NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

Leave a comment

When Boats Don’t Float: From Sunken Wrecks to Abandoned Ships

Derelict boat in a Gulf marsh.

Ships end up wrecked or abandoned for many reasons and can cause a variety of environmental and economic issues. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of vessels like this one needed to be scrapped or salvaged in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

The waterways and coastlines of the United States are an important national resource, supporting jobs and providing views and recreation. However, the past century of maritime commerce, recreation, and even warfare has left a legacy of thousands of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels along our coasts, rivers, and lakes.

Some of these sunken shipwrecks are large commercial and military vessels such as the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes; and the recent tragic loss of the 790 foot cargo ship El Faro and its crew off the Bahamas.

These large vessels may be environmental threats because of their cargoes, munitions, and fuel, but many also are designated as submerged cultural resources—part of our maritime heritage. Some even serve as memorials or national historic landmarks. Unless they are pollution hazards, or shallow enough to be threats to navigation or become dive sites, most are largely forgotten and left undisturbed in their deep, watery resting sites.

But another class of wrecks, abandoned and derelict boats, are a highly visible problem in almost every U.S. port and waterway. Some vessels are dilapidated but still afloat, while others are left stranded on shorelines, or hidden just below the surface of the water. These vessels can have significant impacts on the coastal environment and economy, including oil pollution, marine debris, and wildlife entrapment. They become hazards to navigation, illegal release points for waste oils and hazardous materials, and general threats to public health and safety.

Large rusted out ship in shallow water surrounded by corals.

Some shipwrecks, like this one stranded among coral in American Samoa, can become threats to marine life and people. (NOAA)

Most derelict and abandoned vessels are the result of chronic processes—rot and rust and deterioration from lack of maintenance or economic obsolescence—with vessels slowly worsening until they sink or become too expensive to repair, and around that point are abandoned.

Others are mothballed or are awaiting repair or dismantling. If the owners can’t afford moorage and repairs, or if the costs to dismantle the ship exceed the value of the scrap, the owners often dump the boat and disappear. Many vessels end up sinking at moorings, becoming partially submerged in intertidal areas, or stranding on shorelines after their moorings fail. These vessels typically lack insurance, have little value, and have insolvent or absentee owners, a problematic and expensive combination.

Another source of abandoned vessels comes from major natural disasters. After large hurricanes, coastal storms, and tsunamis, a large number of vessels of varying sizes, conditions, and types may be damaged or set adrift in coastal waters. For example, approximately 3,500 commercial vessels and countless recreational vessels needed to be salvaged or scrapped after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. And remember the empty squid boat that drifted across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami?

NOAA’s interests in this wide range of lost or neglected ships include our roles as scientific advisers to the U.S. Coast Guard, as stewards of marine living and cultural resources (which extends to when these resources are threatened by pollution as well), and as the nation’s chart maker to ensure that wrecks are properly marked for safe navigation.

This week we’re taking a deeper dive into the many, varied, and, at times, overlooked issues surrounding the wrecks and abandoned vessels dotting U.S. waters. As recent events have shown, such as in a recently discovered leaking wreck in Lake Erie and a rusted tugboat left to rot in Seattle, this issue isn’t going away.

First, check out our infographic below exploring the different threats from wrecked and abandoned ships and a gallery of photos highlighting some examples of these ships, both famous and ordinary. Stay tuned for more stories here and at

Illustration showing a sunken, abandonedship sticking out of the water close to shore, leaking oil, damaging habitat, posing a hazard to navigation, and creating marine debris on shore.

Sunken and abandoned ships can cause a lot of potential damage to the environment and the economy. (NOAA)

1 Comment

Stepping on Board the Most Eerie, Neglected Ship I Had Ever Seen

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

Before Friday, October 9, 2015, I had never set foot on an abandoned ship. Or for that matter, any other manmade structure so neglected that trees were growing out of it.

But on that day, I was invited to accompany three members of the U.S. Coast Guard here in Seattle, Washington, to investigate a tugboat which was reported to be abandoned and only four inches away from sinking. After a quick glance at the rusting, eerie hulk barely afloat in a ship canal, my bets were on it being abandoned too.

