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


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National PrepareAthon! Day—April 30, 2016

Three students work at a table with cups of sand and oil.

Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT) is a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill. Here students work on an exercise during a recent NOAA-led course. (NOAA)

The White House has designated Saturday, April 30, 2016, as National PrepareAthon! Day.

This campaign asks federal agencies to work with their stakeholders to “coordinate a comprehensive campaign to build and sustain national preparedness, including public outreach and community-based and private-sector programs to enhance national resilience…”

By encouraging organizations and communities to participate, the goal is to increase the number of individuals who:

  • Understand which disasters could happen in their community
  • Know what to do to be safe and mitigate damage
  • Take action to increase their preparedness
  • Participate in community resilience planning

Here at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), we know the value of continually improving our capacity to respond to disasters. Whether it is about responding to oil and chemical spills, restoring the environment following a disaster, training emergency responders, developing response tools or making sure that we are communicating effectively during an emergency, our efforts are focused on having the skills and tools to respond quickly and effectively.

Please read: Resilience Starts with Being Ready: Better Preparing Our Coasts to Cope with Environmental Disasters to learn more about how we prepare for disasters such as oil and chemical spills in the marine environment.

We encourage you to visit the National PrepareAthon! website to increase your own preparedness for your local hazards.

Infographic showing cityscape, beach and water with corresponding response tools for each area.

Some of the tools NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has developed for use in responding to oil and chemical spills. (NOAA)


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Looking Back: Six Years Since Deepwater

beach-grasses (4)Wednesday, April 20, is the six-year anniversary of the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  That terrible incident was the start of a three month-long oil spill that spilled millions of gallons per day until the well was capped on July 15, 2010.    The cleanup took years to complete, the natural resource damage assessment was just finalized this spring, and restoration activities will take decades to complete.  Many long-term research projects are underway and we are still learning about the effects of the spill on the environmental and the coastal communities of the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 4, 2016, the court approved a settlement with BP for natural resource injuries stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This settlement concludes the largest natural resource damage assessment ever undertaken. It is safe to say that scientists will be publishing papers and results for decades.  For many of the people involved, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered THE SPILL, the same way the generation of scientists that worked on the Exxon Valdez Spill in Alaska almost 30 years ago consider that event.  We even keep track of events in a rough vernacular based on those incidents.  Post-Deepwater, or Pre-OPA (the Oil Pollution Act, passed in 1990, the summer after the Exxon Valdez spill).  But while those spills generate most of the publicity, policy interest, and research, responders in NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies know that spills are a routine occurrence.  Since the Deepwater Horizon spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has responded to over 800 other incidents.  Most are ones that you’ve probably never heard off, but here are a few of the larger incidents since Deepwater.

Enbridge Pipeline Leak, Kalamazoo, Michigan:  On July 25, 2010, while the nation was fixated on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an underground pipeline in Michigan also began gushing oil. More than 800,000 gallons of crude oil poured out of the leaking pipeline and flowed along 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River, one of the largest rivers in southern Michigan. The spill impacted over 1,560 acres of stream and river habitat as well as floodplain and upland areas, and reduced recreational and tribal uses of the river. A natural resource damage assessment was settled in 2015 that will result in multiple resource restoration projects along the Kalamazoo River.

Two kayakers on the river with vegetation visible on the water in foreground.

Kayaking on the Kalamazoo River. (NOAA)

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Rupture, Yellowstone River, Montana:  On July 1, 2011, an ExxonMobil Pipeline near Billings, Montana, ruptured, releasing an estimated 31,500 to 42,000 gallons of oil into the iconic river, which was at flood-stage level at the time of the spill.  Oil spread downstream affecting sensitive habitats.

Paulsboro, New Jersey Rail Accident and Release: On November 30, 2012, a train transporting the chemical vinyl chloride derailed while crossing a bridge that collapsed over Mantua Creek, in Paulsboro, N.J., near Philadelphia. Four rail cars fell into the creek, breaching one tank and releasing approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area, and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.

Molasses Spill, Honolulu, Hawaii: On September 8, 2013, a faulty pipeline operated by Matson Shipping Company leaked 233,000 gallons (1,400 tons) of molasses into Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor.  A large fish kill resulted.

Texas “Y” collision, Galveston, Texas:  On March 22, 2014, the 585 foot bulk carrier ‘M/V Summer Wind’ collided with an oil tank-barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil.  The collision occurred at the intersection or “Y” in Lower Galveston Bay, where three lanes of marine traffic converge: vessels from the Port of Texas City, the Houston Ship Channel and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.   The collision breached the hull of the tank barge, spilling about 168,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled into the waterway. A natural resource damage assessment is underway, evaluating impacts to shoreline habitats, birds, bottlenose dolphins, and recreational uses.

