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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What we do to Help Endangered Species

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat. Image credit: NOAA

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. Image credit: NOAA

For over 40 years, the 1973 Endangered Species Act has helped protect native plants and animals and that habitats where they live, and many government agencies play a role in that important work. That’s one reason the United States celebrates Endangered Species Day every year in May.

The Office of Response and Restoration contributes to the efforts to protect these species in our spill response and assessment and restoration work.

When a spill occurs in coastal waters one priority for our emergency responders is identifying any threatened or endangered species living in the area near the spill.

  • At every spill or chemical release, our scientists need to take into account:
  • Is it breeding season for any protected species in the area?
  • Is any of the spill area nesting grounds for protected species?
  • Are protected species likely to come into contact with the spilled contaminant?
  • What are possible negative effects from the cleanup process on the protected species?

We assist the U.S. Coast Guard with a required Endangered Species Act consultation for spills to ensure those species are considered in any response action taken. We’ve also developed tools that can be used by all emergency responders and environmental resource managers to help protected endangered plants, animals, and their habitats.

Environmental Sensitivity Index maps identify coastal habitats and locations that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spills. ​The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the economic resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Threatened and​ Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily access data on federal or state listed threatened and endangered species for specific regions. These data are a subset of the larger, more complex environmental sensitivity index data and are a convenient way to access some of the more critical biological information for an area.

Environmental Resources Management Application, called ERMA®, is our online mapping tool that integrates static and real-time environmental data and allows users to investigate data in their area. There are hundreds of publicly available base layers including many endangered and threatened species. Environmental Sensitivity Index maps are available in this tool.

Marine debris affects endangered and threatened species including species of sea turtles, whales, seals, and corals. These fragile populations face a variety of stressors in the ocean including people, derelict fishing gear, trash, and other debris. To learn more about the dangers of marine debris on marine life check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

For more information on threatened and endangered species, and local events for Endangered Species Day, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For information on endangered and threatened marine species visit NOAA Fisheries.


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Preventing and Preparing for Oil Spills in the Arctic

Talking with NOAA Scientist Amy Merten about her time chairing the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group.

Ice bank in the Arctic ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

View off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Taken during a search and rescue demonstration for an Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group meeting. Image Credit: NOAA

As rising temperatures and thinning ice in the Arctic create openings for increased human activities, it also increases the potential for oil spills and chemical releases into the remote environment of the region.

Planning emergency response operations for the Arctic falls to the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group, an Arctic Council body. The emergency working group has representatives from each of the member states with expertise in oil spill response, search and rescue, and response to radiological events.

NOAA’s Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch, will finish her two-year stint as chair of the working group in May 2017. The chair is elected every two years from among the working group’s members including: Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, the United States and permanent participants. Merten served on the working group for 5 years before becoming chair. She will leave the position on May 11, 2017. Jens Peter Holst-Andersen, from the Kingdom of Denmark will be the new chair at the next meeting in Vologda, Russia.

Merten, who holds a doctorate in marine sciences/environmental chemistry, shared her insights into the complexities of planning for emergencies in the remote regions of the Arctic and about what it’s like working with other nations to protect the Arctic environments.

What are the biggest challenges facing spill response in the Arctic? 

There are many; remote locations, short windows of open-water and daylight in which to respond, and lack of infrastructure—you can’t send a massive response community to Arctic communities there is not enough food, hotel space, or fuel to sustain larger groups.  Lack of communication is another challenge. Things that we take for granted working at moderate temperatures (cameras, GPS), don’t work at cold temperatures. For search and rescue, there is not adequate hospital space or expertise. Therefore, if a large cruise ship gets into trouble in the Arctic, the rescue, triage and sustainability of the passengers will be a major challenge.

Why is it important to have international cooperation when developing response plans?

Each country has unique experiences and may have developed a way to respond to oil spills in ice or Arctic conditions that can be shared with other countries facing potential spills in ice. Because of the remoteness of the Arctic, with little to no infrastructure, particularly in the United States and Canada, countries will have to rely on equipment and support from others.

