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

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In Wake of Japan’s 2011 Tsunami, Citizen Scientists Comb California Beaches Counting Debris

Man with clipboard and bag walking on beach.

A volunteer counts and collects the marine debris washed up at Drakes Beach in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)

It all started nearly five years ago on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. A devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan in 2011, ultimately sweeping millions of tons of debris from the coastline into the ocean. But it wasn’t until June the following year, in 2012, that a 66-foot-long Japanese dock settled on the Oregon coast and reminded the world how the ocean connects us.

NOAA’s Kate Bimrose explained how this event and the resulting concern over other large or hazardous items of Japanese debris spurred the start of NOAA monitoring programs on beaches up and down the West Coast and Pacific islands. She coordinates the program that monitors marine debris in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the north-central California coast.

Thanks to funding from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, the first surveys in this sanctuary near San Francisco took place in July 2012, a month after the Oregon dock made an appearance. No previous baseline data on debris existed for the shores along this California sanctuary. The only way anyone would know if Japan tsunami marine debris started arriving is by counting how much marine debris was already showing up there on a regular basis.

Training a Wave of Citizen Scientists

Graphic showing an example 100 meter stretch of beach with four 5 meter transects.

Following NOAA Marine Debris Program monitoring protocols, volunteers survey the same 100 meter (328 foot) stretch of beach each month, randomly choosing four sections to cover. Next, they record every piece of trash bigger than a bottle cap in those areas. (NOAA)

To find out how much trash and other manmade debris was washing up, Bimrose trained a small group of dedicated, volunteer “citizen scientists” to perform monthly surveys at four regular California beach sites. Three are located in Point Reyes National Seashore and one is in Año Nuevo State Park, but all are fed by the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Following NOAA Marine Debris Program monitoring protocols, once a month two volunteers head to the same 100 meter (328 foot) stretch of beach, using GPS coordinates to locate it. Next, they randomly pick four sections, each five meters (nearly 16.5 feet) long, to survey that day. This ensures they cover 20 percent of the area each time.

For those areas, the volunteers record every piece of trash they find that is at least the size of a bottle cap, or roughly an inch long. Having this size standard increases the reliability of the data being collected, providing a more accurate picture of what the ocean is bringing to each beach. NOAA is confident that volunteers are able to scan the sand and find the majority of items larger than an inch sitting on the surface of the beach.

Taking Things to the Next Level

Bottle with Asian characters on the cap.

While volunteers occasionally turn up debris bearing Asian characters, no items reported from this program have been confirmed from the 2011 Japan tsunami. (NOAA)

All of the data volunteers gather—from number of items to types of material found—gets entered into a national online database, which will allow NOAA to determine trends in where, what, and how much marine debris is showing up. Leaving the items behind reveals how debris concentrates and persists on shorelines, information which is lost when debris is hauled off the beach.

While gathering this information is useful, Bimrose admitted to one sticking point for her: none of the debris is cleaned up from these four beach locations.

“We want to be able to remove the debris,” she said. “It’s painful for all my volunteers to be out there and record it and not remove it.” However, the good news is that a June 2015 expansion to this monitoring program has added two new beach locations to the rotation, and after volunteers record the debris there, they pack it out. In addition, Bimrose takes out larger groups of one-time volunteers to those locations and trains them on site, creating a broader educational reach for the program.

Bimrose hopes to recruit local school groups as well as businesses to volunteer. Before each survey at the new locations, she introduces the sanctuary and the monitoring program, while passing around mason jars filled with the trash collected at past surveys to give volunteers an idea of what to expect.

These new monitoring sites receive more recreational use than the previous ones, and at least for the one at Ocean Beach, a heavily used shoreline in the heart of San Francisco, that means finding a lot more consumer trash left on the beach.

From clothes and cigarette butts to food wrappers and even toilet paper, the surveys at Ocean Beach are markedly different from those surveys further north at Drakes Beach, the other new site. There, volunteers count and remove mostly small, hard fragments of plastic that appear worn down by sun and sea, indicating the majority of the debris there is brought to shore by the waves, not beachgoers.

Survey Says

Long blue piece of boat insulation sitting on a table.

A volunteer surveying a beach in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary found this piece of insulation from an elite sailboat that broke apart in San Francisco Bay in 2012. The debris took two months to travel to a shoreline 60 miles north. (NOAA)

After four years of monitoring and roughly 150 surveys, what have they found so far on the north-central California coast? More than 5,000 debris items recorded in all, which, as Bimrose said, is “a good amount but not too crazy.”

