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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How Much do Coastal Ecosystems Protect People from Storms and What is It Worth?

Sand dunes with grass.

Sand dunes along the New Jersey shore. (NOAA)

 This post was written by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Meg Imholt and is based on research done during the summer of 2014 by OR&R intern, Emory Wellman.

Nearly a year ago, one lawsuit spurred the question–how much do coastal ecosystems protect people from storms and what is that worth?  It’s a question NOAA scientists and economists are working to answer.

At NOAA, our job is to protect our coasts, but often, coastal ecosystems are the ones protecting us. When a severe storm hits, wetlands, sand dunes, reefs, and other coastal ecosystems can slow waves down, reducing their height and intensity, and prevent erosion.  That means less storm surge, more stable shorelines, and more resilient coastal communities.

When the coastal Borough of Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, replenished beaches with sand dunes to offer this ecosystem service, a New Jersey couple, the Karans, sued on the grounds that the newly placed dunes obstructed the ocean view from their home. Initially, the court barred the jury from considering storm protection benefits from the dunes in their decision. The jury awarded the Karans $375,000, but New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the ruling. The jury should consider storm protection benefits, according to the Supreme Court, and when it did, the Karan’s settlement dropped to $1.

Cases like this one spur a lot of questions for both science and the courts.

NOAA has been supporting ecosystem services in court for decades through Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA), but putting a price tag on ecosystem services isn’t easy. Instead, NOAA often determines how ecosystem services were hurt and what it will take to replace them.  Following a spill or chemical release, NOAA is one of a number of mandated state and federal natural resource trustees that assess if and how ecosystem services were injured and typically focuses on habitat and recreation. That assessment is then used to determine how much restoration the responsible party must provide to compensate for the injury.

Destroyed homes along the coast.

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy sped toward the East Coast, eventually sweeping waves of oil, hazardous chemicals, and debris into the coastal waters of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. (U.S. Air Force)

Determining exactly how much storm protection may have been lost is another challenge. We know that already; there are a variety of estimates showing how much coastal ecosystems reduce a storm’s impact. Still, the science of storm protection is complicated. For example, an ecosystem’s type, location, topography, and local tides all impact its ability to protect us from storms. So, determining how much storm protection services were lost, who they benefited, and what type of restoration could compensate depends on all of those factors too.

Ultimately, the decision on how to assess storm protection benefits may be up to the courts.  The next case like Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan may provide some clues, but until then, we’ll keep working on the science.


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Follow Along with the State Department’s Our Ocean 2014 Conference

Jellyfish swiming near a harbor bottom.

A brown sea nettle (Chrysaora fuscescens) drifting through Monterey Harbor in California. (NOAA)

You already know how much the ocean does for you and how important it is to both celebrate and protect it. The U.S. Department of State also realizes this importance and, as a result, is hosting the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC from June 16–17, 2014. According to ourocean2014.state.gov:

We will bring together individuals, experts, practitioners, advocates, lawmakers, and the international ocean and foreign policy communities to gather lessons learned, share the best science, offer unique perspectives, and demonstrate effective actions. We aim to chart a way forward, working individually and together, to protect “Our Ocean.”

Watch a message about the conference and find out how you can help from Secretary of State John Kerry:

Marine pollution, a topic NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is very concerned about, is one of three core areas the conference aims to address, along with ocean acidification and sustainable fisheries. When a plastic bag or cigarette butt blows into a river, it can end up flowing to the ocean, where it endangers marine life. The problem is global, but mitigation is local. It’s in our hands to reduce marine debris—our trash in our ocean—at its source. Learn more about the debris filling our seas by reading about the challenges and solutions in this Our Ocean conference document [PDF], by visiting marinedebris.noaa.gov, and by watching the video below:

On the Our Ocean 2014 website, you also can submit your own pledge to protect the ocean, whether that means volunteering to clean up a beach or tracing the sustainability of the seafood you eat. Plus, you can show your support for the ocean by sharing a photo that inspires your dedication to our ocean. (If you’re looking for inspiration, try the images in our Flickr stream.) The State Department says all you have to do to participate is:

Post your photo to your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #OurOcean2014 or add it to the OurOcean2014 group on Flickr.  We will be keeping an eye out for photos using the hashtag and will choose some of the photos to be featured at the Our Ocean conference in Washington on June 16-17.