Refugio State Beach Pipeline Rupture, California:   On May 19, 2015, a 24-inch crude pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. Of the approximately 100,000 gallons of crude oil released, some was captured and some flowed into the Pacific Ocean.  The spill raised many challenges. The spill occurred in an especially sensitive region of the coast, known for its incredible diversity of marine life and home to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Refugio spill site is also the site of one of the most historically significant spills in U.S. history. Just over 46 years ago, off the coast of Santa Barbara, a well blowout occurred, spilling as much as 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean. A natural resource damage assessment for the Refugio spill is underway, focusing on impacts to wildlife, habitat, and lost recreational uses.

Two people in cleanup suits with a shovel stand on a beach with oiled rocks.

Two cleanup crew members work to remove oil from the sand along a portion of soiled coastline near Refugio State Beach, on May 23, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Barge APEX 3508 Collision, Columbus, Kentucky:  On September 2, 2015, two tug boats collided on the Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky, spilling an estimated 120,500 gallons of heavy oil.  The oil sank to the river bottom and had to be recovered by dredge.

Train Derailment, West Virginia:  On February 16, 2015, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia near the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Kanawha River. The train was hauling 3.1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a facility in Virginia. Of the 109 train cars, 27 of them derailed on the banks of the Kanawha River, but none of them entered the river. Much of the oil they were carrying was consumed in the fire, which affected 19 train cars, and an unknown amount of oil reached the icy creek and river.

Each year NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is asked to respond to an average of 150 incidents, and so far this year we have been asked for help with 43 incidents. Most of these were not huge, and include groundings in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii; five sunken vessels, fires at two marinas, a burning vessel, and an oil platform fire; nine oil spills and a chemical spill; and multiple “mystery sheens”—slicks of oil or chemicals that are spotted on the surface of the water and don’t have a clear origin. Since 1990, we have responded to thousands of incidents, helping to guide effective cleanups and protect sensitive resources. Also since 1990 and with our co-trustees, we have settled almost 60 spills for more than $9.7 billion for restoration. We hope that we will never have to respond to another “Deepwater” or “Exxon Valdez”, but should a large disaster occur, we will be ready. In the meantime, smaller accidents happen frequently and we are ready for those, too.

Doug Helton and Vicki Loe contributed to this post.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Camps in Alaska

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

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

Cultural Apprenticeships in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How Do We Measure What We Lose When an Oil Spill Harms Nature?

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

This is a post by economist Adam Domanski of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

A beach closed sign on a fence in front of an ocean beach at Coal Point.

When an oil spill closes a beach, economists will count how many trips to the coast were affected by that spill and use information on where those trips were originating to measure the lost value per lost trip. This informs the amount of restoration that needs to make up for those losses. (Used with permission of Chris Leggett)

After oil spills into the ocean, NOAA studies the impacts to animals and plants, but we also make sure to measure the direct impacts to people’s use of nature. This is all part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which makes up for those impacts.

Humans can value environmental quality just for its existence (think of remote mountains and pristine beaches). In the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, this “non-use value” is most often compensated for by replacing the natural resources or services that were lost.

Oil and Fun Don’t Mix

However, people can also value the environment because they use it for recreational or cultural purposes. For example, people may be affected if they can’t go fishing, boating, or walking along the beach because of an oil spill.

When oil or another contaminant comes near shore, sometimes people will cancel their planned trip, sometimes they’ll change where they’re going, and other times they’ll still take a trip but will enjoy it less. Trustees of the affected resources, like NOAA, apply different tools to measure these recreational use losses (we’ll talk about cultural losses in an upcoming blog post).

However, people may make one of these changes even if there isn’t any oil present on the beach. Sometimes beaches or fishing areas may be closed because cleanup crews or environmental assessment teams are present. Other times, people may hear about an oil spill in the news and may change their trip based on their reasonable expectation that the oil spill will affect their trip in some way.

Infographic showing three scenarios for how people react to an oil spill: some people stay home from the beach, some people go to a beach farther from the oil spill, and some people go to the same beach but have a less enjoyable experience.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, any one of these changes is an impact than we can quantify in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

Counting How Much Less Fun

Under the Oil Pollution Act, people generally can file legal claims for two types of economic losses related to recreational use due to a spill. Lost revenue to local businesses, such as stores, restaurants, and hotels, is a private loss and is reserved for those businesses to claim. On the other hand, the lost value to the would-be hikers, boaters, anglers, and swimmers is considered a public loss and is the responsibility of trustees, that is, local, state, and federal agencies and tribes acting as stewards of the affected public natural resources.

