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

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Explore Oil Spill Data for Gulf of Mexico Marine Life With NOAA GIS Tools

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the sheer amount of data scientists were gathering from the Gulf of Mexico was nearly overwhelming. Everything from water quality samples to the locations of oiled sea turtles to photos of dolphins swimming through oil—the list goes on for more than 13 million scientific records.

So, how would anyone even start to dig through all this scientific information? Fortunately, you don’t have to be a NOAA scientist to access, download, or even map it. We have been building tools to allow anyone to access this wealth of information on the Gulf of Mexico environment following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

We’re taking a look at two of our geographic information systems tools and how they help scientists, emergency responders, and the public navigate the oceans of environmental data collected since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

When it comes to mapping and understanding huge amounts of these data, we turn to our GIS-based tool, the Environmental Response Management Application, known as ERMA®. This online mapping tool is like a Swiss army knife for organizing data and information for planning and environmental emergencies, such as oil spills and hurricanes.

ERMA not only allows pollution responders to see real-time information, including weather information and ship locations, but also enables users to display years of data, revealing to us broader trends.

View of Environmental Response Management Application showing map of Gulf of Mexico with varying probabilities of oil presence and sea turtle oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with data source information.

In the “Layer” tab on the right side of the screen, you can choose which groups of data, or “layers,” to display in ERMA. Right click on a data layer, such as “Turtle Captures Probability of Oiling (NOAA) (PDARP),” and select “View metadata” to view more information about the data being shown. (NOAA)

For instance, say you want to know the likelihood of sea turtles being exposed to heavy oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. ERMA enables you to see where sea turtles were spotted during aerial surveys or captured by researchers across the Gulf of Mexico between May and September 2010. At the same time, you can view data showing the probability that certain areas of the ocean surface were oiled (and for how long), all displayed on a single, interactive map.

View of Environmental Management Application map of Gulf of Mexico showing varying probabilities of oil presence and sea turtle exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with map legend.

Clicking on the “Legend” tab on the right side of the screen shows you basic information about the data displayed in ERMA. Here, the red area represents portions of the Gulf of Mexico which had the highest likelihood of exposing marine life to oil. Triangles show sea turtle sightings and squares show sea turtle captures between May and September 2010. The color of the symbol indicates the likelihood of that sea turtle receiving heavy exposure to oil. (NOAA)

Perhaps you want to focus on where Atlantic bluefin tuna were traveling around the Gulf and where that overlaps with the oil spill’s footprint. Or compare coastal habitat restoration projects with the degree of oil different sections of shoreline experienced. ERMA gives you that access.

You can use ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response to find these data in a number of ways (including search) and choose which GIS “layers” of data to turn on and off in the map. To see the most recently added data, click on the “Recent Data” tab in the upper left of the map interface, or find data by browsing through the “Layers” tab on the right. Or look for data in special “bookmark views” on the lower right of the “Layers” tab to find data for a specific topic of interest.

Now, what if you not only want to see a map of the data, what if you also want to explore any trends in the data at a deeper level? Or download photos, videos, or scientific analyses of the data?

That’s where our data management tool DIVER comes in. This tool serves as a central repository for environmental impact data from the oil spill and was designed to help researchers share and find scientific information ranging from photos and field notes to sample data and analyses.

As Ocean Conservancy’s Elizabeth Fetherston put it:

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.

One of the most important features of DIVER, called DIVER Explorer, is the powerful search function that allows you to narrow down the millions of data pieces to the precise set you’re seeking. You do it one step, or “filter,” at a time.

DIVER software dialog box showing how to build a query by workplan topic area for marine mammals studied during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A view of the step-by-step process of building a “query,” or specialized search, in our DIVER tool for Deepwater Horizon oil spill environmental impact data. (NOAA)

For example, when you go to DIVER Explorer, click on “Guided Query” at the top and then “Start to Explore Data,” choose “By Workplan Topic Area,” hit “Next,” and finally select “Marine Mammals” before clicking “Run Query” to access information about scientific samples taken from marine mammals and turtles. You can view it on a map, in a table, or download the data to analyze yourself.

An even easier way to explore these data in DIVER, however, is by visiting and scrolling down to and clicking on #5 Preassessment/Assessment (§§ 990.40 – 990.45; 990.51). This will reveal a list of various types of environmental impacts—to birds, sea floor habitat, marine mammals, etc.—which the federal government studied as part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Say you’re interested in marine mammals, so you click on 5.6 Marine Mammal Injury and then 5.6.3 Data sets. You can then download and open the document “NOAA Marine Mammal data related to the Deepwater Horizon incident, available through systems such as DIVER and ERMA, or as direct downloads. (September 23, 2015).”

