NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


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After Pollution Strikes, Restoring the Lost Cultural Bond Between Tribes and the Environment

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the range of values and benefits that coastal areas offer people—including what we stand to lose when oil spills and chemical pollution harm nature and how we work to restore our lost uses of nature afterward. Read all the stories.

A young boy hangs humpback whitefish on a drying rack next to a river.

Restoring the deep cultural ties between native communities and the environment is an important and challenging part of restoration after oil spills and chemical releases. Here, a boy from the Alaska Native village of Shungnak learns to hang dry humpback whitefish. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

When I’ve heard residents of the Alaskan Arctic speak about the potential impacts of an oil spill, I don’t hear any lines of separation between the oil spill causing injury to the environment and injury to the community.

Their discussions about the potential harm to walrus or seals inevitably include how this will impact the community’s ability to hunt for food, which affects both their food security and traditions. The cultures of these communities are inextricably tied to the land and sea.

So I ask myself, in the wake of an oil spill in the Arctic, how would we begin to restore that bond between the environment and the communities who live there? How can we even begin to make up for the lost hunting trips between grandparents and grandkids that don’t happen because of an oil spill? Furthermore, how could we help restore the lost knowledge that gets passed down between generations during such activities?

We know nothing can truly replace those vital cultural exchanges and activities that don’t occur because of pollution, but we have to try. Thanks to our federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment laws, polluters are made accountable for these lost cultural uses of natural resources, as well as for the harm to affected lands, waters, plants, and animals.

An Alaska Native expert teaches two boys how to cut and prepare pike for drying.

Many ideas for cultural restoration after pollution center around the concept of teaching youth the traditional ways of using natural resources. Here, students from the Alaska Native village of Selawik learn to cut a pike for drying from a local expert. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Here are a few examples of our efforts to restore these cultural uses of coastal resources after they’ve been harmed by oil and chemical spills, as well as some ideas for the future.

Community Camps in Alaska

When the M/V Kuroshima ran around on Unalaska Island, Alaska, in November 1997, approximately 39,000 gallons of heavy oil spilled into Summer Bay, Unalaska’s prime recreational beach. As a result of the spill, access to the bay and its beach was closed off or restricted for several months.

In an effort to restore the lost use of their beach, the local Qawalangin Tribe received funding for an outdoor summer recreational camp, which focuses on tribal and cultural projects such as traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and activities with Unangan elders in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. To ensure the safety of local seafoods eaten by the tribe, NOAA also arranged for further chemical analysis of shellfish tissues and educated the community about the results.

Cultural Apprenticeships in New York

Years of aluminum and hydraulic fluid manufacturing released toxic substances such as PCBs into New York’s St. Lawrence River, near the Canadian border. This history of pollution robbed the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, whose Mohawk name is Akwesasne, of the full ability to practice numerous culturally important activities, such as fishing. Legal settlements with those responsible for the pollution have provided funding for the tribe to implement cultural programs to help make up for those losses.

But first, representatives from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe conducted oral history research, hosted community outreach meetings, and solicited restoration project ideas from the community. As a result of these efforts, they determined that two main components of restoration [PDF] were necessary: an apprenticeship program and funding for cultural institutions and programs.

The long-term, master-apprentice relationship program focuses on the four areas of traditional cultural practices that were harmed by the release of hazardous contaminants into the St. Lawrence River and surrounding area. This program also promotes and supports the regeneration of practices associated with traditions in these four areas:

  • Water, fishing, and use of the river.
  • „Horticulture and basketmaking.
  • „Medicinal plants and healing.
  • Hunting and trapping.

Hands-on experience and Mohawk language training are also integral parts of the apprenticeship program.

In addition to this program, resources have been provided to a number of existing Akwesasne-based programs that have already begun the work of responding to the cultural harm caused by this contamination. One example is providing opportunities for Akwesasne youth and surrounding communities to receive outdoor educational experience in a natural and safe location for traditional teachings, such as respect for the land and survival skills.

Planning for the Worst and Hoping for the Best in the Arctic

Whales, polar bears, and walrus carved into a bowhead whale jawbone.

We need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil spill or chemical release to help them achieve the cultural connection with nature affected by pollution. You can see this connection in action at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, where local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale. (NOAA)

Discussions with Alaskan Arctic communities have yielded similar suggestions of potential forms of cultural restoration after pollution. A 2012 multi-day workshop with communities in Kotzebue, Alaska, generated an initial list of ideas, including:

  • Teaching traditional celebrations (e.g., foot races and dances).
  • Teaching subsistence practices and survival techniques.
  • Supporting science fairs with an environmental restoration focus.
  • Maintaining and transferring hunting knowledge by educating youth on proper whale, seal, and walrus hunting methods.