Once at the docks, we met pollution responders from the State of Washington and a local salvage company. After taking stock of the neglected vessel and its surrounding conditions, we boarded the vessel and began conducting an investigation. The Coast Guard inspected the engine room first, where they measured how much water currently was flooding the tug’s engine room. Then, they made note of any hazardous materials nested in cupboards and on shelves—large industrial batteries, paint cans, or lubricants—that would require special disposal.

My favorite part was rummaging through the galley, captain’s quarters, and the bridge. The living areas on board the vessel appeared ransacked. For starters, the helm had been removed and copper wires from the fire panel were missing.

However, we were looking for any information on the layout of the vessel in order to answer a number of questions. How many fuel tanks were on board and how large were they? Where were the ballast tanks? Who was the last owner or when was the last log entry in the book recording the engine’s oil changes?

Unfortunately, our search that day turned up empty, aside from a cluttered mess of clothes, a half-used bottle of aspirin, some books, and a pile of empty beer cans resembling bones in an open graveyard.

Our only clues leading to who owned this boat were a chalkboard message left to the owner by a shipmate and a left-behind DVD from the movie rental kiosk company Redbox. The movie was Couples Retreat, which was released in 2009, suggesting someone previously on board had a soft spot for romantic comedies and now owes Redbox a sizable bill for this dollar-per-day rental.

The last moorage payment the dock facility received for this boat was in 2008. Since then, the vessel has been slowly withering away and nature is creeping in. Trees and moss grow freely in cracks and crevices, eating away at the ship’s structure.

While the Coast Guard will pay for the salvage company to pump the water out of the engine room and fix the leak to keep the vessel from sinking, they do not have the funds or jurisdiction to get rid of the derelict tug. The problem of abandoned vessels is a recurring, expensive, and polluting one, which a NOAA colleague also learned firsthand:

“These neglected ships often pose significant threats to fish, wildlife, and nearby habitat, in addition to becoming eyesores and hazards to navigation. Derelict vessels are a challenge to deal with properly because of ownership accountability issues, potential chemical and oil contamination, and the high cost of salvage and disposal. Only limited funds are available to deal with these types of vessels before they start sinking.”

And, tied to a pier in Seattle, yet another decaying vessel will remain haunted by the remnants of those who abandoned it and will continue to haunt our waterways as well.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for a special series in early November when we’ll be diving deeper into the issues of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels—covering everything from when they become maritime heritage sites to how we deal with those that turn into polluting eyesores.

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

LTJG Rachel Pryor and a tree (right) growing on a derelict vessel.

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.

Leave a comment

Who Pays for Oil Spills?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oiled boom and marsh in Louisiana.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 states that those responsible for releasing oil and other hazardous materials pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations, as well as the assessment of environmental impacts and necessary restoration. (U.S. Coast Guard)

After every major oil spill, one question comes up again and again: Who is going to pay for this mess?

While the American public and the environment pay the ultimate price (metaphorically speaking), the polluter most often foots the bill for cleanup, response, and restoration after oil spills.

In sum: You break it, you buy it. But our unspoiled coasts are priceless, and we would rather protect—or at least minimize impacts to—them as much as possible. Which means federal dollars are invested in ensuring top-notch experts are ready to act when oil spills do strike. (Stay tuned for more on that.)

So, Who Pays to Clean up an Oil Spill?

When an oil spill occurs, there are very clear rules about who pays for the direct response activities, the cost of assessing environmental damages, and implementing the necessary restoration.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, one legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, spells out that those responsible for the pollution pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations. However, similar to a car accident, insurance companies aren’t going to start writing checks without first looking at the circumstances.

But time is of the essence when oil hits the water, so oil companies and transporting vessels are required to have plans in place to respond immediately. In the rare instances when insurance companies investigate the details of legal (and hence, monetary) responsibility and hesitate to pay additional costs, the U.S. Coast Guard is able to set up an immediate source of funding for federal and state agencies and tribes who support the oil spill cleanup, which pays for their contributions to the response.

If the polluter is ultimately deemed liable for the spill, then they reimburse all expenses to the U.S. Coast Guard. Meaning the polluter pays for the cost of the oil spilled.