People walking on a developed portion of white sand beach at the ocean.

Pollution makes for a bad day at the beach, which is why NOAA also measures the impact of oil spills and chemical releases on people’s use of natural resources. (NOAA)

To measure these public damages, trustee economists will count how many trips to the coast were affected by that particular oil spill and use information on where those trips were originating to measure the lost value per lost trip. Together, these two pieces make up the trustee claim for lost recreational use after an oil spill.

To measure lost trips, trustees will often use on-site, telephone, or mail surveys in combination with on-site or aerial counts of people on the coast. Sometimes, we can take advantage of other data sources that already tell us how many people visit the coast, such as existing beach attendance data, parking meter counts, or recreational fishing surveys.

For example, after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay, trustees performed on-site counts of people at some beaches, used a telephone survey to estimate the levels of use at others, and relied on the California Recreational Fisheries Survey to estimate trips taken by anglers. This information was combined with weather data in a statistical model to predict the number of people that would have taken trips if the oil spill hadn’t occurred. The assessment estimated that there had been over 1 million lost trips.

The lost value per lost trip is measured using economic models that combine information on where people live and which recreational sites they can choose from. Just like shopping at the grocery store (where you choose from lots of different products at different prices), recreators choose between lots of different access points, each of which has a different “price” (in terms of gas and travel time).

People standing around a pier fishing.

When pollution affects people’s ability to use and enjoy natural resources, such as fishing, we use money from the entity responsible for the pollution to fund projects that will benefit the very same users who were affected. (NOAA)

Using many observations of how many people choose which sites at which prices, economists can measure the recreational demand for each site. When a site is affected by an oil spill, this model can be used to determine the lost value to recreators. For the Cosco Busan oil spill, this approach estimated that the average lost value per lost trip was $18.25 (as measured in 2007 dollars).

The goal of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is to compensate the public for the harm caused by a spill. After we calculate the lost value, the trustees aren’t done yet. Using money from the entity responsible for the oil spill, we spend restoration dollars on projects that will benefit the very same users who were affected. A few examples of projects we have built include fishing piers, boat ramps, parks, and artificial reefs.

Survey Says

So, how important are lost recreational use claims to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process? Here are a few approximate numbers from past oil spill cases:

As you can see, surveying how people use the environment is a critical part of this process. And although taking surveys can be annoying, they often times generate really useful data that economists get super excited about—and from which you can directly benefit. So, the next time you get asked if you want to take a survey, take the opportunity to make an economist happy and say yes.

Learn more about the economics of Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the value of a good day at the beach (video).

adam-domanski_150Adam Domanski is an economist who specializes in non-market valuation with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He received his PhD in Economics from North Carolina State University and has worked on numerous oil spill and hazardous waste site cases. In his spare time he enjoys traveling and spending time outside.


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10 Photos That Tell the Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and its Impacts

Exxon Valdez ship with response vessels in Prince William Sound.

The single-hull tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills. Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we’ve gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to “take time to be careful – now.”

Read more about the timeline of events leading up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2. A law for the birds

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically “bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” In other words, the Exxon Valdez.) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3.  The end of single-hull tankers

People observe a large tanker with a huge gash in its hull in dry dock.

Evidence of the success of double-hull tankers: The Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009 and despite this damage, did not spill any oil. (Texas General Land Office)

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez, and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull — and didn’t spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

 4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren’t the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was “killing nature.”

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the “AT1 Transients” which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating “AB Pod Residents,” lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed “Mearns Rock”—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

Read more about how these scientists are exploring these challenges and a report on NOAA’s involvement in the wake of this spill.

8. A game culture

A view of part of the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” with a map of Prince William Sound.

The game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” challenges players to clean all 200 miles of shoreline oiled by the Exxon Valdez — and do so with limits on time and money. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, ARLIS)

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That’s right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with "On the rocks," is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay.

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with “On the rocks,” is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay. (NOAA)

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship’s salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez–related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship’s launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

See more photos of his collection.

10. The infamous ship’s fate

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean.

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety, it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.


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Supporting the Response to a Platform Fire and Oil Spill in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana

Fire burns in one of several oil tanks on a platform in a bayou.

The Coast Guard, with state and local partners, is responding to an oil production platform fire in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana, March 15, 2016. One of the tanks reportedly collapsed, releasing an unknown amount of crude oil into a canal. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On the morning of March 15, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard requested assistance from NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration for an oil production platform fire near Berry Lake in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana.

