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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Abandoned Vessels of Florida’s Forgotten Coast

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis of the Office of Response and Restoration.

Derelict vessel with osprey nest on top of broken mast.

Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a pair of osprey had built a nest on an abandoned vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard called in NOAA for assistance as they were trying to remove fuel from that boat with minimal impact to wildlife. (NOAA)

There is a stretch of the Florida Panhandle east of the more heavily developed beach destinations of Destin and Panama City that some refer to as the “Forgotten Coast.” This area has vast tracts of pine forest including large stands of longleaf pine and savanna, towering dunes and nearly undeveloped barrier islands, seemingly endless coastal marsh, and miles and miles of winding shoreline along its expansive bays and coastal rivers.

It is no coincidence that much of the area is undeveloped; reserves, wildlife refuges, and other federal and state protected lands and waters occupy a large percentage of the area.

However, this flattened landscape of wild greens and blues is occasionally punctuated by the unnatural texture of human influence of a certain type: rusting hulls, broken masts, boats half-submerged in the muddy waters. It was one of these abandoned and decaying vessels that brought me to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

Birds-Eye View of a Problem

The U.S. Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats sprinkled throughout this region. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety.

Half-sunken boat surrounded by oil containment boom.

Even a small release of marine fuel in sensitive environmental areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Many abandoned vessels still have fuel and other hazardous materials on board. (NOAA)

As a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I provide assistance to the Coast Guard in their pollution response efforts. This support often involves analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment.

In this case, the Coast Guard called me with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. Their nest of sticks was perched atop the ship’s mast, now bent at a precarious 45 degree angle. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed.

As a federal agency, the Coast Guard must adhere to federal statutes that protect wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Essentially, these statutes require the Coast Guard (or other person or organization) to consider what effect their actions might have on protected species, in this case, osprey.

This is where we Scientific Support Coordinators often can provide some assistance.  A large part of our support in this area involves coordinating with the “trustee” agencies responsible for the stewardship of the relevant natural resources.

My challenge is evaluating the scientific and technical aspects of the planned action (disturbing the chicks and their parents or possibly moving the osprey nest in order to remove the vessel), weighing possible effects of those actions against threats posed by no action, and communicating all of that in an intelligible way to trustees, stakeholders, and the agency undertaking the action in question.

Fortunately, the pollution assessment and removal in the case of the osprey-inhabited vessel proved very straightforward and the abandoned vessels project got off to a good start.

Abandoned But Not Forgotten

Aerial view of abandoned vessels with osprey nest on mast, located in Florida waterway.

NOAA’s Adam Davis helped the U.S. Coast Guard with a project spanning more than 230 miles of Florida coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. (NOAA)

Over the course of eight weeks, I was fortunate to contribute in a number of ways to this project. For example, I joined several aerial overflights of the coast from Panama City to St. Marks, Florida, and participated in numerous boat rides throughout the Apalachicola Bay watershed to identify, assess, and craft strategies for pollution removal from abandoned vessels.

Ultimately, the project spanned more than 230 miles of coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. Most of the fuel was removed from vessels located in highly sensitive and valuable habitats, such as those located along the Jackson and Brother’s Rivers.

Portions of both of these rivers are located within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and are designated as critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon, a federally threatened species of fish that, like salmon, migrates between rivers and the ocean.

Even a small release of marine fuel in areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Impacts can be even more severe if they occur during a time when species are most vulnerable, such as when actively spawning, breeding, or nesting.  In addition, spills in these otherwise pristine, protected areas can have negative consequences for important commercial and recreational activities that rely upon the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

People on boats on a Florida coastal river.

When NOAA supports the Coast Guard with abandoned vessels work, our efforts often involve analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment. These Coast Guard boats are equipped to remove fuel from abandoned vessels. (NOAA)

While we’d like to be able to remove the entire vessels every time, which can be navigation hazards and create marine debris, funding options are often limited for abandoned vessels. However, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 enables us to remove the hazardous materials on board and reduce that environmental threat.

I find working in the field directly alongside my Coast Guard colleagues to be invaluable. Inevitably, I come away from these experiences having learned a bit more and increased my appreciation for the uniqueness of both the people and the place. Hopefully, that makes me even better prepared to work with them in the future—and in the beautiful and remote wilds of the Forgotten Coast.