Expanding to six survey sites from four only increases what they can learn about debris patterns in this area. As more data roll in, NOAA will able to outline the regional scope of the problem and see patterns between seasons, years, categories, and locations of debris accumulation. One thing that is likely not to change, however, is that plastic debris dominates. It constitutes about 80 percent of the trash found at all sites.

While volunteers occasionally turn up debris bearing Asian characters, no items reported from this program have been confirmed from the 2011 Japan tsunami. Through other partners associated with beach cleanups however, three pieces of Japan tsunami debris have been confirmed in California. The most recent was a large green pallet with Kanji lettering that landed on Mussel Beach just south of San Francisco. The discovery reinforces the importance of continuing to monitor debris along sanctuary beaches and shows us how items can persist in the ocean for years before sinking, breaking up, or landing on shore.

Another unusual example linking a piece of debris to the exact event that released it occurred in 2012. During a training run for the America’ Cup sailing race, an $8 million boat capsized and broke apart in San Francisco Bay on October 16, 2012. Two months later, one of Bimrose’s volunteers discovered a piece of insulation from that boat on a beach about 60 miles north.

Every month, Bimrose tags along with at least one pair of volunteers for their survey of one of the four “survey-only” beach sites. On one such occasion, one volunteer, an older gentleman, brought along his wife, who was puzzled by her husband’s constant chatter about “his” beach. According to Bimrose, a lot of the surveys could be considered rather clean or even monotonous. But even so, after a day walking and counting with him, the volunteer’s wife told her, “I totally get it, why he comes out here and rearranges his schedule to do this.”

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Surveying What Hurricane Katrina Swept out to Sea

This is a post by Nir Barnea of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

Sunken boat next to a house in Louisiana.

Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge, over 25 feet high in places, destroyed houses, boats, and infrastructure along the Gulf Coast, and when it receded, it washed out to sea massive amounts of what became marine debris. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Hurricane Katrina was a powerful storm, one which brings a variety of powerful images to people’s minds: The satellite image of the huge storm moving toward the Gulf Coast, the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, damaged boats strewn all over like discarded toys.

But for me, the image I remember most vividly is one of stairways leading to homes no longer there. Driving along Mississippi’s Route 90 from Biloxi to Pass Christian on a hot August day in 2006, I saw dozens of them. They were the only remnants left of the beautiful beachfront houses that once lined that road, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina’s overwhelming storm surge.

Swept Away

The same massive storm surge that demolished these houses was the reason I was in the region a year after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The storm surge, over 25 feet high in places, destroyed houses and infrastructure, and when it receded, it washed out to sea massive amounts of what became marine debris.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and less than a month later, Hurricane Rita, the marine debris in ports and navigation channels was cleared quickly. However, the remaining debris, outside of navigation channels and in fishing and boating areas, posed a safety hazard to people, damaged boats and fishing gear, and hampered recreation and commercial activities.

To help deal with this debris, Congress appropriated funding in 2006 and again in 2007 to NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey and Office of Response and Restoration to survey traditional fishing grounds, map items found, disseminate survey information to assist with removal, and inform the public.

The project took three years. During the first phase, areas off the coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana were surveyed with side scan sonar. The survey teams generated maps of suspected underwater debris items (called “targets”) and placed them on the Gulf of Mexico Marine Debris Project website. We also shared with the public the locations of debris items determined to be a danger to navigation.

In the second phase of the project, our survey covered nearshore areas along the central and western Louisiana coastline. In addition to side scan sonar, survey teams used multi-beam survey technology for major targets, which is a powerful tool that provided us with vivid images of the objects detected.

NOAA, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Coast Guard, and the State of Louisiana collaborated closely to determine which targets were the result of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita and therefore eligible for removal. Many of the targets we detected were actually not the result of these two major storms.

Dealing with Disaster Debris

Overturned boat in water awaiting salvage with another boat salvaged in background.

To help deal with the debris not yet cleared after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress appropriated funding to NOAA to survey traditional fishing grounds, map items found, and share that information to assist with removal and public notification. (NOAA)

On September 2, 2009, the project partners met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a workshop summarizing the project. Participants provided insights and suggestions for improving the process, which were later gathered into the workshop proceedings [PDF]. We learned many lessons from this project, which should be put to good use in the future.

One of the things I liked most about the project was its collaborative nature. Project partners included two NOAA offices and eight contractors, Coast Guard, FEMA, a host of state agencies from the three impacted states, NOAA Sea Grant, and of course, the general public in the Gulf of Mexico. This collaborative effort did not go unnoticed, and the project received the Gulf Guardian Award for Partnership.

