parts of the ecosystem, say marsh versus nearshore waters.

The NOAA team has also created a custom-built “query tool” for the data warehouse that can search and filter all of those diverse data in a variety of ways. A user can filter data by one or more values (such as what type of analysis was done), draw a box around a specific geographic area to search and filter data by location, select a month and year to sort by date sampled, or even type in a single keyword or sample ID. This feature is critical for the scientists and technical teams tasked with synthesizing data across time and space to uncover patterns of environmental impact.

Download the Data Yourself

NOAA’s data warehouse currently holds validated damage assessment data from more than 53,000 water, tissue, oil, and sediment samples, which, once these samples were analyzed, have led to over 3.8 million analytical results, also stored within the new tool. Together, NOAA’s samples and analytical results have informed more than 16 scientific studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, as well as many other academic and scientific publications.

While not all of the data from the damage assessment are publicly available yet, you can access validated data collected through cooperative studies or otherwise made available through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment legal process.

You can find validated data exported from NOAA’s digital data warehouse available for download on both the Natural Resource Damage Assessment website and NOAA’s interactive online mapping tool for this spill, the ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response website. Stay tuned for more about this new tool, including additional details on how it works and where you can find it.


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Who Is Funding Research and Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and Frank Parker, Associate Director for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program, with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the fourth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

When an oil spill takes place, people want to see the coasts, fish, wildlife, and recreational opportunities affected by that spill restored—so they can be as they were before, as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 supports this. After most major oil spills, what routinely happens is the government undertakes a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a rigorous, scientific process of assessing environmental injuries and, with public input, identifying and implementing the appropriate amount of restoration to compensate for the injuries resulting from this spill (all paid for by those responsible for the pollution).

What is not routine in the wake of an oil spill is the groundswell of support for even more research and restoration, beyond the scope of the usual damage assessment process, to bolster the resilience of the impacted ecosystem and coastal communities. Yet that is exactly what happened after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010, which renewed a national interest in the unique environment that is the Gulf of Mexico.

In the wake of this disaster, there have been various additional investments, outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, in more broadly learning about and restoring the Gulf of Mexico. These distinct efforts to fund research and restoration in the Gulf have been sizable, but keeping track of them can be, frankly, a bit confusing.

The many organizations involved are working to ensure the Gulf’s new infusions of funding for restoration and research are well coordinated. However, keep in mind that each effort is independent of the others in funding mechanism, primary mandate, and process.

Tracking Dollars for Gulf Restoration

In one effort, announced while the Macondo well was still gushing oil, BP dedicated up to $500 million dollars to be spent over 10 years “to fund an independent research program designed to study the impact of the oil spill and its associated response on the environment and public health in the Gulf of Mexico.” This investment spawned the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GOMRI, which is governed by an independent, academic research board of 20 science, public health, and research administration experts and independent of BP’s influence.

Meanwhile, BP faced both potential criminal and civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters. When such penalties are pursued by the government for pollution events, such as an oil spill, a portion of the criminal monetary penalties are usually paid to a local environmental foundation or conservation organization to administer the funds.

Ultimately, BP agreed to a $4 billion criminal settlement in 2013, with the bulk of that money going to North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and National Academy of Sciences.

Chart showing various investments and their recipients for science and restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Science and restoration initiatives in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

That still leaves civil penalties to be determined. Normally, civil penalties under the Clean Water Act are directed to the General Treasury.

However, Congress passed legislation calling for 80 percent of the administrative and civil penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to be diverted directly to the Gulf of Mexico for ecological and economic restoration. This legislation, known as the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012), passed on July 6, 2012.

While the full extent of BP’s civil penalties have yet to be determined, in 2013 the Department of Justice finalized a civil settlement with Transocean in the amount of $1 billion. This settlement results in more than $800 million going to the Gulf of Mexico under the RESTORE Act. As to penalties for BP, the court has currently ruled on two of the three trial phases. Based on those rulings, currently under appeal, the penalty cap for BP is $13.7 billion. A third trial phase for factors that are taken into account in establishing the penalty at or under that cap was concluded in February 2015. The court has yet to rule on the third phase of the trial, and the pending appeals have not yet been heard by the appeals court.