Additionally, there are parts of the Arctic Ocean that are international waters, and should a vessel founder there, the countries would collectively respond. We share thoughts on high-risk scenarios, best practices, and identification of research needs. We also share ideas and findings on the latest technologies in communications, oil-in-ice modeling, data management and response technologies.

How does communication with other countries during an emergency work?

We have an up-to-date communication list and protocol. This is part of our agreement, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. We also practice our communication connectivity once a year, and conduct an international exercise every two years.

What role do satellites have in preparing for and responding to emergencies in the region?

We rely on satellite information for monitoring conditions (weather and ice) and vessel traffic. We would certainly rely on satellite data for an incident in order to plan the response, monitor the extent of the oiling, and understand the weather and ice conditions.

How do the member countries work to share plans so that emergency response is not being duplicated?

This is one of the functions of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. It ensures we communicate about domestic projects and plans that may benefit the other nations to maximize the collective effectiveness and avoid duplications.

NOAA’s online environmental mapping tool for the region, Arctic ERMA, now includes polar projections; do the other council countries use Arctic ERMA?

They use it during our joint exercises, and we use it to visualize other working group projects, like the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement-led Pan-Arctic response assets database. We also discuss sharing data across systems and are developing data sharing agreements.

What are the three biggest threats to the Arctic environment? 

Keeping it a peaceful governance, climate change, and oil spills/chemical spills.

Why is the Arctic environment important to the United States?

Arctic weather and climate affects the world’s oceans, weather, and climate, including the Lower 48. The Arctic is replete with energy, mineral, and fishing resources. The Arctic is inhabited by indigenous communities with unique lifestyles that are threatened and need protection. The Arctic is also home to unique flora and fauna that are important for biodiversity, ecological services, and overall healthy environments.  As the Arctic becomes more accessible, national security pressures increase.

 What would be the worst types of oil spills in the Arctic?

This is a hard question to answer but I’d say a spill of a persistent oil that occurs in broken ice during freeze up or thawing periods. During freeze up because it will be difficult to respond, and difficult to track the oil.

During thawing because it’s the emergence of primary production for the food web, hunting subsistence practices would be threatened and it could be unsafe to respond due to of the changing ice conditions. It all depends on how far away and difficult it is to get vessels, aircraft, people, and skimmers onsite, and in a way they can operate safely in a meaningful way.

A “worst spill” doesn’t have to be a “large” spill if it impacts sensitive resources at key reproductive and growth cycles, or if it impacts Arctic communities’ food security, subsistence activities, and ways of life.

How has being chair added to your understanding of the emergency response in the Arctic?

I think it’s increased my concern that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” a spill will happen. The logistics of a response will be complicated, slow, and likely, fairly ineffective. The potential for long-term impacts on stressed communities and stressed environments is high. I do have a good feeling that international cooperation will be at its best, but the challenges are daunting for all of us.

Amy Merten on boat with sea and ice behind her. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA scientist Amy Merten in the Arctic. Merten is chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and served as chair of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. Image credit: NOAA.


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Showcasing Our Partnership with Coast Guard on Instagram

Ship's upper deck with rainbow.

A NOAA research team journeyed to the icy Arctic north of Alaska in 2014 on board the USCG Cutter Healy. A rain shower through Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands provided a rainbow, visible from an Arctic survey boat accompanying the Healy. (Credit NOAA)

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Response and Restoration will be taking over U.S. Coast Guard’s Instagram to showcase our long partnership.

Coming up at the end of this week, March 24, is the anniversary of Exxon Valdez – one of the largest oils spills in the nation’s history. However, our history actually goes back prior to Exxon Valdez to the grounding of the tanker Argo Merchant in 1976.

During the week, we’ll post photos of our work with the Coast Guard from our beginning to the present spotlighting our  work together in the Arctic, during hurricanes, Deepwater Horizon, and other incidents.

