NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


4 Comments

With Lobster Poacher Caught, NOAA Fishes out Illegal Traps from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

This is a post by Katie Wagner of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

On June 26, 2014, metal sheets, cinder blocks, and pieces of lumber began rising to the ocean’s surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This unusual activity marked the beginning of a project to remove materials used as illegal lobster fishing devices called “casitas” from sanctuary waters. Over the course of two months, the NOAA-led restoration team plans to visit 297 locations to recover and destroy an estimated 300 casitas.

NOAA’s Restoration Center is leading the project with the help of two contractors, Tetra Tech and Adventure Environmental, Inc. The removal effort is part of a criminal case against a commercial diver who for years used casitas to poach spiny lobsters from sanctuary waters. An organized industry, the illegal use of casitas to catch lobsters in the Florida Keys not only impacts the commercial lobster fishery but also injures seafloor habitat and marine life.

Casitas—Spanish for “little houses”—do not resemble traditional spiny lobster traps made of wooden slats and frames. “Casitas look like six-inch-high coffee tables and can be made of various materials,” explains NOAA marine habitat restoration specialist Sean Meehan, who is overseeing the removal effort.

The legs of the casitas can be made of treated lumber, parking blocks, or cinder blocks. Their roofs often are made of corrugated tin, plastic, quarter-inch steel, cement, dumpster walls, or other panel-like structures.

Poachers place casitas on the seafloor to attract spiny lobsters to a known location, where divers can return to quite the illegal catch.

A spiny lobster in a casita on the seafloor.

A spiny lobster in a casita. (NOAA)

“Casitas speak to the ecology and behavior of these lobsters,” says Meehan. “Lobsters feed at night and look for places to hide during the day. They are gregarious and like to assemble in groups under these structures.” When the lobsters are grouped under these casitas, divers can poach as many as 1,500 in one day, exceeding the daily catch limit of 250.

In addition to providing an unfair advantage to the few criminal divers using this method, the illegal use of casitas can harm the seafloor environment. A Natural Resource Damage Assessment, led by NOAA’s Restoration Center in 2008, concluded that the casitas injured seagrass and hard bottom areas, where marine life such as corals and sponges made their home. The structures can smother corals, sea fans, sponges, and seagrass, as well as the habitat that supports spiny lobster, fish, and other bottom-dwelling creatures.

Casitas are also considered marine debris and potentially can harm other habitats and organisms. When left on the ocean bottom, casitas can cause damage to a wider area when strong currents and storms move them across the seafloor, scraping across seagrass and smothering marine life.

“We know these casitas, as they are currently being built, move during storm events and also can be moved by divers to new areas,” says Meehan. However, simply removing the casitas will allow the seafloor to recover and support the many marine species in the sanctuary.

There are an estimated 1,500 casitas in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters, only a portion of which will be removed in the current effort. In this case, a judge ordered the convicted diver to sell two of his residences to cover the cost of removing hundreds of casitas from the sanctuary.

To identify the locations of the casitas, NOAA’s Hydrographic Systems and Technology Program partnered with the Restoration Center and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In a coordinated effort, the NOAA team used Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (underwater robots) to conduct side scan sonar surveys, creating a picture of the sanctuary’s seafloor. The team also had help finding casitas from a GPS device confiscated from the convicted fisherman who placed them in the sanctuary.

After the casitas have been located, divers remove them by fastening each part of a casita’s structure to a rope and pulley mechanism or an inflatable lift bag used to float the materials to the surface. Surface crews then haul them out of the water and transport them to shore where they can be recycled or disposed.

For more information about the program behind this restoration effort, visit NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

Katie Wagner.Katie Wagner is a communications specialist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Her work raises the visibility of NOAA’s effort to protect and restore coastal and marine resources following oil spills, releases of hazardous substances, and vessel groundings.


3 Comments

Detecting Change in a Changing World: 25 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Life between high and low tide along the Alaskan coast is literally rough and tumble.