This last idea is particularly intriguing and would involve preparing a “virtual hunt” curriculum on how to shoot whales so they can be recovered, how to butcher an animal, and sharing the results of the hunt with others.

After working here at NOAA since 2008, I can rattle off plenty of restoration ideas for an oiled beach, or oiled birds. But when it comes to restoring lost cultural uses of the environment, there are no off-the-shelf project ideas.

Each tribe is unique and how one tribe’s members interact with their natural environment may not be the same as another tribe’s. While there may be similar themes we can build upon, such as teaching language and harvesting skills, we need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil or chemical spill to help them achieve once again what pollution has taken away.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Seep or Spill: Where Did the Oil Come From?

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

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

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

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

Respecting Native American Coastal Culture

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

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

Bringing Researchers into the Response

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

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

The Legacy of 1969

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

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

Moving Toward Restoration

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

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

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

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


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From Building B-17 Bombers to Building Habitat for Fish: The Reshaping of an Industrial Seattle River

Imagine living in as little as two percent of your home and trying to live a normal life. That might leave you with something the size of a half bathroom.

Now imagine it’s a dirty half bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned in years.

Gross, right? As Muckleshoot tribal member Louie Ungaro recently pointed out, that has been roughly the situation for young Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout for several decades as they pass through the Lower Duwamish River in south Seattle, Washington.

Salmon and Steelhead trout, born in freshwater streams and creeks in Washington forests, have to make their way to the Puget Sound and then the ocean through the Duwamish River. However, this section of river has been heavily industrialized and lacks the clean waters, fallen trees, huge boulders, and meandering side channels that would represent a spacious, healthy home for young fish.

Chair of his tribe’s fish commission, Ungaro sent a reminder that the health of this river and his tribe, which has a long history of fishing on the Duwamish and nearby rivers, are closely tied. “We’re no different than this river,” he implored. Yet he was encouraged by the Boeing Company’s recent cleanup and restoration of fish habitat along this Superfund site, a move that he hopes is “just a start.”

The Pace—and Price—of Industry

Starting as far back as the 1870s and stretching well into the twentieth century, the Lower Duwamish River was transformed by people as the burgeoning city of Seattle grew. The river was straightened and dredged, its banks cleared and hardened. Factories and other development lined its banks, while industrial pollution—particularly PCBs—poured into its waters.

More than 40 organizations are potentially responsible for this long-ago pollution that still haunts the river and the fish, birds, and wildlife that call it home. Yet most of those organizations have dragged their feet in cleaning it up and restoring the impacted lands and waters. However, the Boeing Company, a longtime resident of the Lower Duwamish River, has stepped up to collaborate in remaking the river.

Newly restored marsh and riverbank vegetation with protective ropes and fencing on the Duwamish River.

The former site of Boeing’s Plant 2 is now home to five acres of marsh and riverbank habitat, creating a much friendlier shoreline for fish and other wildlife. Protective fencing and ropes attempt to exclude geese from eating the young plants. (NOAA)

Boeing’s history there began in 1936 when it set up shop along 28 acres of the Duwamish. Here, the airplane manufacturer constructed a sprawling building known as Plant 2 where it—with the help of the women nicknamed “Rosie the Riveters”—would eventually assemble 7,000 B-17 bombers for the U.S. government during World War II. The Army Corps of Engineers even took pains to hide this factory from foreign spies by camouflaging its roof “to resemble a hillside neighborhood dotted with homes and trees,” according to Boeing.

But like many of its neighbors along the Duwamish, Boeing’s history left a mark on the river. At the end of 2011, Boeing tore down the aging Plant 2 to prepare for cleanup and restoration along the Duwamish. Working with the City of Seattle, Port of Seattle, and King County, Boeing has already removed the equivalent of thousands of railcars of contaminated sediment from the river bottom and is replacing it with clean sand.

From Rosie the Riveter to Rosie the Restorer

By 2013, a hundred years after the Army Corps of Engineers reshaped this section of the Duwamish from a nine mile estuary into a five mile industrial channel, Boeing had finished its latest transformation of the shoreline. It planted more than 170,000 native wetland plants and grasses here, which are interspersed with large piles of wood anchored to the shore.