NOAA's Adam Davis, left, on a Coast Guard boat removing oil from a derelict vessel.Adam Davis serves as NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 8 and NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham before entering the United States Army where he served as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist. Upon completing his tour in the Army, Adam returned home and completed a second degree in environmental science at the University of West Florida. He comes with a strong background in federal emergency and disaster response and has worked on a wide range of contaminant and environmental issues. He considers himself very fortunate to be a part of NOAA and a resident of the Gulf Coast, where he and his family enjoy the great food, culture, and natural beauty of the coast.


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Preparing for Anything: What to Do When a Hypothetical Ferry Disaster Overlaps with a National Presidential Convention

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

A small boat on the Delaware River with Philadelphia's skyline in the background

In June 2016, team of federal and state emergency responders practiced responding to a hypothetical ferry disaster and oil spill scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred in Philadelphia at the end of July. (Credit: Kevin Harber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When you’re in the business of emergency response, you need to be prepared for all kinds of disasters and all kinds of scenarios. Being a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator, the disaster scenarios I’m usually involved with have some connection to the coast or major U.S. waterways.

And being ready for a disaster means practicing pretty much exactly what you would do during an emergency response, even if it’s for a relatively unlikely scenario, such as a catastrophic ferry explosion, collision, and oil spill during a major political party convention.

What follows is the hypothetical scenario that a team of federal and state emergency responders walked through at a training workshop from June 12-14, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

U.S Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay hosted this practice scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred (thankfully without any major security incidents) in Philadelphia at the end of July. The team involved was comprised of members from the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New Jersey and Pennsylvania state police, U.S. Coast Guard, and NOAA.

Ready for Anything You Can Imagine (And This Is Imagined)

Exercise scenario: It is the first day of the Democratic National Convention, which is taking place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of elected officials and the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, are just arriving at the event.

The Secret Service reports that VIPs continue to land at Philadelphia International Airport. Security is tight. A large safety perimeter has been established around the convention center, with surrounding streets and highways closed to all traffic and thousands of law enforcement officers posted at strategic locations throughout the city.

Meanwhile, the RiverLink Ferry is making the 2:00 p.m. trip from Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. There are 21 passengers and two crew members on board. The ferry is crossing the federal channel of the Delaware River when an explosion of unknown cause erupts from the ferry’s engine room. The explosion causes the vessel to lose propulsion and steering. It begins listing to the starboard side and drifting down the Delaware River. Smoke can be seen billowing from vents and openings.

Simultaneously, the tug The Caribbean Sea II is pushing the barge The Resource II upriver. The barge attempted to avoid the distressed ferry but is unsuccessful, striking the ferry and causing significant structural damage to both vessels.

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

A damaged barge which caused an oil spill on the Mississippi River in early 2016. Responders need to prepare for all kinds of maritime disasters. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Numerous ferry passengers are thrown onto the deck or into the river; others begin jumping into the water. Responders from the U.S. Coast Guard, New Jersey State Police Marine Services Bureau, and the marine units of the Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments all rushed to the scene. Already, they encounter both seriously injured survivors and casualties as far as 200 yards down river of the vessels.

Rescue boats pick up eight survivors from the water and begin offloading them at Penn’s Landing Marina. Responders continue to evacuate people from the sinking ferry until it slips completely under water in the vicinity of the Penn’s Landing helicopter port. A total of 14 people are rescued and three bodies recovered, some found as far as a quarter mile down river. Six people remain missing.

Thankfully, no injuries are reported among the tugboat’s four person crew. However, one of the two crewmembers on the barge, a 60-year-old male, has fallen and broken his arm. He appears to be going into shock and needs to be evacuated.

As a result of the collision, the tug only has partial steering capabilities but continues to push the barge several hundred yards up river, where it drops anchor. The two damaged vessels remain in the river channel, and as responders assess the vessels’ conditions, they uncover that the barge is leaking oil. Manhole-sized bubbles of oil are burping to the water’s surface, coming from the port side damage below the water line. Oil appears to be leaking from a tank which is holding 5,000 barrels of oil. In all, the barge is carrying 50,000 barrels of heavy bunker fuel oil.

Reining in Hypothetical Chaos

Three damaged vessels. People injured, dead, and missing. A potentially large oil spill on a busy river. First responders diverted from a high-security national event to a local aquatic incident In other words, quite a hypothetical mess.