Hurricane Katrina was the first severe marine debris event for the young NOAA Marine Debris Program, established in 2005. It was not the last.

Over the last 10 years, our program, along with other parts of NOAA, have dealt with marine debris from Hurricane Sandy, a tsunami in American Samoa, and most recently, the influx of debris from the Japan tsunami of 2011.

Sadly, this trend suggests more such events in the future. NOAA and other agencies have learned a lot over the past 10 years, and we are better prepared for the next disaster which might sweep debris out to sea or bring large amounts of it onto shore (what we call “severe marine debris events”). Learn more at and

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The Earth Is Blue and We’d Like to Keep It That Way

Pod of dolphins swimming.

Spinner dolphins in the lagoon at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A pod of over 200 spinner dolphins frequent Midway Atoll’s lagoon. (NOAA/Andy Collins)

Often, you have to leave a place to gain some perspective.

Sometimes, that means going all the way to outer space.

When humans ventured away from this planet for the first time, we came to the stunning realization that Earth is blue. A planet covered in sea-to-shining-sea blue. And increasingly, we began to worry about protecting it. With the creation of the National Marine Sanctuaries system in 1972, a very special form of that protection began to be extended to miles of ocean in the United States. Today, that protection takes the form of 14 marine protected areas encompassing more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.

Starting October 23, 2014, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is celebrating this simple, yet profound realization about our planet—that Earth is Blue—on their social media accounts. You can follow along on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and now their brand-new Instagram account @NOAAsanctuaries. Each day, you’ll see an array of striking photos (plus weekly videos) showing off NOAA’s—and more importantly, your—National Marine Sanctuaries, in all of their glory. Share your own photos and videos from the sanctuaries with the hashtag #earthisblue and find regular updates at

You can kick things off with this video:

Marine sanctuaries are important places which help protect everything from humpback whales and lush kelp forests to deep-sea canyons and World War II shipwrecks. But sometimes the sanctuaries themselves need some extra protection and even restoration. In fact, one of the first marine sanctuaries, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off of southern California, was created to protect waters once imperiled by a massive oil spill which helped inspire the creation of the sanctuary system in the first place.

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

To minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies removed the Japanese dock that turned up on the Washington coast in late 2012. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock was also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

At times NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is called to this role when threats such as an oil spill, grounded ship, or even huge, floating dock endanger the marine sanctuaries and their incredible natural and cultural resources.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

In March 2013, we worked with a variety of partners, including others in NOAA, to remove a 185-ton, 65-foot Japanese floating dock from the shores of Washington. This dock was swept out to sea from Misawa, Japan, during the 2011 tsunami and once it was sighted off the Washington coast in December 2012, our oceanographers helped model where it would wash up.

Built out of plastic foam, concrete, and steel, this structure was pretty beat up by the time it ended up inside NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park. A threat to the environment, visitors, and wildlife before we removed it, its foam was starting to escape to the surrounding beach and waters, where it could have been eaten by the marine sanctuary’s whales, seals, birds, and fish.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

In an effort to protect the vibrant marine life of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA’s Restoration Center began clearing away illegal lobster fishing devices known as “casitas” in June 2014. The project is funded by a criminal case against a commercial diver who for years used casitas to poach spiny lobsters from the sanctuary’s seafloor. Constructed from materials such as metal sheets, cinder blocks, and lumber, these unstable structures not only allow poachers to illegally harvest huge numbers of spiny lobsters but they also damage the seafloor when shifted around during storms.

A spiny lobster in a casita on the seafloor.

A spiny lobster in a casita in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA is removing these illegal lobster fishing devices which damage seafloor habitat. (NOAA)

Also in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, our office and several partners ran through what it would be like to respond to an oil spill in the sanctuary waters. In April 2005, we participated in Safe Sanctuaries 2005, an oil spill training exercise that tested the capabilities of several NOAA programs, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. The drill scenario involved a hypothetical grounding at Elbow Reef, off Key Largo, of an 800-foot cargo vessel carrying 270,000 gallons of fuel. In the scenario, the grounding injured coral reef habitat and submerged historical artifacts, and an oil spill threatened other resources. Watch a video of the activities conducted during the drill.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Even hundreds of miles from the main cluster of Hawaiian islands, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument does not escape the reach of humans. Each year roughly 50 tons of old fishing nets, plastics, and other marine debris wash up on the sensitive coral reefs of the marine monument. Each year for nearly 20 years, NOAA divers and scientists venture out there to remove the debris.