Check out the program schedule and watch the conference streaming live starting at 9:30 a.m. Eastern on Monday and Tuesday at state.gov/ourocean.


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Celebrate and Protect the Ocean with us on World Ocean Day

Family exploring tidepools in Santa Cruz.

Learn about, explore, and protect your ocean — our ocean. (NOAA)

At NOAA’s National Ocean Service, we’re honoring all things ocean the entire month of June, but if you have only one day to spare, make it this weekend. Sunday, June 8 is World Ocean Day. As we commemorate this interconnected body of water which sustains our planet, consider how each of us can be involved in both celebrating and protecting the ocean.

To celebrate it, we suggest you learn something new about the ocean and share it with at least one friend (perhaps by sharing this blog post). Then, tell us which actions you’re taking to protect the ocean. We have a few examples to get you ready for both.

Learn to Love the Ocean

Did you know that …

You can learn even more about the ocean and coastal areas by visiting a National Marine Sanctuary or National Estuarine Research Reserve and getting a hands-on education.

Act to Protect the Ocean

Plastic water bottle floating in the ocean.

Don’t let this be your vision of World Ocean Day. Be part of the solution. (NOAA)

Now that you’re hopefully feeling inspired by our amazing ocean, you’re ready to do something to protect it from its many threats, such as ocean acidification (global warming’s oceanic counterpart), pollution, and habitat degradation. Here are some ways you can help:

The more we all know and care about the ocean, the more we will do to take care of it. Do your part this World Ocean Day and every day.


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Wishing You a Happy Donut Day (Free of Frying Oil Spills)

A mug, ruler, and NOAA chart with a stack of donuts, one decorated with the NOAA logo.

Happy Donut Day from NOAA!

Tomorrow we celebrate National Donut Day.

As scientists who work in oil spill response, and who also love these oil-fried creations, we know that donut oil can harm the environment almost as severely as the oils that are typically spilled on our coastlines and rivers.

When we talk about “oil” spills, we are generally referring to petroleum-based oils—the naturally occurring products, such as crude oil, found in geologic formations. But the oil and fats that we use to fry our food come from animals (e.g., lard/tallow, butter/ghee, fish oil) or from seeds and plants (e.g., palm, castor, olive, soya bean, sunflower, rape-seed). Like petroleum products, these oils can spill when they are stored or transported. When an accident occurs, large quantities of oil can spill into rivers, lakes, and harbors.

Although vegetable oils and animal fats are not as acutely toxic as many petroleum products, spills of these products can still result in significant environmental damage. Like petroleum oils, vegetable oils and animal fats and their components can have both immediate and long-term negative effects on wildlife and the environment when they:

  • Coat the fur or feathers of wildlife, and even smother embryos if oil comes in contact with bird eggs.
  • Suffocate marine life by depleting the oxygen in the water.
  • Destroy future and existing food supplies, breeding animals, and habitats.
  • Produce rancid odors.
  • Foul shorelines, clog water treatment plants, and catch fire when ignition sources are present.
  • Form products that linger in the environment for many years.

Many non-petroleum oils share similar physical properties with petroleum-based oils; for example, they don’t readily dissolve in water, they both create slicks on the surface of water, and they both form water-oil mixtures known as emulsions, or “mousse.” In addition, non-petroleum oils tend to be persistent, remaining in the environment for long periods of time.

Firefighters in Madison County, Wisc., had to deal with 16 million pounds of butter melting and flowing out of the burning refrigerated warehouse. The butter is visible here in the dug-out channels.

In the Great Butter Fire of May 3, 1991, firefighters in Madison County, Wisc., had to deal with 16 million pounds of butter melting and flowing out of a burning refrigerated warehouse. The butter, which threatened a nearby creek and recently restored lake, is visible here in the dug-out channels. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

In our earlier blog post, Recipes for Disaster, we describe spills of coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and even butter, which emergency responders across the United States have had to address. In addition to the oil spill response tools and resources we use to mitigate spills of all types, EPA’s explanation of the rules that apply to animal fats and vegetable oil spill planning and response, and response techniques suggested by ITOPF and CEDRE, researchers are finding new ways to clean up spills of vegetable oils.