Five acres of marsh and riverbank vegetation now line its shores, providing food, shelter, and calmer side channels for young fish to rest and grow as they transition from freshwater to the salty ocean.

Canada geese on an unrestored portion of the Duwamish River shoreline.

Protecting the newly restored shoreline, out of sight to the left, from Canada geese is a challenge to getting the young wetland plants established. Behind the geese, the artificial, rocky shoreline is a stark difference from the adjacent restored portion. (NOAA)

Now the challenge is to keep the Canada geese from eating all of the tender young plants before they have the chance to establish themselves. That is why protective ropes and fencing surround the restoration sites.

Already, biologists are beginning to see a change in the composition of the birds frequenting this portion of the river. Rather than the crows, starlings, and gulls typically associated with areas colonized by humans, birds such as herons and mergansers, a fish-eating duck, are showing up at the restoration sites. Those birds like to eat fish, which offers hope that fish such as salmon and trout are starting to make a comeback as well.

Of course, these efforts are only the beginning. Through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, NOAA looks forward to working with other responsible organizations along the Duwamish River to continue restoring its health, both for people and nature now and in the future.


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Alcoa Aluminum Factories Settle $19.4 Million for Pollution of St. Lawrence River Watershed, Most Will Fund Restoration of Tribal Culture, Recreational Fishing, and Habitat

For decades, two Alcoa alumininum facilities discharged toxic PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area in Massena, N.Y. Alcoa and Reynolds are paying $19.4 million to settle the resulting damages to natural resources. (NOAA)

For decades, two Alcoa alumininum facilities discharged toxic PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area in Massena, N.Y. Alcoa and Reynolds are paying $19.4 million to settle the resulting damages to natural resources. (NOAA)

In the northern reaches of upstate New York, just across and upriver from Canada, two factories chug along. Both now owned by aluminum manufacturer Alcoa, these factories have been producing aluminum on the banks of the Grasse and St. Lawrence Rivers since 1903 and 1958. And like many other industries in the past, these two Alcoa plants in Massena, N.Y., discharged a stream of toxic pollutants into the water, air, and soil around them.

Now, only a few miles away, dozens of young Mohawk children at the Akwesasne Freedom School attempt to reclaim their Mohawk heritage and a connection with the natural world and traditional practices endangered in part by the area’s contaminated history.

Today, the majority of the $19.4 million settlement with Alcoa and the former Reynolds Metals Company will go toward healing past wounds to this rich ecological and cultural environment with a suite of proposed restoration projects.

A History of Pollution on the St. Lawrence

Starting in the late 1950s, Alcoa and Reynolds used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in hydraulic fluid and electrical equipment as they produced aluminum at these two factories. Nearby, General Motors Central Foundry (GM) also used PCBs in the hydraulic fluids when building automotive engines and in electric equipment. The PCBs from these three facilities in turn made their way into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area.

Banned in 1979, PCBs are a group of persistent and highly toxic compounds which, in addition to causing cancer in animals, affects growth, behavior, reproduction, immune response, and neurological development. Manufacturing activities at these three factories released a slew of other industrial pollutants [PDF] that impacted the environment, including aluminum, fluoride, cyanide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, a hazardous component of oil, coal, and tar).

In 2000, Alcoa purchased Reynolds and as a result, Reynolds’ facility is now known as Alcoa East. Its sister facility, Alcoa West, is the longest continually operating aluminum facility in the world. The third, now-shuttered, General Motors factory sits next door to Alcoa East and has already paid approximately $1.8 million for environmental restoration in separate bankruptcy proceedings. Combined with $18.5 million from Alcoa’s settlement, the Alcoa and GM settlements will provide approximately $20.3 million for specific projects to restore access to recreational fishing, fish and wildlife, and Mohawk traditional practices and language.

Moving Toward Environmental Restoration

The St. Lawrence Environmental Trustee Council, a group of federal, state, and tribal governments which includes NOAA, has coordinated with the companies to assess the damages to ecological resources, recreational fishing, and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s cultural resources. Due to the history of industrial pollution released from these factories into the St. Lawrence River watershed, the sediments, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians along the St. Lawrence, Grasse, and Raquette Rivers have all suffered. Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, various cleanup activities, such as dredging and capping contaminated river sediments, have been attempting to remediate the polluted environment.