NOAA and Restoration in the Gulf

So where does NOAA fit into all of this? NOAA is carrying out its usual duties of working with its partners to assess injury to and restore impacted natural resources through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. However, NOAA also is involved in supporting broader Gulf research and resilience, which will complement the damage assessment process, in two new ways through the RESTORE Act.

First, NOAA is supporting in the RESTORE Act’s Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which is chaired by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker (NOAA sits in the Department of Commerce). Second, NOAA is leading the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science, Observation, Monitoring, and Technology Program, or more simply, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program.

A NOAA ship at dock.

NOAA is leading a science program aimed at improving our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there, in order to better protect and preserve them. (NOAA)

This program exists because we simply don’t know as much as we need to know about the Gulf of Mexico and the plants and animals that live there in order to reverse the general decline of coastal ecosystems and ensure resilience in the future.

To make sure this new science program addresses the needs of the region, NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, met with resource managers, scientists, and other Gulf of Mexico stakeholders to discuss what the focus of the program should be. We heard three key messages loud and clear:

  • Make sure the research we support is closely linked to regional resource management needs.
  • Coordinate with other science initiatives working in the region.
  • Make the results of research available quickly to those who could use them.
Woman checks for bubbles in a sample of water on board the NOAA Ship Pisces.

The NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is already in the process of making available $2.5 million for research in the Gulf of Mexico, with more opportunities to come. (NOAA)

NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have designed a science plan [PDF] for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program that outlines how we will make this happen.

The science plan describes the research priorities highlighted during our engagement with stakeholders and from reviewing earlier assessments of the science needed to better understand the Gulf of Mexico. These priorities will guide how the program directs its funding over the coming years.

The research priorities include improving our understanding of how much and when freshwater, sediment, and nutrients enter the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and what this means for the growth of wetlands and the number of shellfish and fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Another priority is developing new techniques and technologies for measuring conditions in the Gulf to help inform resource management decisions.

Apply for Research Funding

Currently, the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program is holding its first competition for funding, with over 100 research teams already responding. It will make $2.5 million available for researchers to review and integrate what we already know about the Gulf of Mexico and work with resource managers to develop strategies directing the program toward our ultimate goal of supporting the sustainability of the Gulf and its fisheries.

The results of this work also will help inform the direction of other science initiatives and restoration activities in the Gulf region. NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce the winners of this funding competition in the fall of 2015.

To learn more about the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program and future funding opportunities, visit http://restoreactscienceprogram.noaa.gov/.


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In the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Gulf Dolphins Found Sick and Dying in Larger Numbers Than Ever Before

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the third in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, La.

A dolphin is observed with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin)

Dolphins washing up dead in the northern Gulf of Mexico are not an uncommon phenomenon. What has been uncommon, however, is how many more dead bottlenose dolphins have been observed in coastal waters affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the five years since. In addition to these alarmingly high numbers, researchers have found that bottlenose dolphins living in those areas are in poor health, plagued by chronic lung disease and failed pregnancies.

Independent and government scientists have undertaken a number of studies to understand how this oil spill may have affected dolphins, observed swimming through oil and with oil on their skin, living in waters along the Gulf Coast. These ongoing efforts have included examining and analyzing dead dolphins stranded on beaches, using photography to monitor living populations, and performing comprehensive health examinations on live dolphins in areas both affected and unaffected by Deepwater Horizon oil.

The results of these rigorous studies, which recently have been and continue to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, show that, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and in the areas hardest hit, the dolphin populations of the northern Gulf of Mexico have been in crisis.

Troubled Waters

Due south of New Orleans, Louisiana, and northwest of the Macondo oil well that gushed millions of barrels of oil for 87 days, lies Barataria Bay. Its boundaries are a complex tangle of inlets and islands, part of the marshy delta where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico and year-round home to a group of bottlenose dolphins.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this area was one of the most heavily oiled along the coast. Beginning the summer after the spill, record numbers of dolphins started stranding, or coming ashore, often dead, in Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). One period of extremely high numbers of dolphin deaths in Barataria Bay, part of the ongoing, largest and longest-lasting dolphin die-off recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, persisted from August 2010 until December 2011.