Was the explosion on the ferry due to terrorism? Was it due to human error? Or was it due to a mechanical malfunction in the engine room? We had to imagine how we would deal with these many complicated issues in the heat of the moment.

Group of responders in safety vests standing and sitting around tables.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, standing at right, briefing the Unified Command during another U.S. Coast Guard oil spill training exercise in Virginia in 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As a member of the local Coast Guard’s response team during this exercise, I helped with many key decisions and procedures and with establishing priorities for response. I acted as a member of what’s known in the emergency response community as the “Unified Command,” or the established hierarchy of agencies and organizations responding to an emergency, such as an oil spill or hurricane.

In this scenario, I was specifically charged with commanding, coordinating, and managing the oil spill response, which is my specialty. I started by identifying and obtaining resources to support the spill response and cleanup and conducting an assessment of natural resources at risk from the oil. Meanwhile, I coordinated with my NOAA support team of scientists back in Seattle, Washington, to provide information on local weather conditions, tides, oil trajectory forecasts, and modeling of the oil’s fate and effects.

In addition, I had to coordinate a variety of notifications and consultations required under the Endangered Species Act, the Essential Fish Habitat provision of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act, which protects historical and archaeological sites.

As you can see, my role during a disaster like this hypothetical one is far-reaching. And that’s not even everything. I also helped protect nearby wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas from the thick, spreading oil; prioritized which areas needed protective booming to prevent contact with oil; and led the response’s environmental team, which had representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Of course, all of this was an exercise and there was no ferry incident and no oil spill.

During the actual Democratic National Convention, which took place July 25–29, 2016, I was ready and waiting for any call for help from Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay. I’m pleased to report that it never came, but if it did, I’d know what to do.

Editor’s note: NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also supported the U.S. Coast Guard’s maritime security activities surrounding the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 18–21, 2016. Two NOAA staff members worked as part of the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Team in Cleveland, managing the event’s data in our online mapping tool known as ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), and coordinating with the several other agencies involved with the convention’s security.

The Coast Guard provided maritime security and monitored potential situations along the Lake Erie shoreline and the Cuyahoga River during the convention. ERMA allowed Coast Guard leadership and others in the command post to access near real-time data, such as locations of field teams and tracked vessels, as well as other agency data such as Department of Homeland Security safety zones, infrastructure status, and protest locations. This gave them a comprehensive picture of the Coast Guard’s efforts and the ability to assess potential issues from any location.

Photo of Philadelphia waterfront courtesy of Kevin Harber and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

Frank Csulak is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration. Based in New Jersey, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the Mid-Atlantic region, covering New York, Delaware Bay, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and North Carolina.


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Remotely Controlled Surfboards: Oil Spill Technology of the Future?

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s LTJG Rachel Pryor, Northwest Regional Response Officer.

A wave glider before being launched from the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.

NOAA is exploring how to use technology such as wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, to collect oceanographic data during oil spills. (NOAA)

What do remotely controlled surfboards have to do with oil spills? In the future, hopefully a lot more. These “remotely controlled surfboards” are actually wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, collecting oceanographic data. Solar panels on top of the gliders power the oceanographic sensors, which transmit the data back to us via satellites.

I recently learned how to use the software that (through the internet) remotely drives these wave gliders—and then actually started “driving” them out in the open ocean.

Gathering Waves of Information

On July 7, 2016, NOAA launched two wave gliders off the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson to study ocean acidification through carbon analysis in the Bering Sea (which is off the southwest coast of Alaska).

A wave glider floating in the ocean.

One of the wave gliders recently deployed in the Bering Sea, with its solar panels on top powering the sensors. (NOAA)

One wave glider has “Conductivity Temperature Depth” (CTD) sensors, a fluorometer, water temperature sensors, and a meteorological sensor package that measures wind, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. The other glider has a sensor that measures the partial pressure of carbon (which basically tells us how much carbon dioxide the ocean is absorbing), an oxygen sensor, a CTD, pH instrumentation, and a meteorological package. The pair of gliders is following a long loop around the 60⁰N latitude line, with each leg of the loop about 200 nautical miles in length.