Under the section “Data Links,” you can choose from a variety of stored searches (or “queries”) in DIVER that will show you where and when, for example, bottlenose dolphins with satellite tags traveled after the spill (tip: zoom in to view this data on the map)—along with photographs to go with it (tip: click on the “Photos” tab under the map to browse).

Map view of DIVER software map showing where tagged dolphins swam in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A map view of DIVER shows where tagged dolphins traveled along the Gulf Coast, showing two populations that stayed in their home bases of Barataria Bay and Mississippi Sound. (NOAA)

This can tell us key information, such as the fact that certain populations of dolphins stay in the same areas along the coast, meaning they don’t travel far from home. We can also look at data about whether those dolphin homes were exposed to a lot of oil, which would suggest that the dolphins that lived there likely were exposed to oil again and again.

Both of these tools allow us to work with incredible amounts of data and see their stories brought to life through the power of geographic information systems. So, go ahead and start exploring!

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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Spring 2016

Two people closely examining rocks and seaweed on a shoreline.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a local beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled Science of Oil Spills (SOS) classes in two locations in spring 2016:

  • Mobile, Alabama the week of March 28, 2016
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan the week of May 16, 2016

We will accept applications for these classes as follows:

For the Mobile class, the application period will be open until Friday, January 22. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, February 5.

For the Ann Arbor class, the application period will be open until Friday, March 11. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, March 25.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.

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Using NOAA Tools to Help Deal with the Sinking Problem of Wrecked and Abandoned Ships

Workers direct the lifting of a rusted boat from a waterway onto a barge.

Clearing a derelict vessel from the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, Washington. NOAA has created several tools and resources for mapping, tracking, and dealing with shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. (Washington Department of Natural Resources/ Tammy Robbins) Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Walk along a waterfront in the United States and wherever you find boats moored, you won’t be hard pressed to find one that has been neglected or abandoned to the point of rusting, leaking, or even sinking. It’s a sprawling and messy issue, one that is hard to fix. When you consider the thousands of shipwrecks strewn about U.S. waters, the problem grows even larger.

How do these vessels end up like this in the first place? Old ships, barges, and recreational vessels end up along coastal waters for a number of reasons: they were destroyed in wartime, grounded or sunk by accident or storm, or just worn out and left to decay. By many estimates shipping vessels have a (very approximate) thirty-year lifetime with normal wear and tear. Vessels, both large and small, may be too expensive for the owner to repair, salvage, or even scrap.

So, wrecked, abandoned, and derelict ships can be found, both invisible and in plain sight, in most of our marine environments, from sandy beaches and busy harbors to the deep ocean floor.

As we’ve discussed before, these vessels can be a serious problem for both the marine environment and economy. While no single comprehensive database exists for all wrecked, abandoned, and derelict vessels (and if it did, it would be very difficult to keep up-to-date), efforts are underway to consolidate existing information in various databases to get a larger view of the problem.

NOAA has created several of these databases and resources, each created for specific needs, which are used to map and track shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. These efforts won’t solve the whole issue, but they are an important step along that path.

Solution to Pollution

Black and white photo of a steam ship half sinking in the Great Lakes.

The S/S America sank after hitting rocks in Lake Superior in 1928, but the wreck was found close to the water surface in 1970. This ship has become the most visited wreck in the Great Lakes, where divers can still see a Model-T Ford on board. (Public domain)

NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project identifies the location and nature of potential sources of oil pollution from sunken vessels. These include vessels sunk during past wars, many of which are also grave sites and now designated as national historic sites. The focus of RULET sites are wrecks with continued potential to leak pollutants.

Many of these wrecks begin to leak years, even decades, after they have sunk. An example of such a wreck is Barge Argo, recently rediscovered and found to be leaking as it lay 40 feet under the surface of Lake Erie. The barge was carrying over 4,500 barrels of crude oil and the chemical benzol when it sank in 1937. It had been listed in the NOAA RULET database since 2013. U.S. Coast Guard crews, with support from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, are currently working on a way to safely remove the leaking fuel and cargo.

As in the Barge Argo case, the RULET database is especially useful for identifying the sources of “mystery sheens” —slicks of oil or chemicals that are spotted on the surface of the water and don’t have a clear origin. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Response and Restoration jointly manage the RULET database.

Information in RULET is culled from a larger, internal NOAA Sanctuaries database called Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST). RUST lists about 30,000 sites of sunken objects, of which about 20,000 are shipwrecks. Other sites represent munitions dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater resources.