This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi are documenting the effort aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. You can learn more about and keep up with this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.

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No Solid Mass of Debris from Japan in the Pacific Ocean

Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012.

There is no solid island of debris from Japan heading to the United States. Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. The barnacles on its bottom are a common open-water species. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

We’ve heard a concern from some of you that there’s an island of debris in the Pacific Ocean coming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For those of you who may be new to this topic, we’d like to address those concerns.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.

At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

We have some helpful resources for you, if you’re interested in learning more.

While there likely is some debris still floating at sea, the North Pacific is an enormous area, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the debris is or how much is left. A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years. As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.

NOAA has modeled the debris’ movement, and the model shows the overall spread of all simulated debris and an area where there may be a higher concentration of lower floating debris (such as wood) in one part of the Pacific. However, that doesn’t mean it’s in a mass, and it doesn’t tell us how much is there, it just shows there may be more debris there than in other areas. Observations of the area with satellites have not shown any debris.

Even though there’s no mass, addressing this debris is very important. NOAA has worked with partners in the states to monitor the debris, form response plans, and try to mitigate any impacts. We’ll continue that work as long as necessary. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to email us at

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Ready for a Vacation on the Coast? Thank NOAA for Helping Keep it Clean

The San Miguel Natural Reserve in Puerto Rico is made up of 422 acres of protected coastal lands and was acquired to compensate the public after a barge ran aground, damaging coral and spilling oil. (NOAA)

The San Miguel Natural Reserve in Puerto Rico is made up of 422 acres of protected coastal lands and was acquired to compensate the public after a barge ran aground, damaging coral and spilling oil near San Juan in 1994. (NOAA)

Spending time at the beach is reported to be one of America’s favorite vacation memories [PDF]. So, when our coasts become polluted, the effects can seem both traumatic and personal: damaged habitats; dirtied water; injured birds, fish, wildlife, and plants; and blemished places where we boat, fish, and play. But thanks to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, we help reverse these impacts—whether from an oil spill, toxic chemicals, or marine debris—through our scientific solutions for protecting and restoring our favorite natural places.

To celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week (May 4-12), we have gathered a few examples of the places you can visit that our office is helping protect and restore.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and turquoise waters—Puerto Rico is the quintessential tropical vacation destination. Besides surfing, snorkeling, and swimming at its more than 270 miles of beaches, this Caribbean island offers jungle adventures, resort relaxation, and Spanish colonial history. But on an island only 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, the ocean is never far away.

On January 7, 1994, just before dawn, a barge the length of a football field plowed into the picturesque surf near San Juan, Puerto Rico. When it grounded, the Tank Barge Morris J. Berman damaged coral reefs and spilled 800,000 gallons of a thick, black fuel oil into the deep blue waters off Puerto Rico’s Atlantic coast. After the grounding, the barge continued to leak, spilling more than 85,000 gallons of oily water as it was towed offshore and scuttled (intentionally sunk) 23 miles northeast of San Juan. About 169 miles of ocean and bay shorelines were affected by the spilled oil, disrupting beachgoers, boaters, and sportfishers for up to three months in some areas. The oil also crept onto the shoreline of several historic sites, including San Juan National Historic Site, a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in the end, nearly 111,000 square feet of coral reef were damaged from the grounded barge and subsequent response measures.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration was involved in a variety of activities from the start: forecasting the oil’s spread, performing aerial surveys of the spill, assessing impacted shorelines, and advising the Coast Guard on potential environmental impacts of sinking the leaking barge. Our involvement carried beyond spill cleanup and extended to evaluating and determining how the spill injured natural resources, which included people’s use of them. To compensate the public for the spill’s impacts, we helped implement a suite of projects focused on restoring damaged reefs, recreational beach use, and lost tourism at San Juan National Historic Site.

To begin restoring the coral ecosystems, NOAA and our partners built the Condado Coral Reef Trail, comprised of three underwater educational trails adjacent to a public beach. Along each trail, we placed ten pre-made artificial cement reefs, intended to establish similar reef habitat to that damaged by the barge grounding. This project wrapped up in the fall of 2008 and provides an incredible first-hand opportunity to learn about coral reefs and restoring natural resources in Puerto Rico.

San Francisco, California

According to the San Francisco Travel Association, more than 16.5 million visitors traveled to San Francisco, Calif., in 2012. Known as the “City by the Bay,” San Francisco is closely connected to its maritime heritage and marine resources. Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular northern waterfront area home to the city’s fleet of fishing boats, many of whose owners have been fishing there for three generations and bringing in the fresh seafood both locals and tourists savor. The Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most iconic bridge, links San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean and its bustling maritime commerce.