These wave gliders will be collecting data until the end of September 2016, when they will be retrieved by a research ship. The wave gliders require volunteer “pilots” to constantly (and remotely) monitor the wave gliders’ movements to ensure they stay on track and, as necessary, avoid any vessel traffic.

I’ve committed to piloting the wave gliders for multiple days during this mission. The pilot must be on call around the clock in order to adjust the gliders’ courses in case of an approaching ship or storm, as well as to keep an eye on instrument malfunctions, such as a low battery or failing Global Positioning System (GPS).

Screen view of software tracking and driving two wave gliders in the Bering Sea.

A view of the software used to track and pilot the wave gliders. The white cross is wave glider #1 and it is headed east. The orange cross marks show where it has been. The white star is wave glider #2, which is headed west, with the red stars showing where it has been. The blue lines indicate the vectors of where they will be and the direction they are headed. Wave glider #1 rounded the western portion of its path significantly faster than the other glider. As a result, the pilot rounded glider #2 to start heading east to catch up with glider #2. (NOAA)

The two wave gliders actually move through the water at different speeds, which means their pilot needs to be able to direct the vessels into U-turn maneuvers so that the pair stays within roughly 10 nautical miles of each other.

Remote Technologies, Real Applications

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has been using autonomous surface vessels to do oceanographic research since 2011. These autonomous vessels include wave gliders and Saildrones equipped with multiple sensors to collect oceanographic data.

During the summer of 2016, there are two missions underway in the Bering Sea using both types of vessels but with very different goals. The wave gliders are studying ocean acidification. Saildrones are wind- and solar-powered vessels that are bigger and faster. Their size allows them to carry a large suite of oceanographic instrumentation and conduct multiple research studies from the same vehicle.

For their latest mission, Saildrones are using acoustic sensors to detect habitat information about important commercial fisheries, such as pollock, and monitor the movement of endangered right whales. (Follow along with the mission.)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is interested in the potential use of aquatic unmanned systems such as wave gliders and Saildrones as a spill response tool for measuring water quality and conditions at the site of an oil spill.

These remotely operated devices have a number of advantages, particularly for spills in dangerous or hard-to-reach locations. They would be cost-efficient to deploy, collect real-time data on oil compound concentrations during a spill, reduce people’s exposure to dangerous conditions, and are easier to decontaminate after oil exposure. Scientists have already been experimenting with wave gliders’ potential as an oil spill technology tool in the harsh and remote conditions of the Arctic.

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory is working closely with the designers of these two vehicles, developing them as tools for ocean research by outfitting them with a wide variety of oceanographic instrumentation. The lab is interested in outfitting Saildrones and wave gliders with special hydrocarbon sensors that would be able to detect oil for spill response. I’m excited to see—and potentially pilot—these new technologies as they continue to develop.

Woman in hard hat next to a tree on a boat.

NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rachel Pryor has been with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division as an Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator since the start of 2015. Her primary role is to support the West Coast Scientific Support Coordinators in responding to oil discharge and hazardous material spills.


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Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Fall 2016

Two men speaking on a beach with a ferry in the background.

Science of Oil Spills classes help new and mid-level spill responders better understand the scientific principles underlying oil’s fate, behavior, and movement, and how that relates to various aspects of cleanup. The classes also inform responders of considerations to minimize environmental harm and promote recovery during an oil spill. (NOAA)

Science of Oil Spills (SOS) classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled an autumn Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, October 3-7, 2016.

OR&R will accept applications for this class through Monday, August 15, and will notify accepted participants by email no later than Monday, August 22.

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.

The 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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Washington Sea Grant Launches New Program to Prevent Small Oil Spills that Add Up

This is a guest post by Lauren Drakopulos of Washington Sea Grant.

Marina in Seattle with small boats.

Small recreational and commercial vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in waters around Washington’s Puget Sound over the last 10 years. (NOAA)

To paraphrase an old saying, “There’s no use crying over spilled oil.” But many people in Washington worry a lot about oil pollution in Puget Sound and other coastal waters around the state.

What many don’t realize is that the biggest source of oil spills to date in Puget Sound isn’t tankers and freighters but small recreational and commercial vessels. Small oil spills from these types of vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in local waters over the last 10 years.

How do these small oil spills happen? A common cause is when oil, along with water, builds up in the bottommost compartment of a boat, known as the bilge, which has a pump to keep rain and seawater from building up. Oil from broken oil lines in the engine area or spilled fuel on deck can get washed down into the bilge and then pumped into surrounding waters.