The marine animals and plants living there have to deal with both crashing sea waves at high tide and the drying heat of the sun at low tide. Such a life can be up and down, boom and bust, as favorable conditions come and go quickly and marine animals and plants are forced to react and repopulate just as quickly.

But what happens when oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez enters this dynamic picture—and 25 years later, still hasn’t completely left? What happens when bigger changes to the ocean and global climate begin arriving in these waters already in flux?

Telling the Difference

Two people wearing chest waders sift for marine life in shallow rocky waters.

In 2011 NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka (right) sifts through the sediments of Alaska’s Lower Herring Bay, looking for the tiny marine life that live there. (Photo by Gerry Sanger/Sound Ecosystem Adventures)

In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit Alaska’s Prince William Sound, NOAA scientists, including marine biologist Gary Shigenaka and ecologist Alan Mearns, have been studying the impacts of the spill and cleanup measures on these animals and plants in rocky tidal waters.

Their experiments and monitoring over the long term revealed a high degree of natural variability in these communities that was unrelated to the oil spill. They saw large changes in, for example, numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles from year to year even in areas known to be unaffected by the oil spill.

This translated into a major challenge. How do scientists tell the difference between shifts in marine communities due to natural variability and those changes caused by the oil spill?

Several key themes emerged from NOAA’s long-term monitoring and subsequent experimental research:

  • impact. How do we measure it?
  • recovery. How do we define it?
  • variability. How do we account for it?
  • subtle connection to large-scale oceanic influences. How do we recognize it?

What NOAA has learned from these themes informs our understanding of oil spill response and cleanup, as well as of ecosystems on a larger scale. None of this, however, would have been apparent without the long-term monitoring effort. This is an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez experience: that monitoring and research, often viewed as an unnecessary luxury in the context of a large oil spill response, are useful, even essential, for framing the scientific and practical lessons learned.

Remote Possibilities

As NOAA looks ahead to the future—and with the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in our recent past—we can incorporate and apply lessons of the Exxon Valdez long-term program into how we will support response decisions and define impact and recovery.

The Arctic is a region of intense interest and scrutiny. Climate change is opening previously inaccessible waters and dramatically shifting what scientists previously considered “normal” environmental conditions. This is allowing new oil production and increased maritime traffic through Arctic waters, increasing the risk of oil spills in remote and changing environments.

If and when something bad happens in the Arctic, how do scientists determine the impact and what recovery means, if our reference point is a rapidly moving target? What is our model habitat for restoring one area impacted by oil when the “unimpacted” reference areas are undergoing their own major changes?

Illustrated infographic showing timeline of ecological recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Tracking the progress of recovery for marine life and habitats following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is no easy task. Even today, not all of the species have recovered or we don’t have enough information to know. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

Listening in

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka explores these questions as he reflects on the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the following Making Waves podcast from the National Ocean Service:

[NARRATOR] This all points back at what Gary says is the main take-away lesson after 25 years of studying the aftermath of this spill: the natural environment in Alaska and in the Arctic are rapidly changing. If we don’t understand that background change, then it’s really hard to say if an area has recovered or not after a big oil spill.

[GARY SHIGENAKA] “I think we need to really keep in mind that maybe our prior notions of recovery as returning to some pre-spill or absolute control condition may be outmoded. We need to really overlay that with the dynamic changes that are occurring for whatever reason and adjust our assessments and definitions accordingly. I don’t have the answers for the best way to do that. We’ve gotten some ideas from the work that we’ve done, but I think that as those changes begin to accelerate and become much more marked, then it’s going to be harder to do.”

 

Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research on its recovery over the past 25 years.


Leave a comment

Do Bigger Oil Spills Require More Restoration?

This is a post by NOAA intern Franziska Economy.

Quick, can you name ten major oil spills?

Having a hard time? Until recently, I would have been scratching my head after:

  1. Deepwater Horizon/BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010)
  2. Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska (1989)
  3. … ?

Maybe some of you managed to come up with a couple of the other major spills from the last few decades, but this seems to be a tall order for the average person.

Oil spills actually happen just about every day, but most don’t make the news. I was surprised to learn that there are nearly 14,000 oil and chemical spills reported to the National Response Center every year.

Even crazier to me was the discovery that sometimes the best recovery option for small oil spills is actually taking “No Action.” This can be the case when cleaning up the oil would cause more harm to a sensitive ecosystem than just leaving it there to break down naturally. Sometimes, however, an oil spill can be relatively large and present real dangers to the plants and animals in the area without attracting much attention from the greater public.

Learning all of this prompted me to delve into the treasure trove of information on the oil spill cases NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration handles. As the lead science agency for oil spills, NOAA is asked to respond to about 100–200 of the more significant marine and coastal spills every year to provide scientific support to help with the cleanup. A much smaller subset of those spills require a legal assessment of environmental monetary damages to restore those natural resources. This is known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA.

When studying these NRDA spill cases, I focused on two particularly interesting factors: the size of the oil spill and the “restoration cost,” or how much money the oil spiller has to pay to restore the public’s injured natural resources. Take a look at the top ten oil spill cases in each category and see how they compare:

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources.

Figure 1. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by dollar amount needed to restore injured environmental resources. Note: each color in this graph corresponds to a spill found on both Figure 1 and Figure 2; gray spills are only found on one graph. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Graph of the top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons.

Figure 2. The top ten NOAA oil spill NRDA settlements by the volume of oil spilled in gallons. Source: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/ Click to enlarge.

Right off the bat, it is easy to spot that bigger oil spills don’t always result in the highest restoration costs, and even if the restoration cost of a spill is relatively high, it is not necessarily related to the size of the spill. The Cosco Busan and Athos place first and second among oil spill settlements by restoration cost (Figure 1), but they are not big enough to land in the top ten by spill size (Figure 2; they are 12 and 23, respectively).

Furthermore, before the Deepwater Horizon/BP incident, the spill Barge Morris J. Berman was the largest spill that OR&R had responded to; yet it ranked only the fifth highest among restoration settlements, not even one-third the amount of the highest settlement, the Cosco Busan. In general, only half of the spills on each graph appear on the other, showing a lower correlation between these two variables than I originally thought.

So, why do you think that is? I’ve been brainstorming what factors could influence why gallons of oil spilled do not necessarily result in the most money required to restore natural resources. A single variable—such as the amount or type of oil spilled—isn’t by itself an accurate indicator of how much money it takes to respond to, clean up, and restore the environment after an oil spill. We have to examine a variety of factors to understand the bigger picture.

Other factors which might affect the restoration cost of an oil spill include:

  • the properties of the oil spilled (was it thick like tar that would sink to the bottom? Or was it light and likely to evaporate quickly from the water’s surface?)
  • the type and effectiveness of cleanup methods (was very little oil able to be recovered?)
  • the type of ecosystem affected (was it an estuary full of sensitive marsh grass and bird nesting sites or in an lower quality industrial area with a bulkheaded shoreline?)
  • the cultural and economic values of nearby cities and towns (was the spill close to a population with strong ties to the outdoor environment?)

What other issues do you think might play a role in how much restoration is required to offset the impacts of an oil spill on the environment?

Franziska Economy is an American University graduate with a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and Environmental Science. She is working as a Constituent and Legislative Affairs intern for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and enjoys sharing the interesting facts she has learned and statistics she has uncovered. She hopes to help break down the acronym-filled, complicated world of responding to oil spills, assessing damages, and restoring broken ecosystems.


Leave a comment

Why Does the Gulf of Mexico Need a Disaster Response Center?

Why is NOAA building a Disaster Response Center in the Gulf region? Images from a recent NOAA-wide photo contest tell the story.

Flooded New Orleans streets after Hurricane Katrina.

View of Hurricane Katrina destruction in the city of New Orleans taken from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter during an aerial pollution survey, September 5, 2005, New Orleans, La. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

Over the past decade, the greater Gulf of Mexico region has faced both natural and human-caused disasters, including hurricanes, oil spills, tornadoes, droughts, harmful algal blooms, and wildfire. While we often can’t prevent these severe events, we can reduce their impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats. We can also use cutting-edge technology and the most up-to-date information to make coastal communities more resilient.

NOAA contributes a variety of services before, during, and after these kinds of disasters, from forecasting the paths of hurricanes to restoring the environment after an oil spill. Until recently, however, there was no central point in the Gulf of Mexico to coordinate access to these vital products and services.  Construction of NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center (DRC) [leaves this blog] in Mobile, Ala., is nearly complete, and the facility will streamline the delivery of NOAA services that will help the region prepare for and deal with disasters.

To gear up for the DRC’s grand opening, NOAA employees submitted photographs highlighting three areas: disaster impacts to human infrastructure, disaster impacts to the environment, and disaster response activities along the Gulf Coast. The photos themselves show most clearly the need for a Disaster Response Center in the Gulf.

Disaster Impacts to Human Infrastructure

Barbara Ambrose, a graphic artist with NOAA’s National Coastal Data Development Center in Mississippi, took her first-place photograph Folded House in September 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. The picture was taken on Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the city of Bay St. Louis and is the most destructive storm on record in terms of economic losses.

Folded house after Hurricane Katrina.

"Folded House." Credit: Barbara Ambrose, NOAA.

Disaster Impacts to the Environment

Ron Wooten, a biologist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Galveston, Texas, took his first-place photograph Sticking Together on April 29, 2010. While flying over the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, Wooten captured the image of a large pod of striped dolphins swimming through rows of orange-colored, weathered oil that extended for miles. As the nation’s leading scientific resource for oil spills, NOAA was on the scene from the start, providing coordinated weather and biological response services to federal, state, and local organizations.

Striped dolphins swimming through oiled waters.

"Sticking Together." Credit: Ron Wooten, NOAA.

Disaster Response

Ed Levine, Scientific Support Coordinator with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, took his first place photograph USCG Rescue Swimmer Perspective 2 on September 5, 2005. The image was taken in the midst of rescue operations conducted in New Orleans, La., following Hurricane Katrina, which will be remembered as one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in the history of the United States.

U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer during Hurricane Katrina

"U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Perspective 2." Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

Winning photographs will be showcased throughout the new Disaster Response Center.  You can find all of the incredible photo contest entries at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/drc/contest/ [leaves this blog].


3 Comments

Oil Spills Don’t Take a Holiday

As we get ready for Thanksgiving, I am reminded of a couple oil spills that have occurred over that weekend in the past. Most of our work takes place each day from 9-5, but when a spill happens, we respond 24-7 regardless of holiday schedules.

On November 26, 1997, the day before Thanksgiving, the M/V Kuroshima, a 368-foot frozen seafood freighter, broke away from its anchorage during a severe storm. While the vessel was attempting to move to a safer anchorage, winds in excess of 100 knots blew the freighter into Second Priest Rock near the entrance of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, puncturing several of the vessel’s fuel tanks. The disabled vessel subsequently ran aground at Summer Bay, spilling about 39,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

M/V Kuroshima run aground.

M/V Kuroshima run aground in Summer Bay, Alaska. Credit: Jim Severns, Dutch Harbor, with permission.

Fans of “The Deadliest Catch” know these waters—and their dangers—well. The fishing vessels pass this point on their way to and from the Bering Sea fishing grounds. And this incident lived up to that deadly reputation. Two of the ship’s crew were killed during the grounding.

I flew up to Dutch Harbor to help with the response. Late fall in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands is not the best flying weather, and the airport is challenging even during good weather. The airport’s runway is bordered on one side by a drop off into the ocean and the side of a hill on the other. Both ends drop off into open water, with mountains guarding the approach. Winds buffeted the plane, and I remember the airplane taking a couple shaky passes at the runway—one of the shortest commercial runways in North America—before landing.  You can get a sense of what it is like to land there from this video [leaves this blog].

After that flight I vowed to increase my life insurance.

Dutch Harbor runway.

Final approach to Dutch Harbor, Alaska (on a calm day). Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

Bitter cold and high winds also hampered the cleanup and salvage of the ship and its spilled contents. It took four months to refloat the vessel, and cleanup lasted for over a year.

Shoreline cleanup in Summer Bay Lake, Alaska.

Shoreline cleanup along Summer Bay Lake, Alaska, December 1997, following M/V Kuroshima oil spill. Credit: Ruth Yender, NOAA.

The damage assessment and restoration effort for the spill took several years. The final restoration plan [PDF], prepared by the state and federal natural resource trustees in consultation with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, addressed five areas of impacts: birds, vegetation, intertidal shellfish, salmon, and recreation. A settlement was reached in 2002 for natural resource damages, totaling approximately $650,000.

The recreational projects prompted some interesting challenges and solutions. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, claims can be made for the lost use of natural resources; in this case, the spill affected the prime recreational beach for the city of Unalaska. As compensation for the lost recreational opportunities during the spill, one project funded a summer outdoor recreation camp for the Qawalangin Tribe. While there, the students learned traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and participated in other cultural and environmental activities with Unangan elders. We also arranged for further chemical analysis of the shellfish tissues and educated the community on the safety of the local seafoods.

While the spill response and restoration was successful, the story of the ship doesn’t end well. After the M/V Kuroshima was refloated, it was repaired, sold to a Latvian company and renamed the M/V Linkuva. On June 20, 2000, the ship and 18 crewmembers were lost in Hurricane Carlotta off Acapulco, Mexico.


Leave a comment

A DDT Legacy and the Road to Recovery in California

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Effects of DDT on bird eggs.

On display at the National Museum of American History, you can see the effects of DDT on a bird egg (right). Credit: Kari Bluff, Creative Commons.

If you ask the earlier Baby Boomer generation about DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), they might recall images of this chemical being sprayed in their neighborhoods right where they were playing.

DDT was first considered a wonder chemical by many for its use against disease-carrying insects and agricultural pests, prompting a Nobel Prize for its discovery. DDT was widely used as a pesticide beginning in the 1940s, until concerned biologists led by Rachel Carson, documented its harmful effects on birds, other wildlife, and possibly human health.

Another trait of DDT is that once released, it stays in the environment for a very long time.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally banned its use in 1972. However, releases of this chemical were widespread by the time it was banned.

The story in southern California, however, is a little different.  A DDT manufacturing company called the Montrose Chemical Corporation, located in Torrance, Calif., had a permit to release their DDT waste through an outfall pipe that led to the ocean nearby. Other factories in the area were manufacturing PCBs, another harmful chemical, and releasing their waste through the same outfall pipe at White Point.

Millions of pounds* later, local and federal governments determined that the release of these chemicals was a violation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act (CERCLA), which is also known as Superfund. After 10 years of litigation and data collection, a settlement agreement was reached, and funds were made available to clean up the contamination site at the bottom of the ocean along Palos Verdes Shelf and to restore resources harmed from the pollution within the Southern California Bight.

One year after a settlement was reached, in 2001, the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) was formed to oversee restoration of resources harmed by DDT and PCBs including Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, seabirds, fishing, and fish habitat. This year marks the 10 year anniversary for the restoration program, and there is plenty to celebrate. At www.montroserestoration.noaa.gov, you can find the program’s restoration accomplishments, photos, wildlife webcams, and the latest updates from the program’s trustee council. Relive some highlights of successful restoration milestones of the program over the last decade, and see what projects MSRP is proposing in the Draft Phase 2 Restoration Plan released for public comment this month.

A larger symbol of the hope for recovery here manifests itself in the film Return Flight: Restoring the Bald Eagle to the Channel Islands, directed by the Filmmakers Collaborative SF. This film captures the spirit of biologists, partners, volunteers, and concerned citizens working to secure a biological legacy for the Bald Eagle in southern California despite the chemical legacy of DDT.

You can watch the short film here:

*Correction: Previously, this incorrectly stated “hundreds of millions of tons,” not pounds, of PCBs and DDT waste.

Above photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives license.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.