Avoiding Future Wrecks

The NOAA Office of Coast Survey’s Wrecks and Obstructions Database contains information on submerged wrecks and obstructions identified within U.S. maritime boundaries, with a focus on hazards to navigation. Information for the database is sourced from the NOAA Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC®) and Automated Wrecks and Obstructions Information System (AWOIS).

The database contains information on identified submerged wrecks and obstructions within the U.S. maritime boundaries, including position (latitude and longitude), and, where available, a brief description and attribution.

Head to the Hub

Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program developed and launched the Abandoned and Derelict Vessels (ADV) InfoHub to provide a centralized source of information on cast-off vessels that contribute to the national problem of marine debris. Hosted on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, the ADV InfoHub will allow users to find abandoned and derelict vessel publications, information on funding to remove them, case studies, current projects, related stories, and FAQs.

Each coastal state (including states bordering the Great Lakes) will have a dedicated page where users can find information on state-specific abandoned and derelict vessel programs, legislation, and funding as well as links to case studies from that particular state and relevant publications and legal reviews. Each state page will also provide the name of the department within that state government that handles abandoned and derelict vessel issues along with contact information.

Power Display

In select parts of the country, the Office of Response and Restoration is now using its Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) to map the locations of and key information for abandoned and derelict vessels. ERMA is our online mapping tool that integrates data, such as ship locations, shoreline types, and environmental sensitivity, in a centralized format. Here, we use it to show abandoned and derelict vessels within the context of related environmental information displayed on a Geographic Information System (GIS) map. In Washington’s Puget Sound, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard and Washington Department of Natural Resources can use this information in ERMA to help prioritize removing the worst offenders and raise awareness about the issue.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington's Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline's characteristics and vulnerability to oil.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington’s Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline’s characteristics and vulnerability to oil. (NOAA)

Now part of both Pacific Northwest ERMA and Southwest ERMA (coastal California), our office highlighted ERMA at a May 2015 NOAA Marine Debris Program workshop for data managers. This meeting of representatives from 15 states, four federal agencies, and Canada showcased ERMA as an efficient digital platform for displaying abandoned vessel information in a more comprehensive picture at a regional level.

Once again, removing abandoned vessels or reducing their impacts can be very difficult and costly. But we have been seeing more and more signs of progress in recent years, which requires an increasing amount of collaboration among local, state, and federal agencies and education among the public. By providing more detailed and comprehensive information, NOAA is hoping to help resource managers prioritize and make more informed decisions on how to address the various threats these vessels pose to our coasts.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton also contributed to this post.

Photo of derelict vessel used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

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

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

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

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

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

The Terrible Cost of the Battle of the Atlantic

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

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

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

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

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

NOAA’s Role with Undersea Wrecks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrecks and Reefs

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

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

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

Explore Shipwrecks While Staying Dry

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

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

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

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

Video frame of a diver exploring a shipwreck.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

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

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Births Down and Deaths Up in Gulf Dolphins Affected by Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

A mother bottlenose dolphin pushes her dead newborn calf at the water's surface.

Dolphin Y01 pushes a dead calf through the waters of Barataria Bay, Louisiana, in March 2013. This behavior is sometimes observed in female dolphins when their newborn calf does not survive. Barataria Bay dolphins have seen a disturbingly low rate of reproductive success in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

In August of 2011, a team of independent and government scientists evaluating the health of bottlenose dolphins in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay gave dolphin Y35 a good health outlook.

Based on the ultrasound, she was in the early stages of pregnancy, but unlike many of the other dolphins examined that summer day, Y35 was in pretty good shape. She wasn’t extremely underweight or suffering from moderate-to-severe lung disease, conditions connected to exposure to Deepwater Horizon oil in the heavily impacted Barataria Bay.

Veterinarians did note, however, that she had alarmingly low levels of important stress hormones responsible for behaviors such as the fight-or-flight response. Normal levels of these hormones help animals cope with stressful situations. This rare condition—known as hypoadrenocorticism—had never been reported before in dolphins, which is why it was not used for Y35 and the other dolphins’ health prognoses.

Less than six months later, researchers spotted Y35 for the last time. It was only 16 days before her expected due date. She and her calf are now both presumed dead, a disturbingly common trend among the bottlenose dolphins that call Barataria Bay their year-round home.

This trend of reproductive failure and death in Gulf dolphins over five years of monitoring after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is outlined in a November 2015 study led by NOAA and published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Of the 10 Barataria Bay dolphins confirmed to be pregnant during the 2011 health assessment, only two successfully gave birth to calves that have survived. This unusually low rate of reproductive success—only 20%—stands in contrast to the 83% success rate in the generally healthier dolphins being studied in Florida’s Sarasota Bay, an area not affected by Deepwater Horizon oil.