In the summer of 2011, researchers also measured the health of dolphins living in Barataria Bay, comparing them with dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, an area untouched by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Differences between the two populations were stark. Many Barataria Bay dolphins were in very poor health, some of them significantly underweight and five times more likely to have moderate-to-severe lung disease. Notably, the dolphins of Barataria Bay also were suffering from disturbingly low levels of key stress hormones which could prevent their bodies from responding appropriately to stressful situations. (Schwacke et al. 2014)

“The magnitude of the health effects that we saw was surprising,” said NOAA scientist Dr. Lori Schwacke, who helped lead this study. “We’ve done these health assessments in a number of locations across the southeast U.S. coast and we’ve never seen animals that were in this poor of condition.”

The types of illnesses observed in live Barataria Bay dolphins, which had sufficient opportunities to inhale or ingest oil following the 2010 spill, match those found in people and other animals also exposed to oil. In addition, the levels of other pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs, which previously have been linked to adverse health effects in marine mammals, were much lower in Barataria Bay dolphins than those from the west coast of Florida.

Dead in the Water

Based on findings from the 2011 study, the outlook for dolphins living in one of the most heavily oiled areas of the Gulf was grim. Nearly 20 percent of the Barataria Bay dolphins examined that year were not expected to live, and in fact, the carcass of one of them was found dead less than six months later (Schwacke et al. 2014). Scientists have continued to monitor the dolphins of Barataria Bay to document their health, survival, and success giving birth.

Considering these health conditions, it should come as little surprise that record high numbers of dolphins have been dying along the coasts of Louisiana (especially Barataria Bay), Alabama, and Mississippi. This ongoing, higher-than-usual marine mammal die-off, known as an unusual mortality event, has lasted over four years and claimed more than a thousand marine mammals, mostly bottlenose dolphins. For comparison, the next longest lasting Gulf die-off (in 2005–2006) ended after roughly a year and a half (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

Researchers studying this exceptionally long unusual mortality event, which began in February 2010, identified within it multiple distinct groupings of dolphin deaths. All but one of them occurred after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released oil from April to July 2010, and corresponded with areas exposed heavily to the oil, particularly Barataria Bay (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). In early 2011, the spring following the oil spill, Mississippi and Alabama saw a marked increase in dead dolphin calves, which either died late in pregnancy or soon after birth, and which would have been exposed to oil as they were developing.

The Gulf coasts of Florida and Texas, which received comparatively little oiling from the Deepwater Horizon spill, did not see the same significant annual increases in dead dolphins as the other Gulf states (Venn-Watson et al. 2015). For example, Louisiana sees an average of 20 dead whales and dolphins wash up each year, but in 2011 alone, this state recorded 163 (Litz et al. 2014 [PDF]).

The one grouping of dolphin deaths starting before the spill, from March to May 2010, took place in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain (a brackish lagoon) and western Mississippi. Researchers observed both low salinity levels in this lake and tell-tale skin lesions thought to be associated with low salinity levels on this group of dolphins. This combined evidence supports that short-term, freshwater exposure in addition to cold weather early in 2010 may have been key contributors to those dolphin deaths prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Legacy of a Spill?

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along a sandy beach with orange oil boom.

A bottlenose dolphin swims in the shallow waters along the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, near oil containment boom that was deployed on May 28, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began washing up on beaches here one month after the drilling unit exploded. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the past, large dolphin die-offs in the Gulf of Mexico could usually be tied to short-lived, discrete events, such as morbillivirus and marine biotoxins (resulting from harmful algal blooms). While studies are ongoing, the current evidence does not support that these past causes are responsible for the current increases in dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf since 2010 (Litz et al. 2014).

However, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—its timing, location, and nature—offers the strongest evidence for explaining why so many dolphins have been sick and dying in the Gulf since 2010. Ongoing studies are assessing disease among dolphins that have died and potential changes in dolphin health over the years since the spill.

As is the case for deep-sea corals, the full effects of this oil spill on the long-lived and slow-to-mature bottlenose dolphins and other dolphins and whales in the Gulf may not appear for years. Find more information related to dolphin health in the Gulf of Mexico on NOAA’s Unusual Mortality Event and Gulf Spill Restoration websites.

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