While crews were working to dismantle the platform, one of the oil storage tanks caught fire. No injuries have been reported. The U.S. Coast Guard is leading the response with state and local agencies.

The platform and one of its storage tanks burned throughout the day on March 15 before the tank partially collapsed, releasing crude oil into a canal. Most of the oil released from the tank continued to burn on the water surface and was consumed.

Responders contained the remaining oil and burn residue in the canal with boom.

Fire-fighting vessel sprays water on an oil tank on a platform in a bayou.

Response crews extinguished the fire on the oil production platform and will continue to monitor the scene in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A second tank on the platform subsequently caught fire but has been extinguished. The two storage tanks had a maximum capacity of more than 33,000 gallons of crude oil.

We are assisting the Coast Guard’s response by coordinating local weather forecast support, modeling the potential trajectory of spills of oil or burn residue, and outlining the wildlife and habitats that could be at risk in the area. A NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator has reported to the response to provide further help and assess potential impacts of the oil spill.

Bayou Sorrel is predominantly composed of seasonally flooded, forested wetlands with some patches of freshwater marshes and open canals. While oil is unlikely to penetrate flooded or water-saturated soils, it will readily coat and become mixed with floating debris such as branches and leaves.

A variety of birds, particularly diving and wading birds and waterfowl, may be present in the area and might be at risk of coming into contact with oil, which can coat their feathers, be ingested, or inhaled. In addition, fish and invertebrates such as crawfish may be present or spawning in the marshy habitats surrounding the oil platform, and alligators and small-to-medium-sized mammals including mink and river otters may be nearby.

In 2013, NOAA provided on-site technical support for an oil spill from a pipeline in Bayou Sorrel and helped coordinate a controlled burn of the spilled oil in the area’s flooded, wooded swamps. Additionally, we assisted with other oil spills in this area in 2015, 2007, and 1988.

Look for more information about the current oil spill and fire here and at the U.S. Coast Guard’s media site.


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For the First Time in Decades, Scientists Examine How Oil Spills Might Affect Baleen Whales

A North Atlantic right whale's mouth is visible at the ocean surface.

NOAA scientists and partners recently collaborated to examine how oil and dispersants might affect the function of baleen in humpback, bowhead, and right whales (pictured). Hundreds of baleen plates hang from these whales’ top jaws and allow them to filter food from the water. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Permit 15488)

Several days of unseasonably warm weather in late September had Gary Shigenaka starting to wonder how much longer he and his colleagues would be welcome at Ohmsett, a national oil spill research facility in New Jersey.

They were working with whale baleen, and although the gum tissue anchoring their baleen samples had been preserved with formalin, the balmy fall weather was taking a toll. As a result, things were starting to smell a little rank.

Fortunately, cooler weather rounded out that first week of experiments, and the group, of course, was invited back again. Over the course of three week-long trials in September, December, and January, they were trying to tease out the potential impacts of oil and dispersants on whale baleen.

As a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Shigenaka’s job is to consider how oil spills might threaten marine life and advise the U.S. Coast Guard on this issue during a spill response.

But the last time scientists had examined how oil might affect whale baleen was in a handful of studies back in the 1980s. This research took place before the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spills and predated numerous advances in scientific technique, technology, and understanding.

Thanks to a recent opportunity provided by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which runs the Ohmsett facility, Shigenaka and a team of scientists, engineers, and oil spill experts have been able to revisit this question in the facility’s 2.6 million gallon saltwater tank.

The diverse team that made this study possible hails not just from NOAA but also Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (Dr. Todd Sformo), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Dr. Michael Moore and Tom Lanagan), Hampden-Sydney College (Dr. Alexander Werth), and Oil Spill Response Limited (Paul Schuler). In addition, NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program provided substantial support for the project, including funding and regulatory expertise, and was coordinated by Dr. Teri Rowles.

Getting a Mouthful

To understand why this group is focused on baleen and how an oil spill might affect this particular part of a whale, you first need to understand what baleen is and how a whale uses it. Similar to fingernails and hooves, baleen is composed of the protein keratin, along with a few calcium salts, giving it a tough but pliable character.

A hand holds a ruler next to oiled baleen hanging from a clamp next to a man.

Made of the flexible substance keratin, baleen plates have tangles of “fringe hair” that act as nets to strain marine life from mouthfuls of ocean water. This study examined how oil and dispersants might affect the performance of baleen. (NOAA)

Twelve species of whales, including humpback and bowhead, have hundreds of long plates of baleen hanging from the top jaw, lined up like the teeth on a comb, which they use to filter feed. A whale’s tongue rubs against its baleen plates, fraying their inner edges and creating tangles of “fringe hair” that act like nets to catch tiny sea creatures as the whale strains massive gulps of ocean water back out through the baleen plates.

Baleen does vary somewhat between species of whales. Some might have longer or shorter baleen plates, for example, depending on what the whale eats. Bowhead whales, which are Arctic plankton-eaters, can have plates up to 13 feet long.

This study was, at least in part, inspired by scientists wondering what would happen to a bowhead whale if a mouthful of water brought not just lunch but also crude oil from an ill-fated tanker traversing its Arctic waters.

Would oil pass through a whale’s hundreds of baleen plates and coat their mats of fringe hairs? Would that oil make it more difficult for the whale to push huge volumes of water through the oily baleen, causing the whale to use more energy as it tried? Does that result change whether the oil is freshly spilled, or weathered with age, or dispersed with chemicals? Would dispersant make it easier for oil to reach a whale’s gut?

Using more energy to get food would mean the whales then would need to eat even more food to make up for the energy difference, creating a tiring cycle that could tax these gargantuan marine mammals.

Testing this hypothesis has been the objective of Shigenaka’s team. While it might sound simple, almost nothing about the project has been straightforward.

Challenges as Big as a Whale

One of the first challenges was tackled by the engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They were tasked with turning the mechanical features of Ohmsett’s giant saltwater tank into, essentially, a baleen whale’s mouth.

Woods Hole fabricated a special clamp and then worked with the Ohmsett engineering staff to attach it to a corresponding mount on the mechanical bridges that move back and forth over the giant tank. The clamp gripped the sections of baleen and allowed them to be held at different angles as they moved through the water. In addition, this custom clamp had a load cell, which was connected to a computer on the bridge. As the bridge moved the clamp and baleen at different speeds and angles through the water, the team could measure change in drag on the baleen via the load cell.

With the mechanical portion set up, the Ohmsett staff released oil into the test tank on the surface of the water, and the team watched expectantly how the bridges moved the baleen through the thin oil slick. It turned out to be a pretty inefficient way to get oil on baleen. “How might a whale deal with oil on the surface of the water?” asked Shigenaka. “If it’s feeding, it might scoop up a mouthful of water and oil and run it through the baleen.” But how could they simulate that experience?

They tried using paintbrushes to apply crude oil to the baleen, but that seemed to alter the character of the baleen too much, matting down the fringe hairs. After discussions with the Ohmsett engineering staff, the research team finally settled on dipping the baleen into a pool of floating oil that was contained by a floating ring. This set-up allowed a relatively heavy amount of oil to contact baleen in the water and would help the scientists calibrate their expectations about potential impacts.

Testing the Waters

Four black plumes of dispersed oil are released underwater onto long plates of baleen moving behind the applicator.

After mixing chemical dispersant with oil, the research team released plumes of it underwater in Ohmsett’s test tank as baleen samples moved through the water behind the applicator. Researchers also tested the effects of dispersant alone on baleen function. (NOAA)

In all, Shigenaka and his teammates ran 127 different trials across this experiment. They measured the drag values for baleen in a variety of combinations: through saltwater alone, with fresh oil, with weathered oil, with dispersed oil (pre-mixed and released underwater through a custom array designed and built by Ohmsett staff), and with chemical dispersant alone. They tested during temperate weather as well as lower temperature conditions, which clearly thickened the consistency of the oil. They conducted the tests using baleen from three different species of whales: bowhead, humpback, and right whale.

Following all the required regulations and with the proper permits, the bowhead baleen was donated by subsistence whalers from Barrow, Alaska. The baleen from other species came from whales that had stranded on beaches from locations outside of Alaska.

In addition to testing the potential changes in drag on the baleen, the team of researchers used an electric razor to shave off baleen fringe hairs as samples for chemical analysis to determine whether the oil or dispersant had any effects on baleen at the molecular level. They also determined how much oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant were retained on the baleen fringe hairs after the trials.

At this point, the team is analyzing the data from the experimental trials and plans to submit the results for publication in a scientific journal. NOAA is also beginning to create a guidance document on oil and cetaceans (whales and dolphins), which will incorporate the conclusions of this research.

While the scientific community has learned a lot about the apparent effects of oil on dolphins in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there is very little information on large whales. The body of research on oil’s effects on baleen from the 1980s concluded that there were few and transient effects, but whether that conclusion holds up today remains to be seen.

“This is another piece of the puzzle,” said Shigenaka. “If we can distill response-relevant guidance that helps to mediate spill impacts to whales, then we will have been successful.”

Work was conducted under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Permits 17350 and 18786.

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