What About Restoration After Oil Spills?

Well, what about the environmental impacts left behind after the cleanup ends and everyone goes home? Does the American public pay to restore the animals and plants harmed by the spill?

Scientist leans over a boat to retrieve a dead Kemp's ridley sea turtle from the water.

It takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for environmental damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved. (NOAA)

Nope. Again, the Oil Pollution Act states that parties that release hazardous materials and oil into the environment are responsible not only for the cost of cleaning up the release, but also for restoring any “injuries” (harm) to natural resources that result.

As the primary federal steward (“trustee”) for coastal animals and habitat, NOAA is responsible for ensuring the restoration of coastal resources in at least two specific cases.

First, for coastal resources harmed by releases of hazardous materials (e.g., oil and chemicals) and second, for national marine sanctuary resources harmed by physical impacts (e.g., when a ship grounds on coral reefs in a marine sanctuary).

But What if Polluters Don’t Have to Pay for Everything?

It is possible, though extremely rare, that a polluter can be found not to be liable (e.g., the pollution was caused by an act of war) or the polluter can reach its limit of liability under the law.

So, does the money for cleanup and restoration then come from American taxpayers?

Nope. In these cases, the costs are then covered by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund accrues from taxes on most domestically produced and imported oil. The oil companies, often those responsible for spills, are paying into this fund.

When a spill occurs, those involved in the response, cleanup, and damage assessment can access these funds if the polluter is unknown, unwilling, unable, or not liable for paying the spill’s full costs. For response activities, the fund will cover costs associated with preventing (in the case of a grounded ship that hasn’t released oil yet), minimizing, mitigating, or cleaning up an oil spill.

For natural resource damage assessment, the fund will cover costs associated with assessing an area’s natural resource damages, restoring the natural resources, and compensating the public for the lost use of the affected resources.

Of course, polluters aren’t always eager to accept liability, and accurately assessing environmental damages can take time. In fact, it takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for these damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved.

That means, once again, dollars from polluters are essentially paying for oil spills.

So, the Public Doesn’t Pay for Anything?

Well, okay. The same as with your local fire department, public tax dollars are spent developing a highly trained group of professional emergency response and restoration experts. The more prepared we are to respond when an oil spill happens, the sooner a community can recover, environmentally and economically, from these unfortunate events.

When we aren’t providing direct support to an oil spill (or other marine pollution event), NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is hard at work training ourselves (and others) and developing tools and best practices for emergency response and assessment of impacts to natural resources.

Better Safe (and Prepared) Than Sorry

Oil spills can happen at any time of day and any time of year (including holidays). We have to be ready at any time to bring our scientific understanding of how oil behaves in the environment, where it might go, what it might impact, what can be done to address it, and what restoration may be needed.

And we think being prepared before a spill happens is a worthy investment.

Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Leave a comment

Restoration Efforts Hatch Hope for Endangered Seabirds on California’s Channel Islands

This is a post by Jennifer Boyce, biologist with NOAA’s Restoration Center and Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

Santa Barbara Island is a world apart. Only one square mile in area, it is the smallest island in the Channel Islands National Park, located off the coast of Southern California and lone dwelling place for some unique species of animals and plants.

The island has no land predators, which makes it a haven for seabirds. But human threats to seabirds, including industrial pollution and introduced species, have left their mark even on this haven. Seabird populations began dropping as pollution thinned their eggshells to the breaking point and exotic plants replaced their native nesting habitat.

So imagine the excitement when biologists recently discovered the first ever nests of the rare and threatened Scripps’s Murrelet among two areas restored on the island for their benefit.

A petite, black-and-white seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet also is threatened by predators introduced to its breeding colonies and by oil spills. While Santa Barbara Island has the largest colony of Scripps’s Murrelet in the United States, the State of California listed this bird as a threatened species [PDF] in 2004 and it currently is a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (under a previous name, Xantus’s Murrelet).

Hatching a Better Home

Close up of a murrelet chick's head.