Point Bonita is in the foreground, looking across sheens of oil (lighter colored) from the Cosco Busan spill and eastward to Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Point Bonita is in the foreground, looking across sheens of oil (lighter colored) from the Cosco Busan spill and eastward to Golden Gate
Bridge and San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

But on the typically foggy morning of November 7, 2007, the 900-foot cargo ship Cosco Busan slammed against the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and caused one of the largest oil spills in the bay’s history. Scraping a 100-foot-long gash into the vessel’s side, the crash released 53,000 gallons of a thick fuel oil, which quickly dispersed into the surrounding waters and onto sensitive coastline both in the bay and along the outer coast. Similar to our efforts after the barge grounding in Puerto Rico, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided forecasts of the oil’s path, aerial oil surveys, oiled shoreline assessment, and other scientific support for the spill response.

In the foreground, the Bay Bridge tower that was hit by the M/V Cosco Busan, spilling oil into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. November 9, 2007 (NOAA)

In the foreground, the Bay Bridge tower that was hit by the M/V Cosco Busan, spilling oil into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Photo: November 9, 2007 (NOAA)

NOAA and our partners determined that, as a result, the incident oiled more than 3,300 acres of shoreline habitat, killed an estimated 6,849 birds and thousands of herring, and lost an estimated 1,079,900 possible recreational days for individuals. In addition, it temporarily closed a dozen urban beaches [PDF], and even shoreline along Alcatraz Island, a National Park and home to the infamous prison, suffered heavy oiling after the spill. More than $30 million was awarded from the company responsible to restore injured birds, fish, eelgrass vegetation, habitat, and lost outdoor recreation.

The bulk of these funds (tentatively $18.8 million) is allocated for a slew of improvements benefiting Bay Area recreational activities, such as picnicking, hiking, surfing, kiteboarding, fishing, and boating. These projects will take place in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, and other areas of the East Bay and San Mateo and Marin County. They range from improving beach and fishing access and enhancing trails and shorelines to repairing waterfront park infrastructure and supporting lifeguard and educational programs. Restoration is expected to begin in the summer of 2013, helping turn back the harmful effects of this oil spill on the City by the Bay.

Olympic Coast, Washington

A landscape view of the rugged Washington coast, with cleanup workers dismantling the dock and removing plastic foam to the right. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

A landscape view of the rugged Washington coast, with cleanup workers dismantling the dock and removing plastic foam to the right. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

Visitors flock each year to Washington’s breathtaking Olympic Peninsula to go hiking, camping, kayaking, and harvesting clams and oysters (just for starters). Driving the 350 miles along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, you can access an impressive amount of diversity along this state’s coast. From foggy sea stacks poking out of the Pacific Ocean to giant red cedars standing sentinel in old-growth forests to tide pools populated with vibrant orange and purple starfish, this coast abounds with natural wonders.

In December of 2012, however, a remote portion of the Olympic Coast received an unusual “visitor”: a 185 ton, 65-foot floating dock. Swept away from the Port of Misawa during Japan’s 2011 tsunami, it ended up beached within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park. The dock was built out of plastic foam housed in steel-reinforced concrete, which had been damaged as changing tides and waves continued to shift the dock’s placement in the surf. A threat to the environment, visitors, and wildlife, its foam was escaping to the surrounding beach and waters, where it could have been eaten by the coast’s whales, seals, birds, and fish.

Staging the dock's plastic foam for transport, when it was transferred off the coast via helicopter. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

Staging the dock’s plastic foam for transport, when it was transferred off the coast via helicopter. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

According to the Washington Department of Ecology website, “the intertidal area of the Olympic Coast is home to the most diverse ecosystem of marine invertebrates and seaweeds on the west coast of North America … Leaving the dock in place could [have] result[ed] in the release of over 200 cubic yards of foam into federally protected waters and wilderness coast.”

Fortunately, in March 2013, the National Park Service and NOAA worked with a local salvage company to dismantle and remove this hazard to the coast, using both federal money and a generous donation from Japan to fund the project and ensuring the Olympic Coast’s visitors can enjoy its healthy habitats for years to come.

To learn more about NOAA’s work protecting the coastal places we love to visit, go to

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Small Boat Confirmed as First Japan Tsunami Debris to Reach California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up with NOAA’s latest efforts surrounding the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris at