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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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 help save the nest and the planned vessel removal.


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Sea Urchins Battle to Save Hawaii Coral Reef

Tiny spikey sea urchins in palm of a hand.

Tiny sea urchin released in Kaneohe Bay to combat invasive algae. (NOAA)

Can tiny sea urchins save a Hawaiian coral reef? In Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay, with a little help from scientists, it appears they can.

Kaneohe Bay has been plagued for decades by two species of invasive algae that blanket the native coral reefs, blocking the sun. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners developed two methods to destroy the invaders, vacuuming them up, and releasing hungry native sea urchins to munch them away.

Since the urchin program started in 2011, hundreds of thousands of baby Hawaiian collector sea urchins (Tripneustes gratilla) have been released into targeted areas of the bay to gorge on the algae invaders. Although native to the bay, the collector sea urchin population was too low to battle the invasive algae. Using funds from a ship grounding a decade earlier, officials developed a sea urchin hatchery.

The State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, the Nature Conservancy, and NOAA created the Kaneohe Bay restoration plan from the settlement of the 2005 grounding of the ship M/V Cape Flattery on the coral reefs south of Oahu. The grounding, and response efforts to free the ship, injured 19.5 acres of coral.

Despite the injuries, the reef began recovering on its own. Rather than mess with that natural recovery, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources began restoring the coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay.

NOAA Fisheries has a video on the creation of the sea urchin hatchery, as well as details on the success of the sea urchin releases.

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000; however, this project fell under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damaged reefs in the following articles:

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?


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Restoration: The Other Part of Spill Response

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Grass and water at sunset with bridge in background.

From landfill to vibrant tidal marsh, the wetland restoration at Lincoln Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, was funded from multiple oil spill settlements and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This project restored a significant area of coastal wetlands in New York-New Jersey harbor’s Arthur Kill ecosystem. (NOAA)

Typically, during an oil spill or chemical release, media images show emergency responders dressed in protective gear, skimming oil off the ocean’s surface or combing coastal beaches for oiled animals.

As dramatic as they are, those images can leave the impression that cleaning up after a spill is the end of the story. Often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues working on spills years after response efforts have ended, determining how to restore the environment.

OK, it’s not really a myth we’re busting here, maybe a misconception. Let’s chat about the less visible task of long term restoration after an oil spill.

When a spill happens, there are two tasks for those who caused the spill, clean up the spilled oil or chemical released, and restore the environment.

That first responsibility, cleaning up the mess, is the subject of those media photos. It’s the immediate actions taken to scoop up the oil, clear the beaches, and rescue wildlife. It was not long after the Exxon Valdez spill that a television commercial appeared featuring a liquid dish soap used to wash birds covered in oil. That commercial has become so identified with oil spills, it’s practically the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about oil spills.

Now, what happens when I ask you to picture long-term restoration after an oil spill? What do you see? Having a hard time picturing it? That’s because restoring the environment takes time, often years. Restoration doesn’t lend itself to immediate imagery.

It may not be the subject of a soap commercial, or be very visible to the public, but it’s the second half of the story after the emergency crews are gone.

So what does restoring the environment after a spill look like? Well it can start with scientists taking samples of an oiled fish and conclude with the construction of new wetlands. The Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program restores natural resources injured during an oil spill, release of hazardous materials, or vessel grounding to fully compensate the public for losses.

To ensure that fish, wildlife, and critical habitats like beaches, wetlands and corals impacted by a spill are restored a specific process is followed that includes:

  • Assess the Injury: Quantify injuries to the environment, including lost recreational uses, by conducting scientific and economic studies
  • Plan the Restoration: Develop a restoration plan that identifies projects and outlines the best methods to restore the impacted environment
  • Hold Polluters Accountable: Ensure that responsible parties pay the costs of assessing injuries and restoring the environment
  • Restore the Environment: Implement projects to restore habitats and resources to the condition they would have been in had the pollution not occurred

NOAA’s job is to not only to restore the environment, but to also evaluate and restore the experience the public lost during an oil spill, like fishing or swimming at the beach. For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or, there may be fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the outdoors NOAA and partners may build restoration projects that improve recreational access to waterways, install boat launches, fishing piers, and hiking trails.

During all this work, it’s important to keep the public informed and to ask for comments and ideas on how an injured area should be restored. Several restoration projects are currently open for public review and comment, read more here.


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Restoration of an Injured Caribbean Coral Reef

Broken coral on ocean floor.

A coral cache location where fractured corals were protected prior to reef reattachment. NOAA

The waters surrounding the Puerto Rico archipelago are known for the diversity and beauty of the coral reefs. Those reefs are also under great pressure from population density, land uses, and shipping traffic.

On Oct.  27, 2009 the tanker Port Stewart grounded in coral reef habitat on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico near the entrance to Yabucoa Channel. The tanker was carrying 7 million gallons of oil. Local efforts freed the ship the same day it grounded without an oil spill but both the grounding and removal process caused extensive injury to the reef.

Nearly 93 percent of Puerto Rico’s coral reefs are rated as threatened, with 84 percent at high risk and among the most threatened in the Caribbean. The Port Stewart incident directly destroyed about 512 square meters (about 5,551 square feet) of the living coral reef. The injured habitat had a diverse community of soft corals (octocorals), sponges, and hard corals (scleractinian), including Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

When a reef is injured it’s important to take emergency restoration actions to salvage as many of the corals as possible. Following the grounding work began to triage corals and plan emergency restoration which lasted through 2010. This included surveying and mapping the area affected by the incident and salvaging as many living corals as possible. Emergency restoration efforts are designed to meet most of the actions needed to revive the injured reef.

Scuba diver underwater with string and plastic pipe grid.

Broken corals were draped on a floating coral array frame in order to grow bigger. Divers attached Acropora coral fragments, one of many coral types affected by the grounding. NOAA

In the Port Stewart case that included salvaging scleractinian corals, the hard reef-building animals that create skeletons under their skin. The skeletons are made from calcium carbonate and protect the coral animals and offer a base that other coral can attach themselves to, creating the reef community. The actions of emergency crews were able to save about 1,000 corals.

Scientists have monitored injured reef for the past six years and consider restoration efforts successful. According to monitoring reports, survivorship of reattached corals is comparable to that of naturally occurring corals in the area.

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico

 


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Remediation vs. Restoration: A Tale of Two Terms

Tall grass growing in muddy marsh water.

Hazardous substances released over time from a Gulf of Mexico oil refinery required NOAA and its partners to restore intertidal marsh at the Lower Neches Water Management Area in Port Arthur, Texas. Photographed here in 2006. (NOAA)

When rivers, coastal waters or the ocean are polluted, regardless of the source, government agencies begin using terms that may be unfamiliar to the general public. Two common terms used are remediation and restoration.

Remediation and restoration describe actions that return natural areas to healthy communities for fish, wildlife, and people. So what is the difference between remediation and restoration?

What is Remediation?

Remediation is the process of stopping or reducing pollution that is threatening the health of people or wildlife. For example, cleaning up sediments – the bottoms of rivers, lakes, marshes, and the ocean – often involves having to physically remove those sediments. One successful method of removing polluted sediments is dredging. Large buckets scoop up contaminated sediment which is then transported by barge to designated areas for safe disposal.

Mechanical shovel scooping rover water.

Excavator dredging soft sediment from Menominee River near former 8th Street slip. NOAA

The Environmental Protection Agency, along with state agencies, often lead these cleanup efforts. The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) scientists advise agencies on the most effective methods to minimize remaining contamination and how to avoid harm to plants and animals during the cleanup.

The input of these NOAA scientists helps guide cleanup decisions and promotes faster recovery of wildlife and fish using the area, ultimately benefiting not just the environment but the local economies and communities of these formerly contaminated areas.

What is Restoration?

So if remediation is removal and cleanup of pollution, what is left to do? Plenty.

Once the harmful contamination causing pollutants are removed or contained, the next step is to restore the habitat. Restoration is the enhancement, creation, or re-creation of habitats, those places where fish and wildlife live. During this phase, construction projects are often undertaken to return the environment to a healthy functioning ecosystem.

Volunteers planting grass.

Volunteers plant Switch Grass during the 2010 NOAA Restoration Day event at the NOAA Cooperative Oxford Lab in Oxford, Maryland

Remediation controls the pollution, while restoration efforts, like the construction of wetlands and the planting of trees and vegetation, complete the process of providing healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, and ensuring safe environments for people to live and work in.

Remediation and restoration are most effective when they are done together in a coordinated effort. OR&R partners with other federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations to not only cleanup pollution and restore habitats, but to hold polluters accountable to fund restoration efforts across America.

Some of the many contaminated sites where OR&R’s remediation and restoration work is ongoing include:


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Preserving Natural Resources for All Americans

People standing in boats on river spraying water with hoses.

To clean sediment following the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, Michigan, workers sprayed sediment with water and agitated sediment by hand with a rake. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

By Robin Garcia

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) works with federal, state, and local agencies to prepare for, respond to, and assess the risks to natural resources following oil spills and hazardous waste releases. Often, OR&R also collaborates with Native American tribes to ensure that response, assessment, and restoration efforts fully address the needs of all communities.

In recognition of Native American History Month, here are past oil spills and hazardous waste releases that OR&R worked on with Native American tribes as trustees, or government officials acting on behalf of the public.

  • Industrial activities beginning in the 1890s released polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other toxins into the St. Louis River in Minnesota. Recreational activities are discouraged in the area and recreational fishing has decreased, likely due to visible sheens. NOAA, the Fond du Lac Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, and other trustees have completed an assessment of the site and are developing restoration projects with the responsible parties.
  • Since the early 1900s, activities at a wood treatment facility and a shipyard released toxins including PAHs, mercury, and heavy metals into Eagle Harbor in Washington. About 500 acres of Eagle Harbor were contaminated, and seafood consumption advisories are still in effect. NOAA, the Suquamish Tribe, the Muckleshoot Tribe, and other trustees reached a settlement in 1994 and a restoration plan was finalized in 2009. Projects restored and created habitats for species including Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. While these projects are complete, NOAA is providing input as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers additional cleanup efforts.

    Diver underwater planting eel grass.

    A diver plants eelgrass at the Milwaukee Dock site in Eagle Harbor, Washington. (NOAA)

  • In March 1999, a tanker truck jackknifed on a highway, spilling over 5000 gallons of gasoline onto the reservation of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and into Beaver Creek. The spill occurred in an important spawning and rearing area for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and other migratory fishes. NOAA, the Confederated Tribes, and the U.S. Department of the Interior reached a settlement with the responsible party in 2006 and finalized a restoration plan in 2009. Restoration projects began in 2011, including the restoration of native vegetation and the development of beaver-dam mimicking structures.

Robin Garcia is the Policy Analyst for the Office of Response and Restoration. She supports congressional and partner outreach for the Emergency Response Division, the Assessment and Restoration Division, and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center.


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An Estuary in the Shadow of Seattle

People working at marsh's edge.

Volunteers help restore the Duwamish River by planting native vegetation at an Earth Day event hosted at Codiga Park, April 2008. (NOAA)

Update: It’s been announced that a proposed settlement was reached with Seattle to resolve its liability for injured natural resources. Seattle has purchased restoration credits from Bluefield Holdings Inc., a company that develops restoration projects. The city’s credit purchase totals approximately $3.5 million worth of restoration. This is the first natural resource damages settlement to fund restoration through the purchase of credits by a restoration development company. For more details: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/city-seattle-agrees-natural-resource-damages-settlement-using-new-market-based-approach

What makes river water flow in one direction in the morning and change direction in the afternoon? Tides.

Where the Duwamish River meets Puget Sound in Washington state this shift of water flow happens daily. The Duwamish pours into the salty waters of Puget Sound, making it Seattle’s downtown estuary. The powerful tides that fill and drain the sound push and pull on the Duwamish causing a shift in directions at the river’s estuary.

This estuary does not look like the estuaries from high school text books. It no longer has a wide delta where the freshwater river fans out to meet the salty ocean. Instead, it looks like a channelized waterway. Almost all of the Duwamish estuarine wetlands and mudflats have been lost to dredging or filling for industrial purposes. Restoring the Duwamish‘s estuary is a massive challenge—requiring government agencies, industry, and the public to work together.

Aerial view of city with river.

Aerial photograph of the Lower Duwamish River. Harbor Island and Elliott Bay are shown in the top left and downtown Seattle in the top center of the photograph. (NOAA)

I am happy to report a significant step forward in this collaboration. NOAA recently produced key answers to some tough questions, based on lessons we learned as we worked on this restoration effort: What works the best to restore this highly urban and developed river and estuary? What are some of the key obstacles we encountered?

Main challenges for restoring the Duwamish:

  • Dealing with costs and challenges of existing contamination
  • Preventing erosion of new restoration
  • Keeping newly-planted vegetation alive—geese and other wildlife love to eat newly planted restoration sites

Key lessons learned for successful restoration:

  • Plan for uncertainty: the most common issue for restoration in urban areas is discovering unexpected challenges, such as sediment contamination during construction.
  • Allow for ongoing maintenance: Restoration isn’t over just because a project is complete. To ensure the long-term success of restoration efforts, continued stewardship of the site is necessary and should be included in project planning.
  • Get the biggest bang for your buck: When companies conduct cleanups of their sites, it is most cost effective to conduct restoration at the same time.
River with grid strung above it.

Geese inside goose exclusion fencing at Boeing Project. (Credit: Boeing)

The challenges and recommendations are only a snapshot of what can be found in the NOAA report, Habitat Restoration in an Urban Waterway: Lessons Learned from the Lower Duwamish River. While the Duwamish estuary may look nothing like it did historically, it is important to always be reminded that it is still full of life. From salmon to kayakers to industry, the estuary serves a key role in the Seattle community. Learn more about what we are doing to restore the Duwamish River.