Taking Charge of Discharges

Aaron Barnett holds a bilge sock next to stacks of them.

Washington Sea Grant’s Aaron Barnett preparing to distribute small oil spill kits in 2015. (MaryAnn Wagner/Washington Sea Grant)

In the future, however, Washington boaters increasingly will have access to a simple remedy known as the Small Oil Spills Prevention Kit, which consists of a small absorbent pillow, or “bilge sock,” that is placed alongside bilge pumps to prevent oily discharges from entering the water. Washington boaters will be seeing and using a lot more of the kits.

The Clean Marina Program, a partnership of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Northwest Marine Trade Association, and Washington Sea Grant, has worked for 20 years to minimize small vessel spills. But the summer of 2016 marks a change: for the first time the campaigners are targeting private boaters rather than marina managers.

Washington Sea Grant, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Washington’s District 13 Coast Guard Auxiliary have launched the Small Spills Prevention Program to provide boaters with the knowledge and tools they need to stop oil pollution at the source. Last year, in a trial run, Washington Sea Grant Boating Program Specialist Aaron Barnett succeeded in distributing 1,000 oil spill prevention kits.

This year that labor is bearing fruit: according to Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough, more and more boaters are requesting kits after seeing their friends and other boaters use them. As Barnett explains, the success of the program depends on first, getting the kits out to boaters, and second, word of mouth—with boaters educating each other about oil spills.

Pollution Prevention, Pollution Management

Boaters understand the importance of keeping their waterways clean. As frequent users, they serve as the first line of defense against pollution. “Boaters want to do the right thing,” says Brough, “and these [kits] make it easier.” He recently handed out spill prevention kits at a local marina on National Marina Day. “It’s like handing out candy on Halloween. Anyone with a bilge and inboard engine will take one.”

Brough also got a chance to see the kits in action. “At the marina office, one boater was getting a bilge sock to replace his old one from some extras I had given the yacht club a few months earlier,” he recounts. “The guy had gotten a crack in the lubrication oil line during a trip on the Sound. The broken line dumped a significant amount of oil into the bilge. The bilge sock he was using caught all of the oil, and none went overboard.”

Small spills can be expensive for boaters to clean up, and often cost is the first question boaters ask. In Washington the kits are funded through state oil taxes and made available to boaters at no cost, as part of the Small Spills Prevention Program. This summer, Washington Sea Grant hopes to hand out another 1,000 kits to boaters.

Lauren Drakopulos.Lauren Drakopulos is a Science Communications Fellow with Washington Sea Grant and is pursuing her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Washington. Lauren has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and her current research looks at community engagement in fisheries science. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach, and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit www.wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation with @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of NOAA or the U.S. federal government.


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In Florida, Rallying Citizen Scientists to Place an Ocean-Sized Problem Under the Microscope

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Young woman filling a one liter bottle with water along a marshy beach.

Florida Sea Grant has been teaching volunteers how to sample and examine Florida’s coastal waters for microplastics and educating the public on reducing their contribution to microplastic pollution. (Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Have you ever looked under a microscope at what’s in a sample of ocean water? What do you think you would find?

These days, chances are you would spot tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed).

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is giving people the opportunity to glimpse into Florida’s waters and see a microscopic world of plastic pollution up close. This project integrates citizen science—when volunteers contribute to scientific research—with education about microplastics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Maia McGuire of Florida Sea Grant. She’s leading the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, which is funded by a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, of which the Marine Debris Program is a part, has a long history of collaborating with Sea Grant programs across the nation on a range of issues, including marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded more than a dozen marine debris removal and prevention projects involving Sea Grant, and has participated in other collaborations with regional Sea Grant offices on planning, outreach, education, and training efforts. Many of these efforts, including the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, center on preventing marine debris by increasing people’s awareness of what contributes to this problem.

Combining Science with Action

Blue and white plastic fibers viewed under a microscope.

Volunteers record an average of eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, with seven of those eight identified as plastic fibers (viewed here under a microscope). (Credit: Maia McGuire, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

This latest effort, the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, involves building a network of volunteers and training them to collect one liter water samples from around coastal Florida, to examine those samples under the microscope, and then to assess and record how many and what kinds of microplastics they find.