Head on over to USCG Instagram and view how we partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife.

Read these recent articles about our partnership:

5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Below Zero: Partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA


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Life at Sea or Scientist on Land: NOAA Corps Offers Both

Large white NOAA ship with mountains in background.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Credit: NOAA

By Cmdr. Jesse Stark, NOAA Corps

A life at sea, or a career conserving natural resources?

That was the choice I was contemplating while walking along the docks in Port Angeles, Washington, back in 1998. A chance encounter that day with the chief quartermaster of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ship Rainer showed me I could do both.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I spent my time exploring the woods, beaches, and tide pools. Every summer I reread Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” My first job was a as a deck hand on charter fishing boats out of Port Angeles.

So, when Quartermaster Bernie Greene invited me aboard that day and told me stories with a sense of adventure, I signed onto the Rainer as an able-bodied seaman, and we headed to Alaska. That first voyage had me hooked and I joined NOAA Corps, leading to my current assignment as the Northwest scientific support coordinator.

NOAA has a long history of supplying scientific support to oil spills, starting with the Argo Merchant incident in 1976, and NOAA Corps history stretches back even farther to President Thomas Jefferson’s order for the first survey of the nation’s coast.

Today, the corps’ commissioned officers command NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft, and also rotate to serve within each of NOAA’s other divisions. That combination of duties offers a breadth of experience that I draw upon in my current post in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration‘s Emergency Response Division.

Man in uniform holding little girl inside ship.

Commander Jesse Stark holding daughter Izzie on NOAA Ship Pisces after a ceremony in Pascagoula, Mississippi at a ceremony donating an anchor to the city for its “Anchor Village,” a retail park constructed near the ship’s homeport after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA

In the event of an oil spill or chemical release, the U.S. Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing clean-up activities; the scientific support coordinator’s role is to provide scientific expertise and to communicate with other affected agencies or organizations to reach a common consensus on response actions.

During my 18-year career as a corps officer, I’ve had eight permanent assignments, four on ships and four on land in three different NOAA divisions. Those different assignments allowed me to develop skills in bringing resources and differing perspectives together to work toward a common goal. Often, operating units get stagnant and stove-piped, and having new blood with new perspective and outlook rotating through alleviates some of that.

It’s also enabled me to build relationships across different divisions and tie together processes and practices among the different operating units, and sometimes, competing ideologies.

As an example, my first land assignment was with NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division in Portland, Oregon. While there, I produced a GIS-based distribution map of each recorded ocean catch of salmon and steelhead by watershed origin. While this project involved mainly technical aptitude and data mining, I was also involved with writing biological opinions on research authorizations of endangered salmon species.

This required coordination of many competing and differing viewpoints on management of these species. Consensus had to be reached and often an impasse had to be broken among people with deep passions on these issues.

One of my most challenging assignments was in 2010 when I was executive officer of NOAA Ship Pisces that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

During the Deepwater Horizon response, the normal collecting of living marine resource data was replaced with a new process of collecting water and sediment samples better suited to the situation. The incident also showed how industry and government can, and must, work side by side for the good of the public and natural resources.

All of these skills together are proving to come in handy as a science coordinator, where in any given situation there can be as many as five different federal agencies, three state agencies, and several private companies with differing opinions. I’m happy to put my skills and experiences to good use in teamwork building and consensus for the greater good.

 

Commander Stark joined NOAA’s Emergency Response Division in August 2016. Stark’s last assignment was commanding officer of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson in Alaska. Stark started in NOAA as a seaman on the NOAA Ship Rainier in 1998 and was commissioned into the NOAA Corps in 1999. 


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5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Large ship on reef with small boat beside it.