Improvements to spawning habitat and stocking of lake sturgeon is one of the restoration projects preferred by the natural resource trustees. (Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe)

Improvements to spawning habitat and stocking of lake sturgeon is one of the restoration projects preferred by the natural resource trustees. (Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe)

As part of a process that moves beyond cleanup, the trustees, led by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, have identified preferred recreational fishing, ecological, and cultural restoration projects to compensate the public for the resulting environmental injuries.

For example, contaminants from the three facilities degraded adult and juvenile fish habitat for species such as the American eel (currently being considered for Endangered Species Act protection) and the state-threatened lake sturgeon. The presence of toxic PCBs triggered fish consumption advisories for the St. Lawrence, Grasse, Raquette, and St. Regis Rivers. In place since 1984, these advisories have resulted in an estimated 221,000–250,000 fewer fishing trips on these rivers, both in the past and into the future. In response, four new boat launches will be constructed and one existing launch will be upgraded to provide shoreline and in-river fishing access points.

The trustees also will protect and restore wetland and upland habitat, enhance stream banks, improve impeded fish and other wildlife passage through the rivers, enhance fish stocks and spawning habitat, and restore bird habitat. The preferred restoration projects are described in the St. Lawrence River Environment Restoration Compensation and Determination Plan [PDF]. The public can comment on this plan and on the Alcoa $19.4 million natural resource damage settlement, which includes $18.5 million for restoration and nearly $1 million in reimbursement for past environmental assessment costs.

Reconnecting to the Natural World

One of the most creative examples of the preferred restoration projects centers not on restoring natural resources such as sturgeon, a species important to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, but on restoring the unique culture of the Mohawks, which is tied closely to the natural world.

A tribal apprenticeship program will work to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices, including basketmaking. (Akwesasne Museum and Cultural Center)

A tribal apprenticeship program will work to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices, including basketmaking. (Akwesasne Museum and Cultural Center)

Grassy meadows on both sides of the Lower Grasse River were set aside for the Mohawks of Akewsasne by the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796. The name Akwesasne means “the land where the partridge drums,” a reference to the sound created by the rapids of the St. Lawrence River prior to the construction of dams.

The people of Akwesasne were directly impacted by the contamination from the Alcoa, Reynolds, and GM factories. An innovative tribal apprenticeship program will seek to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices that have been lost or impaired since contamination limited use of the uplands, the rivers, and their natural resources. The tribe, as a trustee, has targeted four traditional areas for apprentices to receive hands-on training from experienced masters:

  • Water, fishing, and use of the river.
  • Horticulture and basketmaking.
  • Medicinal plants and healing.
  • Hunting and trapping.

The apprenticeship program will provide experience in directly harvesting, preparing, preserving, and producing traditional Mohawk cultural products while promoting Mohawk language in each aspect of the training.

Restoration funding also will support existing institutions and programs focused on recovering cultural practices and language injured by contaminants from these manufacturing sites.

For more information and instructions on how to comment on the preferred restoration projects and the settlement, visit the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website.


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NOAA and Canadian Partners Share Arctic Data Across Borders

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

The United States and our neighbors to the north in Canada share a border approximately 5,525 miles long. Some 1,538 miles (or roughly 28%) of which are shared with the State of Alaska alone. And with this shared boundary comes shared natural resources, shared interests, and the need for a shared understanding of how we can work together to protect our communities, wildlife, and environment from the escalating risk of oil spills and other accidents in the Arctic.

To that end, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration co-hosted a workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with the Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat (a Canadian delegate representing aboriginal interests to the Arctic Council) and the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center from February 12-13, 2013. The goal was to bring together representatives from both the U.S. and Canada to examine the potential for incorporating Canadian data into NOAA’s online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA®.

Arctic ERMA (Environmental Response Management Application) is an online Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool being used to prepare and plan for Arctic pollution response, assessment, and environmental restoration. ERMA brings together critical information needed for an effective emergency response in the Arctic’s distinctive conditions, such as the extent and concentration of sea ice, locations of ports and oil and gas pipelines, and vulnerable environmental resources which could be harmed by an oil spill.

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

Discussions at the workshop focused on identifying the regional gaps in data in Arctic ERMA, usable data formats, and how to improve functionality and access to information and tools that would help in the case of an oil spill or environmental accident. Workshop participants spanned multiple areas of expertise: government emergency responders, environmental protection and fisheries managers, weather and natural resource agencies, private industry, non-governmental organizations, local indigenous communities, and universities.