“Everything is microscopic-sized,” explains McGuire. “We’re educating people about sources of these plastics. A lot of it is single-use plastic items, like bags, coffee cups, and drinking straws. But we’re finding a large number are fibers, which come from laundering synthetic clothes or from ropes and tarps.”

Volunteers (and everyone else McGuire’s team talks to) also choose from a list of eight actions to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution and make pledges that range from saying no to plastic drinking straws to bringing washable to-go containers to restaurants for leftovers. For those who opt-in, the project coordinators follow up every three months to find out which actions the pledgers have actually taken.

“It’s been encouraging,” McGuire says, “because with the pledge and follow up, what we’ve found is that they pledge to take 3.5 actions on average and actually take 3.5 actions when you follow up.”

She adds a caveat, “It’s all self-reported, so take that for what it’s worth. But people are coming up to me and saying, ‘I checked my face scrub and it had those microbeads.’ It’s definitely resonating with people.”

Microplastics Under the Microscope

The project has trained 16 regional coordinators, who are based all around coastal Florida. They in turn train the volunteer citizen scientists, who, as of June 1, 2016, have collected 459 water samples from 185 different locations, such as boat ramps, private docks, and county parks along the coast.

“Some folks are going out monthly to the same spot to sample,” McGuire says, “some are going out to one place once, and others are going out occasionally.”

After volunteers collect their one liter sample of water, they bring it into the nearest partner facility with filtration equipment, which are often offices or university laboratories close to the beach. In each lab, volunteers then filter the water sample, using a vacuum filter pump, through a funnel lined with filter paper. “The filter paper has grid lines printed on it so you’re not double counting or missing any pieces,” McGuire adds.

Once the entire sample has been filtered, volunteers place the filter paper with the sample’s contents into a petri dish under a microscope at 40 times magnification. “Because we’re collecting one liter water samples, everything we’re getting is teeny-tiny,” McGuire says. “Nothing really is visible with the naked eye.”

Letting the filter paper dry often makes identifying microplastics easier because microscopic plastic fibers spring up when dry. And they are finding a lot of plastic fibers. On average, volunteers record eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, and of those, seven are fibers. They are discovering at least one piece of plastic in nearly all of the water samples.

“If they have questions about if something is plastic, we have a sewing needle they heat in a flame,” McGuire says, “and put it under the microscope next to the fiber, and if it’s plastic, it changes shape in response to the heat.”

Next, volunteers record their data, categorizing everything into four different types of plastic: plastic wrap and bags, fibers, beads, or fragments. They use online forms to send in their data and log their volunteer information. McGuire is the recipient of all that data, which she sorts and then uploads to an online map, where anyone can view the project’s progress.

A Learning Process

Tiny white and purple beads piled next to a dime.

These purple and white microbeads are what microplastics extracted from facial scrub looks like next to a dime. Microbeads are being phased out of personal care products thanks to federal law. (Credit: Dave Graff)

“When I first wrote the grant proposal—a year and a half ago or more—I was expecting to find a lot more of the microbeads, because we were starting to hear more in the news about toothpaste and facial scrubs and the quantity of microbeads,” McGuire relates. “It was a little surprising at first to find so many [plastic] fibers. We have some sites near effluent outfalls from water treatment plants.”

However, McGuire points out that what they’re finding is comparable to what other researchers are turning up in the ocean and Great Lakes, except for one important point. Many of those researchers take water samples using nets with a 0.3 millimeter mesh size. By filtering through paper rather than a net, McGuire’s volunteers are able to detect much smaller microplastics, like the fibers, which otherwise would pass through a net.

“I think one big take-home message is there’s still so much we don’t know,” McGuire says. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge or research about what the impacts [of microplastics] actually are. We need a lot more research on this topic.”

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your contribution to plastic pollution, take the pledge with the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, and dive into the research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which are exploring:


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What You Can Do to Keep Plastic out of the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

A Starbucks coffee cup on a sandy beach by a seabird and people picking up trash.

Keeping a reusable mug in your bag or car can help you remember to opt out of much of the single-use plastic waste that inundates our lives. This coffee cup ended up on a beach in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, thousands of miles from the nearest city. (NOAA)

“Plastic doesn’t go away.” This point was really driven home for me after watching the video, “Open Your Eyes,” which is narrated by Jeff Bridges and produced by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. It serves to remind us how much single-use, disposable plastic we can go through in an average day—and the impacts of all that plastic on the natural world.