This newly hatched chick was born at Landing Cove, a habitat restoration area on Santa Barbara Island. Its birth gives hope to a threatened species of seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet. (Andrew Yamagiwa, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

Each spring, murrelets lay one or two eggs in crevices and burrows beneath Santa Barbara Island’s native shrubs. They need the structure and cover provided by native plant communities to protect their nests. Unfortunately, the native shrubs on Santa Barbara Island have been decimated for decades by introduced grazers. Ranchers used to graze sheep on the island, inadvertently bringing non-native plants with them. These and other grazers allowed the non-native plants to proliferate and prevent the few remaining patches of native vegetation from recolonizing the island.

Since 2006, NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program has been restoring this habitat for murrelets and other seabirds on Santa Barbara Island, caring for the thousands of native plants they have placed along its dry slopes. Uncovering two nests in two different restoration plots this spring means the project has reached a major milestone.

The older of the two restoration plots where eggs were found, Landing Cove was first planted with native shrubs in December 2008. It can take several years for the shrubs to mature enough to become suitable seabird nesting habitat. One egg was discovered there—on Earth Day, of all days—under a large native shrub planted during restoration efforts. Then, just this week, biologists confirmed that this egg had in fact hatched into a healthy murrelet chick.

The second restored area, Beacon Hill, was planted more recently in 2012, giving biologists both a thrill and surprise to find a second murrelet nest under a native bush planted as part of the project. These nests are a testament to all of the hard work of scientists, restoration experts, and volunteers over the last ten years.

More Than One Way to Break an Egg

Funding to restore these threatened seabirds actually originates in events dating more than half a century earlier.

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of the pesticide DDT and the industrial chemicals known as PCBs were discharged into ocean waters off the southern California coast. Most of the DDT originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California.

DDT released into the ocean near California’s Palos Verdes shelf spread through the food chain, eventually reaching seabirds and causing thinning in their eggs laid on the Channel Islands. The eggshells became so thin that when the adults would sit on the eggs to warm them they would break.

In 2001, following a lengthy period of litigation, NOAA and other federal and state agencies reached a settlement with the responsible parties, establishing the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. The program is working to restore populations of these rare seabirds and their habitat in the Channel Islands.

Restoration Efforts Taking Flight

Adult murrelet with a chick.

Scripps’s Murrelets only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts. (Gaby Keeler, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

A member of the auk family (which includes Puffins), Scripps’s Murrelets take the term “seabird” to new limits. Murrelets spend almost their entire lives at sea, only coming to land to lay their eggs and hatch their young. Their chicks live up to being a seabird as well, spending only two days on the island before tumbling into the ocean to join their parents—leaving before they can even fly.

These small birds only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts.

One of the goals of the Santa Barbara Island restoration project is to remove the non-native plants at selected areas identified as high quality nesting habitat. Biologists are restoring these areas by then planting native species with the help of lots of volunteers.

This work is by no means easy. To date, over 30,000 plants have been put into the ground. All of the native plants in the project are grown from seed on the island, and growing a mature plant takes six to eight months. One of the challenges to growing these plants is that Santa Barbara is a desert island with no natural water source. All the water needed for raising the native plants must be transported by a National Park Service boat, and moved onto the island by crane in large 400 gallon tanks.

A permanent nursery, which employs water-saving techniques, was constructed on the island to reduce the amount of water that needs to be sent to the island. Recently a drip irrigation system also has been installed at the restoration sites and is greatly improving plant survivorship while reducing water needs.

The two nests found this spring are great signs that the restoration efforts are successful and helping to restore this endangered seabird and others to this unique island. We look forward to finding many more nests in the future. In the meantime, check out this video detailing our efforts to restore seabird habitat on Santa Barbara Island:

Jennifer BoyceJennifer Boyce works for the NOAA Restoration Center, based in Long Beach, California. Jennifer serves as the NOAA trustee on several oil spill restoration Trustee Councils throughout California and is the Program Manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

Leave a comment

After a Century Apart, NOAA and Partners Reunite a Former Wetland with San Francisco Bay’s Tides

Excavator removing earth from a breached barrier between tide waters in a slough and the new wetland.