On September 18, 2003, M/V Kent Reliant grounded at the entrance to San Juan Harbor, Puerto Rico. USCG and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to the incident. (NOAA)

How do the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work together? There are many ways the two government organizations partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife. Here are five:

1. It all began with surveyors and smugglers

Actually, it was an effort to suppress smuggling and collect tariffs that prompted President George Washington to create the Coast Guard Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, launching what would become the U.S. Coast Guard known today. It was President Jefferson’s approval of the surveying of the nation’s coasts in 1807 to promote “lives of our seamen, the interest of our merchants and the benefits to revenue,” that created the nation’s first science agency, which evolved into NOAA.

2. Coast Guard responds to spills; we supply the scientific support

The Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing oil and chemical spill clean-up activities. NOAA Office of Response and Restoration provides the science-based expertise and support needed to make informed decisions during emergency responses. Scientific Support Coordinators provide response information for each incident that spill’s characteristics, working closely with the Coast Guard’s federal On-Scene Coordinator. The scientific coordinator can offer models that forecast the movement and behavior of spilled oil, evaluation of the risk to resources, and suggest appropriate clean-up actions.

3. Coast Guard and NOAA Marine Debris Program keep waters clear for navigation

The Coast Guard sits on the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, of which NOAA is the chair. The committee is a multi-agency body responsible for streamlining the federal government’s efforts to address marine debris. In some circumstances, the Coast Guard helps to locate reported marine debris or address larger items that are hazardous to navigation. For instance, in certain circumstances, the Coast Guard may destroy or sink a hazard to navigation at sea, as was the case with a Japanese vessel in the Gulf of Alaska in March 2011.

4. NOAA and Coast Guard train for oil spills in the Arctic

As Arctic ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region has an increased risk of oil spills. Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. The Office of Response and Restoration typically participates in oil spill response exercises with the Coast Guard.

5. It’s not just spills we partner on, sometimes it’s about birds

The 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 in the Florida. 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. In 2016, the Coast Guard called Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. 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. Davis was able to assist in keeping the project moving forward and the vessel was eventually removed from the Florida Panhandle.


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Zoos and Aquariums Training for Oil Spill Emergency Response

Bird covered in oil on beach.

An oiled loon on Horseneck Beach from the 2003 Bouchard Barge 120 oil spill. (NOAA)

When an oil spill occurs and photos of injured birds and other wildlife start circulating, there is often an immediate desire to want to help impacted animals.

One group that feels that desire strongly are the people who work at the nation’s accredited zoos and aquariums. For instance, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was one of the largest organizations to mobilize volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico. Lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon experience, both good and bad, led the association to launch a large-scale training program to certify members in hazardous response training.

“By participating in a credentialed training program, it provides that extra expertise to our zoo and aquarium professionals that will enable AZA members to become more coordinated and more involved when future environmental disasters arise in their community and throughout the nation,” said Steve Olson, AZA’s vice president of federal relations. “AZA members are uniquely qualified to assist in an oil spill animal response and recovery. They bring a wealth of animal care experience that is unmatched. Not only do they have a passion for helping animals, they bring the practical handling, husbandry and medical experience that would make them invaluable to any response agency. “

The AZA spill response training, taught by the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska and the University of California Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network, includes certification in Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with specific standards for worker safety. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also recently presented information on oil spill response at one of AZA’s training sessions at the Detroit Zoo.

Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, is one of the AZA accredited members, which has hosted oil spill response training in the past two years.  “As one of the first trainees I feel very strongly that we have the ability, and now the training, to make a difference,” said Diane Olsen, assistant curator at Moody Gardens.

To date, the AZA training program has credentialed over 90 AZA member professionals from over 50 accredited institutions. Those zoo and aquarium professionals are located throughout the country allowing for rapid local or national deployment if a spill occurs.

 


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Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Summer 2017

Two men talking shoreline in 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)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a summer Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class in Seattle, Washington, June 19-23, 2017.

OR&R will accept applications for the Seattle class until Friday, April 7, 2017. We will notify applicants regarding their application status no later than Friday, April 14, via email.

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.

SOS training covers:

  • 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.