The majority of marine debris found around the world is made of plastic. The world’s more industrialized nations, including the United States, create a huge amount of plastic, and unfortunately too much of it ends up in earth’s waters and along its coastlines. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts [PDF] that in the future, as more countries become industrialized, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean will increase as well.

Reflecting on the pervasiveness of single-use disposable plastics, which are manufactured to be used once and thrown away, has forced me to look at my own behavior and ask myself, What types of plastic do I personally use in my daily life? How could we all use less plastic? And what could we do to keep the plastic we do use out of the ocean?

Here are a few areas to get started:

  1. Snacks. I tend to dash out of the house with grapes or apple slices in a plastic bag to eat while driving to work or the gym. A logical alternative would be to eat at home and skip the bag (eating in the car is a bad habit anyway!) or pack snacks in a reusable container.
  2. Coffee. On my way to work, I stop for a latte, complete with plastic lid so it won’t spill while I’m drinking it in the car. It would be better to drink it at the coffee shop in their ceramic mugs—it doesn’t take that long and doesn’t require a plastic lid. Better yet is to bring your own to-go mug.
  3. Grocery shopping. When I buy fresh fruits and vegetables, I could skip the provided plastic bags, or opt for paper or reusable mesh produce bags. Other things to consider at the supermarket: Buying foods like yogurt, cereal, and oatmeal in bulk, rather than single-serving packages; choosing a product packaged in cardboard or glass rather than plastic, such as cleaning products, ice cream, milk, condiments, and soda; and bringing your own grocery bags or boxes to get everything home.
  4. Eating out and on the go. At lunch I frequently buy salads to go in those plastic “clamshell” containers; better to bring food from home in a non-disposable container or buy something that doesn’t come encased in plastic. A lot of restaurants automatically include a straw in your iced tea or soda, so asking the wait staff to skip the straw when ordering makes sense (or bring your own glass or metal straw). Opt to drink water and other refreshing beverages out of a reusable glass or bottle, but if necessary, reuse and then recycle any plastic bottles and cups you do use. When taking food home or to-go, bring your own resusable containers and utensils, and skip the plastic forks, spoons, and to-go containers.
  5. Dry cleaning. Let your dry cleaners know you’d prefer to pick up your clean clothes without the plastic coverings.
  6. Cosmetics. Cosmetics and personal care manufacturers are phasing out polyethylene microbeads from cosmetics, cleansers, and toothpastes, which have been banned in the United States, but until the phase-out is complete, check labels and avoid products with “polyethylene” in the ingredients. Because of their tiny size, microplastics which are usually added to products as an abrasive (like exfoliants) pass through water treatment systems and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes.
  7. Trash cans. Open and overflowing trash cans (or recycling bins) don’t do much to keep trash off the street and out of our waterways. Use waste containers with a lid, and never toss trash on top of an overflowing trash can. Take it with you instead and recycle what you can.
  8. Beaches. When you visit the beach, pack out all your trash and pick up any trash you do see there (and report it with our Marine Debris Tracker smartphone app). Better yet, join beach cleanups to help remove trash from our waterways and coasts (which helps keep bigger plastics from breaking down into microplastics).
  9. Science. Join citizen scientists around the country and adopt a shoreline to help monitor how much and what kinds of plastic and other marine debris wash up each month. You can check out an existing project near you, such as the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project and the projects in National Marine Sanctuaries up and down the West Coast. Or start your own dedicated effort using these tools and resources and report your data to our national database.
  10. Community. We can all talk to our friends, family, students, or coworkers about the issue of plastics in the ocean and share this list of actions they can take too.

These steps are just a start, but they’re all things we can do with minimum impact to our daily lives. Even incorporating one of these actions into your life can make a difference in the amount of plastic pollution in our ocean.

As the lead federal agency for addressing this problem, the NOAA Marine Debris Program funds research on the harmful effects of debris, such as plastics, to the marine environment and efforts to clean up our nation’s coastal waters. They have lots of education and outreach materials with more information about the many ways we, as individuals, can help remedy this growing problem of plastics in our ocean.

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