The first of four breaches of tidal levees separating Cullinan Ranch from the tide waters of San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Scooping away the last narrow band of mud, a bright yellow excavator released a rush of brackish water into an area cut off from the tides for more than a hundred years.

The 1,200 acre field now filling with water, known as Cullinan Ranch due to its history as a hay farm, is once again becoming a tidal wetland.

On January 6, 2015, more than 100 people celebrated the reintroduction of tide waters to Cullinan Ranch in Solano County, California. For decades before, earthen levees had separated it from the nearby Napa River and San Pablo Bay, a northern corner of the San Francisco Bay Estuary.

With three more levee breaches planned by the end of January, restoration of this 1,500 acre site is nearly complete, with efforts to monitor the project’s progress to follow. Surrounded by state and federal wildlife lands, Cullinan Ranch will fill in a gap in coastal habitat as it becomes integrated with San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

How Low Can It Flow

For the most part, Cullinan Ranch will be covered in open water because years of farming, beginning in the 1880s, caused the land to sink below sea level. The open water will provide places for animals such as fish and birds—as well as the invertebrates they like to eat—to find food and rest after big storms.

However, some areas of the property will remain above the low tide level, creating conditions for the plant pickleweed to thrive. While a succulent like cacti, pickleweed can survive wet and salty growing conditions. (Fun fact: Some people enjoy cooking and eating pickleweed. When blanched, it apparently tastes salty and somewhat crispy.) The salt marsh harvest mouse, native to California and one of the few mammals able to drink saltwater, also will take advantage of the habitat created by the pickleweed in the recovering wetland.

Wildlife will not be the only ones enjoying the restoration of Cullinan Ranch. A major highway passes by the site, and Cullinan Ranch has experienced numerous upgrades to improve recreational access for people brought there by Highway 37. Soon anyone will be able to hike on the newly constructed trails, fish off the pier, and launch kayaks from the dock.

Turning Money into Marshes

The restoration of Cullinan Ranch from hay field to tidal wetland has been in the works for a long time, brought about by a range of partners and funding agencies, including NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Ducks Unlimited. NOAA provided several sources of funding to help finish this restoration project.

In addition to $900,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NOAA contributed $650,000 through a community-based restoration partnership with Ducks Unlimited and $1.65 million awarded for natural resource damages through the Castro Cove trustee council. The latter funding was part of a $2.65 million settlement with Chevron as a result of the nearby Chevron Richmond Refinery discharging mercury and oil pollution into Castro Cove for years. Cullinan Ranch and Breuner Marsh are the two restoration projects Chevron funded to make up for this pollution.

Map of San Francisco Bay showing locations of NOAA restoration projects.

NOAA is working on a number of tidal wetland restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Cullinan Ranch is one of the largest restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay, but it is far from the only one NOAA is involved with in the region. Helping reverse a century-long trend which saw many of the bay’s tidal wetlands disappear, NOAA has been working on a suite of projects restoring these historic and important coastal features in northern California.

Watch footage of the earthen levee being breached to reconnect the bay’s tide waters to Cullinan Ranch.

Leave a comment

Carrying on a Nearly Fifty Year Tradition, Scientists Examine the Intersection of Pollution and Marine Life

As reliably as the tides, each month biologist Donald J. Reish would wash over the library at California State University, Long Beach, armed with stacks of 3×5 index cards. On these cards, Reish meticulously recorded every scientific study published that month on pollution’s effects on marine life. When he began this ritual in 1967, this did not amount to very many studies.

“There was essentially none at the time,” says Reish, who helped pioneer the study of pollution’s impacts on marine environments in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, after a year of collecting as much as he could find in scientific journals, he would mail the index cards with their handwritten notes to a volunteer crew that often included his former graduate students, including Alan Mearns, now an ecologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Like a wave, they would return to the library to read, review, and send summaries of these studies back to Reish. At his typewriter, he would compile the individual summaries into one comprehensive list, an “in case you missed it” for scientists interested in this emerging field of study. This compilation would then be published in a scientific journal itself.

By the early 2000s, Reish handed off leadership of this annual effort to Mearns, an early recruit to the project. Today, Mearns continues the nearly 50 year tradition of reviewing the state of marine pollution science and publishing it in the journal Water Environment Research. Their 2014 review, “Effects of Pollution on Marine Organisms,” comes together a little differently than in the 1960s and 70s—and covers issues that have changed with the years as well.

Signs of the Times

Man and woman at a desk covered with scientific papers.

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration biologists Alan Mearns and Nicolle Rutherford tackle another year’s worth of scientific studies, part of an effort begun in 1967. (NOAA)

For starters, vastly more studies are being published on marine pollution and its environmental effects. For this year’s publication, Mearns and his six co-authors, who include Reish and NOAA scientists Nicolle Rutherford and Courtney Arthur, reviewed 341 scientific papers which they pulled from a larger pool of nearly 1,000 studies.

The days of having to physically visit a library each month to read the scientific journals are also over. Instead, Mearns can wait until the end of the year to scour online scientific search engines. Emails replace the handwritten 3×5 index cards. And fortunately, typewriters are no longer involved.

The technology the reviewers are using isn’t the only thing to change with the years. In the early days, the major contaminants of concern were heavy metals, such as copper, which were turning up in the bodies of fish and invertebrates. Around the 1970s, the negative effects of the insecticide DDT found national attention, thanks to the efforts of biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal book Silent Spring.

Today, Mearns and Reish see the focus of research shifting to other, often more complicated pollutants, such as nanomaterials, which can be any of a number of materials roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. On one hand, nanotechnology is helping scientists decipher the effects of some pollutants, while, on the other, nanomaterials, such as those found in cosmetics, show potentially serious effects on some marine life including mussels.

Another major trend has been the evolution of the ways scientists evaluate the effects of pollutants on marine life. Researchers in the United States and Western Europe used to study the toxicity of a pollutant by increasing the amount animals are exposed to until half the study animals died. In the 1990s, researchers began exploring pollutants’ finer physiological effects. How does exposure to X pollutant affect, for example, a fish’s ability to feed or reproduce?

Nowadays, the focus is even more refined, zeroing in on the molecular scale to discern how pollutants affect an animal’s genetic material, its DNA. How does the presence of oil change whether certain genes in a fish’s liver are turned on or off? What does that mean for the fish?

A Year of Pollution in Review

With three Office of Response and Restoration scientists working on this effort, it unsurprisingly features a lot on oil spills and marine debris, two areas of our expertise.

Of particular interest to Mearns and Rutherford, as oil spill biologists, are the studies of biodegradation of oil in the ocean, specifically, how microbes break down and eat components of oil, especially the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Scientists are examining collections of genes in such microbes and determining which ones produce enzymes that degrade PAHs.

“That field has really exploded,” says Mearns. “It’s just amazing what they’re finding once they use genomics and other tools to go into [undersea oil spill] plumes and see what these critters are doing and eating.”

Marine debris research in 2013 focused on the effects of eating, hitchhiking on, or becoming entangled in debris. Studies examined the resulting impacts on marine life, including sea birds, fish, crabs, turtles, marine mammals, shellfish, and even microbes. The types of debris that came up again and again were abandoned fishing gear and plastic fragments. In addition, quite a bit of research attempted to fill in gaps in understanding of how plastic debris might take up and then leach out potentially dangerous chemicals.

Attitude Adjustment

A group of men and women stand around Don Reish.

Reish often relied on his former graduate students, including NOAA’s Alan Mearns, to help review the many studies on marine pollution’s effects each year. Shown here in 2004, Reish (seventh from left) is surrounded by a few of his former students who gathered to honor him at the Southern California Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting. Mearns is fifth from left and another contributer, Phil Oshida of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stands between and behind Mearns and Reish. (Alan Mearns)

Perhaps the most significant change over the decades has been a change in attitudes. Reish recalled a presentation he gave at a scientific meeting in 1955. He was discussing his study of how marine worms known as polychaetes changed where they lived based on the effects of pollution in southern California. Afterward, he sat down next to a professor from another college, whose response to his presentation was, “Don, why don’t you go do something important?”

In 2014 attitudes generally skew to the other end of the spectrum when it comes to understanding human impacts on our world and how intertwined these impacts often are with human well-being.

And while there is a lot of bad news about these impacts, Mearns and Reish have seen some bright spots as well. Scientists are starting to observe slow declines in the presence of toxic chemicals, such as DDT from insecticides and PCBs from industrial manufacturing, which last a long time in the environment and build up in the bodies of living things, such as the fish humans like to catch and eat.

The end of the year is approaching and, reliably, Mearns and his colleagues are again preparing to scan hundreds of studies for their annual review of the scientific literature. Reflecting on this effort, Mearns points out another benefit of bringing together such a wide array of research disciplines. It encourages him to cross traditional boundaries of scientific study, enriching his work in the process.

“For me, it inspires out-of-the-box thinking,” says Mearns. “I’ll be looking at wastewater discharge impacts and I’ll spot something that I think is relevant to oil spill studies…We can find out things from these other fields and apply them to our own.”

Leave a comment

How Ghost Fishing Is Haunting Our Ocean

No, ghost fishing has nothing to do with ghostbusters flicking fishing rods from a boat.

But what is ghost fishing? It’s a not-at-all-supernatural phenomenon that occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear remains in the ocean and continues doing what it was made to do: catch fish. These nets and traps haunt the many types of marine life unlucky enough to become snared in them. That includes species of turtles, fish, sharks, lobsters, crabs, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Fortunately, the NOAA Marine Debris Program isn’t scared off by a few fishing nets that haven’t moved on from the underwater world. For example, through the Fishing for Energy partnership, NOAA is funding projects to study and test ways to keep fishers from losing their gear in the first place and lower the impacts lost gear has on marine life and their homes.

You can learn more about these four recent projects which are taking place from the South Carolina coast to Washington’s Puget Sound. A project at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at The College of William and Mary will pay commercial fishermen to test special biodegradable panels on crab pots. After a certain amount of time underwater, these panels will break down and begin allowing creatures to escape from the traps. If successful, this feature could help reduce the traps’ ghost fishing potential. The researchers also will be examining whether terrapin turtles, a declining species often accidentally drowned in crab pots, will bypass the traps based on the color of the entrance funnel.

Another, unrelated effort which NOAA and many others have been supporting for years is focused on fishing out the thousands of old salmon nets lost—sometimes decades ago—in Washington’s Puget Sound. These plastic mesh nets sometimes remain drifting in the water column, while other times settling on the seafloor, where they also degrade the bottom habitat.

According to Joan Drinkwin of the Northwest Straits Foundation, the organization leading the effort, “They become traps for fish, diving birds, and mammals. Small fish will dart in and out of the mesh and predators will go after those fish and become captured in the nets. And as those animals get captured in the nets, they become bait for more scavengers.”

You can watch a video about this ongoing project produced by NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant to learn more about both the problem and the solutions.

Scuba diver next to huge mass of fishing nets underwater.

This “super net” was first reported in September 2013 at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In 2014 scuba and free divers removed this mass of fishing gear that was more than 28 feet long, 7 feet wide, and had a dense curtain that extended 16 feet deep. (NOAA)

Thousands of miles away from the Pacific Northwest, ghost nets are also an issue for the otherwise vibrant coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Every year for nearly two decades, NOAA has been removing the lost fishing nets which pile up on the atolls and small islands. This year, divers cleared away 57 tons of old fishing nets and plastic debris. One particularly troubling “super net” found this year measured 28 feet by 7 feet and weighed 11.5 tons. It had crushed coral at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and was so massive that divers had to cut it into three sections to be towed individually back to the main NOAA ship. During this year’s mission, divers also managed to free three protected green sea turtles which were trapped in various nets.

But the origins of this huge and regular flow of old fishing nets to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands remain a mystery. The islands lay hundreds of miles from any city but also within an area where oceanic and atmospheric forces converge to accumulate marine debris from all over the Pacific Ocean.

“You’ll go out there to this remote place and pull tons of this stuff off a reef,” comments Jim Potemra, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, “that’s like going to Antarctica and finding two tons of soda cans.”

You can learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts related to ghost fishing and why certain types of marine life may be more likely to get tangled up in discarded nets and other ocean trash.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 631 other followers