By the end, the workshop improved our understanding of U.S. and Canadian data management practices and systems, how we identify both the data that are available and still needed, and what the long-term training needs are for Arctic communities. We also discussed at length how to better incorporate traditional local knowledge about landscapes and natural resources in Arctic ERMA. We hope that engaging in these conversations and building strong relationships today will promote the kind of cooperation and collaboration that will carry us through any environmental emergencies in the future.

This joint workshop is a project under the Arctic Council’s Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group and under the agreement between Environment Canada and NOAA. Learn more about how the Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for oil spills and other pollution incidents in the Arctic.


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With Restoration, Will Willamette River Lampreys Rebound for Northwest Tribes?

This is a post by Office of Response Restoration’s Robert Neely and Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

It’s mid-summer, and something amazing is happening at Willamette Falls, a pounding cascade of water about 30 minutes from downtown Portland, Oregon. People are balancing on mossy, wet boulders tucked among the falls, reaching into its waters to harvest Pacific lamprey by hand.

A tribal member holds two lampreys in his hands.

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Tribal member Torey Wakeland displays some lamprey that were harvested at Willamette Falls on Monday, July 18, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Ron Karten.)

After pouring over the falls, the Willamette River rolls on for nearly 30 miles before joining the Columbia River.

Prior to the construction of dams throughout the Columbia River basin, which includes the Willamette River and its tributaries, native Americans harvested lampreys in many other locations in much the same way they do now at Willamette Falls: by braving the cascading water and slippery rocks to grab wriggling lamprey by hand or with dip nets.

Northwest tribes have relied on the lamprey for food, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes for generations, since long before the first European explorers and fur traders became aware of these falls. But virtually all of the tribes’ historic collection spots are gone now, either because they are submerged under dam-impounded waters or because lampreys are absent, their upstream journey blocked by dams. Willamette Falls is the last place in the Columbia basin where tribes can collect lampreys as their ancestors did.

So it’s not surprising that the tribes are concerned about the Willamette River lamprey and the rest of the Columbia basin lamprey population. In fact, lamprey numbers have declined steadily since at least the 1960s.  According to a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet [PDF], likely threats to lampreys include habitat loss associated with passage barriers, dredging, and stream and floodplain degradation; river flow alterations; predation by non-native species; poor water quality; changing ocean conditions; and exposure to toxic substances.

Willamette River lamprey may be particularly vulnerable when it comes to toxic substances. Paddle the river as it flows north from the falls and you will eventually pass by downtown Portland. It is about here that you enter the Portland Harbor Superfund site, an 11-mile stretch of river with numerous patches of contaminated sediments from more than 100 years of industrial and urban uses. Juvenile lampreys, called ammocoetes, must pass through this portion of river on their seaward migration, just as adult lampreys do as they return upriver to spawn. But it is the ammocoetes that are most likely to be at risk from pollutants buried in the riverbed.

Pacific lamprey

Pacific lamprey. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Lampreys are an anadromous species, which means they spawn in freshwater, spend their adulthood in the ocean, and return to freshwater to reproduce. In this respect they are similar to salmon, but lamprey life cycles are more complex. After hatching from their eggs, ammocoetes drift downstream to areas with slow-moving water and silty, sandy sediments. Here they burrow into the sediments and filter-feed for up to seven years before emerging to continue their journey to the sea. It is during this time that they may be particularly vulnerable as they eat contaminated foods and are directly exposed to pollutants for long periods.

Ammocoetes are known to use the stretch of the Willamette River encompassed by the Superfund site, and lamprey tissue samples collected from within the site show higher levels of contaminants than those collected from cleaner sediments upstream of Portland Harbor. It is not clear how ammocoetes in Portland Harbor are affected by contamination, but at least one analysis suggests exposure to contaminated sediment from Portland Harbor may adversely affect their behavior.

So what is being done? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with its partners and a group of companies called the Lower Willamette Group to assess risks to human health and the environment and to determine how best to clean up the river. EPA’s efforts are ultimately aimed at removing the threats posed by contaminated sediments.

NOAA is one of eight members on a trustee council that is working to understand how contaminants may have impacted natural resources. The council is also planning habitat restoration projects to make up for those impacts.  (The other members of the council include five tribes–Grand Ronde, Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce–and the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies.)

In addition to the lamprey, the council is planning restoration projects to benefit other types of fish and wildlife, like osprey, bald eagles, mink, and salmon. The council is focusing on these species because evidence suggests they may have been most impacted by contaminants and because they represent species guilds that are important in the lower Willamette River and similar Pacific Northwest ecosystems.