Baby Bump in Failed Pregnancies

While hypoadrenocorticism had not been documented previously in dolphins, it has been found in humans. In human mothers with this condition, pregnancy and birth—stressful and risky enough conditions on their own—can be life-threatening for both mother and child when the condition is left untreated. Wild dolphins with this condition would be in a similar situation.

Mink exposed to oil in an experiment ended up exhibiting very low levels of stress hormones, while sea otters exposed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill experienced high rates of failed pregnancies and pup death. These cases are akin to what scientists have observed in the dolphins of Barataria Bay after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Among the pregnant dolphins being monitored in this study, at least two lost their calves before giving birth. Veterinarians confirmed with ultrasound that one of these dolphins, Y31, was carrying a dead calf in utero during her 2011 exam. Another pregnant dolphin, Y01, did not successfully give birth in 2012, and was then seen pushing a dead newborn calf in 2013. Given that dolphins have a gestation of over 12 months, this means Y01 had two failed pregnancies in a row.

The other five dolphins to lose their calves after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, excluding Y35, survived pregnancy themselves but were seen again and again in the months after their due dates without any young. Dolphin calves stick close to their mothers’ sides in the first two or three months after birth, indicating that these pregnant dolphins also had calves that did not survive.

At least half of the dolphins with failed pregnancies also suffered from moderate-to-severe lung disease, a symptom associated with exposure to petroleum products. The only two dolphins to give birth to healthy calves had relatively minor lung conditions.

Survival of the Least Oiled

Dolphin Y35 wasn’t the only one of the 32 dolphins being monitored in Barataria Bay to disappear in the months following her 2011 examination. Three others were never sighted again in the 15 straight surveys tracking these dolphins. Or rather, they were never seen again alive. One of them, Y12, was a 16-year-old adult male whose emaciated carcass washed up in Louisiana only a few weeks before the pregnant Y35 was last seen. In fact, the number of dolphins washing up dead in Barataria Bay from August 2010 through 2011 was the highest ever recorded for that area.

Survival rate in this group of dolphins was estimated at only 86%, down from the 95-96% survival seen in dolphin populations not in contact with Deepwater Horizon oil. The marshy maze of Barataria Bay falls squarely inside the footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and its dolphins and others along the northern Gulf Coast have repeatedly been found to be sick and dying in historically high numbers. Considering how deadly this oil spill has been for Gulf bottlenose dolphins and their young, researchers expect recovery for these marine mammals to be a long time coming.

Watch an updated video of the researchers as they temporarily catch and give health exams to some of the dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, in August of 2011 and read a 2013 Q&A with two of the NOAA researchers involved in these studies:

This study was conducted under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These results are included in the injury assessment documented in the Draft Programmatic Assessment and Restoration Plan that is currently out for public comment. We will accept comments on the plan through December 4, 2015.

This research was conducted under the authority of Scientific Research Permit nos. 779-1633 and 932-1905/MA-009526 issued by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service pursuant to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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

Sick sea fan with discolored branches and hydroids covering it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Lies Beneath

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

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

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

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

Not a (Sea) Fan of Damaged Corals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Visualizing How Ocean Currents Help Create the Garbage Patches

Plastic water bottle floating in the ocean.

The “garbage patches” are not giant, floating islands of trash, but rather, ocean gathering places for what are mainly tiny bits of plastic dispersed throughout the water column, with some larger items as well. (NOAA)

The data whizzes at NASA recently decided to turn their attention from the sky to the ocean as they attempted to model how ocean currents help drive the formation of the “garbage patches.” From NASA:

“We start with data from floating, scientific buoys that NOAA has been distributing in the oceans for the last 35 years represented here as white dots … If we let all of the buoys go at the same time, we can observe buoy migration patterns … The buoys migrate to 5 known gyres also called ocean garbage patches.

We can also see this in a computational model of ocean currents called ECCO-2. We release particles evenly around the world and let the modeled currents carry the particles. The particles from the model also migrate to the garbage patches.”

Check out their data visualization here:

As you might gather from the visualization, the gyres, where “garbage patches” are located, represent massive, dynamic areas of the ocean that are constantly moving and changing—and as a result, are also bringing trash and other marine debris with them. Rather than giant, floating islands of trash that you can see from satellites (you can’t), “garbage patches” are ocean gathering places for what are mainly tiny bits of plastic dispersed throughout the water column.

Still fuzzy on what the garbage patches are and are not? Check out this video from the NOAA Marine Debris Program:

And tune in to this National Ocean Service podcast to learn what we know and don’t know about the garbage patches and what we can do about this ocean-sized problem:

You can also read about our own efforts to model where marine debris travels across the ocean.


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