Tribal member displays cooler with harvest of lamprey.

Michael Wilson, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Tribal member and the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department manager, shows the lamprey that were harvested by NRD staff at Willamette Falls on Friday, July 29, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca McCoun.)

This summer, the council wants to hear what the public thinks about restoration in Portland Harbor. A plan that lays out restoration options to benefit lampreys and other species that use the lower Willamette River, Multnomah Channel, and parts of the Columbia River close to the Superfund site has just been released. The council wants to hear from tribal members; people who fish on the river; folks who like to bike, jog, or picnic along the river; and others who care about the health of fish, wildlife and other natural resources in the Superfund site.

The plan includes a list of 44 potential restoration projects, including activities like removing culverts to improve access to upstream habitats, creating off-channel areas with clean water and sediment where fish can rest during migration, and “daylighting” cold, clean streams that currently run through pipes in the heavily built-up and industrial section of the river. For the next couple of months, the council is hosting meetings, presenting at neighborhood associations, and attending community events around Portland to let people know about their work and gather comments on the plan.

To see a copy of the draft plan and a schedule of meetings and comment deadlines, visit http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/Contaminants/PortlandHarbor. And for a little lamprey fun, take a look at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s lamprey activity book [PDF].

Robert NeelyRobert Neely is an environmental scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration.  He has experience in ocean and coastal management, brownfields revitalization, Ecological Risk Assessment, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. He started with NOAA in 1998 and has worked for the agency in Charleston, S.C.; Washington, D.C.; New Bedford, Mass.; and Seattle, Wash., where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s been working with his co-trustees at Portland Harbor since 2005.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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Mussel Memory: How a Long-Term Marine Pollution Program Got New Life

This is a post by Dr. Alan Mearns, NOAA Senior Staff Scientist.

Volunteer scrapes mussels off rocks at Hat Island.

Kathleen Herrmann of the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) samples mussels at Hat Island, 5 miles offshore of Everett, Wash. Credit: Lincoln Loehr, MRC.

Scraping small black mussels off of slippery rocks in the Pacific Northwest’s chilly, wet January weather probably doesn’t sound like much fun. However, thanks to the dedicated folks who endure those conditions (and to several other important partners), these mussels and others tested in NOAA’s National Mussel Watch Program will keep telling us about water pollution levels and seafood safety for years to come.

NOAA's Gary Shigenaka and Tim Jones of Penn Cove Shellfish Co. sample raft-grown mussels from one of the numerous culture rafts.

NOAA’s Gary Shigenaka and Tim Jones of Penn Cove Shellfish Co. sample raft-grown mussels from one of the numerous culture rafts, five days following the nearby sinking of the derelict vessel, Deep Sea. Credit: Alan Mearns/NOAA.

For example, just last month a fishing boat caught fire and sank near Washington’s Whidbey Island. The boat ended up leaking diesel fuel into waters near a Penn Cove Shellfish Company mussel farm, and the company took the precautionary measure of stopping the harvest. Fellow NOAA scientist Gary Shigenaka and I rushed to the scene.

With help from the shellfish company’s co-owner Ian Jefferds, we sampled mussels from six mussel floats and two beach sites and received the lab results of the oil pollution screening a few days later. They confirmed that the mussels had low levels of diesel contamination. The Washington State Department of Health had shut down all shellfish harvesting in Penn Cove on May 15 and just reopened some areas on June 5.

Penn Cove Shellfish mussel farm floats, with protective floating boom surrounding the site where the fishing vessel sank.

Penn Cove Shellfish mussel farm floats, with protective floating boom surrounding the site where the fishing vessel sank in the background. Credit: Alan Mearns/NOAA.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have an existing Mussel Watch site in this cove. Nevertheless, thanks to comparable Mussel Watch sites nearby, we have a decent idea of what the contaminant levels in Penn Cove mussels might have looked like before this oil spill. But not long ago this valuable shellfish-monitoring program almost disappeared from Washington waters.

Endangered Research
During the past couple years, I’ve worked together with Dr. Dennis Apeti at NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and Dr. James West at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to help revive and expand the National Mussel Watch Program in the state of Washington where I live.

Under NOAA, the National Mussel Watch Program has been monitoring trends in contaminant levels in the mussels (Mytilus spp.) living in Washington waters since 1986. Regionally, this program has been tracking changing levels of pollution at up to 20 different locations in Puget Sound, the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, and Washington’s Olympic Coast.

This provides valuable water quality data on background levels and trends of fossil-fuel byproducts and other chemicals. These include about 50 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are potentially cancer-causing pollutants. By sampling mussels, we’ve discovered that parts of Puget Sound have significantly higher amounts of PAHs than anywhere else in the U.S., including heavily trafficked ports like Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay.

However, a steady decrease in funding over the past several years threatened to end NOAA’s mussel monitoring in Washington and across the country. As early as 2006, I was working as a volunteer member of the Snohomish County (Washington) Marine Resources Committee to convince the county, the Stillaguamish Tribe, and the Tulalip Tribe to help save the program by funding and coordinating their own local mussel sampling—and had some success by 2006 and 2007. But it wouldn’t be enough to save the program.

In 2009, I approached scientists at the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, who evaluate trends in Puget Sound’s environmental quality. Chief Eco-toxicologist Dr. West bit at the opportunity to help and got his department involved.

Volunteer Muscle
By the winter of 2009–10, we were ready to save the program with the help of citizen scientists. These were the hardy volunteers we helped train to collect mussels using scientific methods around Puget Sound and on the Olympic Coast. Many of these volunteers are part of Washington State University Beach Watchers, a program active in marine education, research, and stewardship.

Volunteers sample mussels at a Mussel Watch beach site near Edmonds, Wash.

Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee members and Snohomish County BeachWatcher volunteers sample mussels at the Edmonds Jetty Mussel Watch site, one of the National Mussel Watch Program sites. Credit: Alan Mearns/NOAA.

Alongside these volunteers was staff from the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. And of course, my NOAA colleague Debra Simecek-Beatty and I were out in our rain gear gathering mussels too.

From January through March 2010, both old and new collection sites in Washington had been sampled, and the mussels were sent to a NOAA-contracted laboratory for chemical analysis.

Then on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon/BP well blowout caused nearly every qualified pollutant chemistry laboratory in the U.S. to drop everything and support the oil spill response and assessment in the Gulf of Mexico. Our Washington samples were ready and waiting but got set aside for more than a year.

Forging Ahead
Anxiously awaiting results, but undaunted, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife began preparing for the next biennial survey in 2012. Thanks to new U.S. EPA funding, they now could expand the Washington program to test mussels at nearly 30 locations, which were sampled this past February.

Just last month, we finally received the long-awaited 2010 lab results. Preliminary inspection revealed a new hotspot of oil byproducts in Elliot Bay while several past locations like this disappeared from urban areas. I’ve been providing guidance for the data analysis, particularly for the petroleum hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Mussels and barnacles on rip rap rocks at a mussel watch site. Note also the seaweed, Fucus (popweed), and several dog whelk snails (that prey on mussels).

Mussels and barnacles on rip rap rocks at a Mussel Watch site. Note also the seaweed, Fucus (popweed), and several dog whelk snails (that prey on mussels). Credit: Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee.

The recent Washington Mussel Watch expansion is now poised to open sampling at 60 sites, including completely new areas, such as the San Juan Islands; to sample during different seasons to pin down big runoff pollution events; and potentially to use a new technique that allows us to sample in areas where mussels aren’t living already (by placing clean mussels in a bag attached to a buoy anchored at sea).

This Mussel Watch triumph of partnerships not only gives scientists and natural resource managers in Washington the ability to track the benefits of pollution management actions, but it also gives them a basis for comparing background contaminant levels in the event of an oil spill like the one near Whidbey Island, Wash. When cleaning up spilled oil, it helps us to know how “clean” any particular place was before oil spilled there.

As both a professional and citizen scientist myself (10 years of tracking birds in my backyard!), I know just how valuable this kind of work can be. I’m proud to be part of this association and look forward to a healthy future for tracking Washington’s marine health.

Many thanks to NOAA’s Drs. Gunnar Lauenstein, Debra Simecek-Beatty, and Dennis Apeti for assistance.

Dr. Alan Mearns.Dr. Alan Mearns is Ecologist and Senior staff Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division in Seattle. He has over 40 years of experience in ecology and pollution assessment and response, with focus on wastewater discharges and oil spills along the Pacific Coast and in Alaska. He has worked in locations as varied as the Arctic Ocean, Southern California, Israel, and Australia, and has participated in spill responses around the U.S. and abroad.