For example, at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers have found that adding dry clay to spilled oil results in formation of oil-mineral combinations that sink to the bottom of the water. The process works best under conditions of relatively low mixing in the water, and is acceptable only if the oil can be broken down naturally in the sediment.

Back to National Donut Day and things that can be broken down naturally in your stomach. Enjoy your glazed, jelly-filled, or frosted-with-sprinkles delight however it is prepared—with vegetable oil, shortening, or maybe coconut oil. And if you’re thinking of enjoying your donut with a glass of milk, start thinking about what might happen when milk spills into our waters.


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What Have We Done for Endangered Species Lately?

Floating brown pelican.

The brown pelican, a successfully recovered species, was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Endangered species have a tough time of it. These plants and animals have been trampled, hunted, contaminated, and pushed out of their homes by humans to the point that their very existence on this planet becomes dangerously uncertain. In the United States, this is when the federal government steps in to list a species as threatened or endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Over 40 years later, this critical piece of legislation has had many successes in protecting native animals and plants and the natural areas where they live—perhaps most notably bringing back the national symbol, the bald eagle, from the brink of extinction. Yet with more than 1,500 types of animals and plants remaining threatened or endangered in the United States, we still have more work to do.

On May 16, 2014, we’re going to take the time to recognize this very important national conservation effort by celebrating Endangered Species Day and the many ways, big and small, each of us can help save our nation’s incredible array of plants and animals from extinction—like the now-recovered brown pelican!

Tools for Protecting Species During Oil Spills

So, what has NOAA been doing for endangered species? One example is the Office of Response and Restoration’s special data mapping tools that come into play during oil spills.

When an oil spill occurs along the coast, one priority for our office is identifying whether any threatened or endangered species live in the area near the spill. The responders dealing with the spill have to take into account factors such as what time of year these protected species are breeding or how they might come into contact with spilled oil or the response. This means knowing whether young Chinook salmon may be migrating out to sea through an estuary where a ship may have accidentally discharged fuel. Or knowing if the beaches where spill responders need to clean up oil are also important nesting grounds for a shorebird such as the piping plover.

Our biologists and ecologists help provide this kind of information during an oil spill response, but our office also produces tools to organize and display all of this information for both NOAA and oil spill planners and responders outside our agency. One of these tools is NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps. These maps characterize coastal environments and wildlife based on their sensitivity to spilled oil. The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

A related Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool, the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases, make up a subset of the original ESI data from our maps. These data focus on the coastal species and habitats that are federally and/or state listed as endangered, threatened, protected, or as a species of concern. These databases offer a more user-friendly option to access some of the most critical biological information for a region.

In the example below, you see a map of Great South Bay from the Long Island ESI atlas. The colored shapes (red, blue, green, and maroon) indicate where the piping plover, shortnose sturgeon, eastern mud turtle, and seabeach amaranth occur in June.

Screen capture of Environmental Sensitivity Map showing habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York.

Habitat of some threatened and endangered species, indicated by the blue, red, maroon, and green coloration, found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound, New York. (NOAA)

Using the Threatened and Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily gather complex information for a region, such as groupings of species with similar habitat preferences and feeding styles, threatened and endangered status, concentration, and life history summaries. This tool also features the ability to search for presence of a species in a particular month or season. You can take a look at these data, pulled from our many state and federal partners, for anywhere in the United States using this online map application.

What You Can Do

If you’re not an oil spill planner or responder, how can you help protect endangered species? Learn what you can do, such as protecting habitat by planting native rather than invasive plants in your yard, in this podcast from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Or find an Endangered Species Day event this weekend near you.


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Little “Bugs” Can Spread Big Pollution Through Contaminated Rivers

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

When we think of natural resources harmed by pesticides, toxic chemicals, and oil spills, most of us probably envision soaring birds or adorable river otters.  Some of us may consider creatures below the water’s surface, like the salmon and other fish that the more charismatic animals eat, and that we like to eat ourselves. But it’s rare that we spend much time imagining what contamination means for the smaller organisms that we don’t see, or can’t see without a microscope.

Mayfly aquatic insect on river bottom.

A mayfly, pictured above, is an important component in the diet of salmon and other fish. (NOAA)

The tiny creatures that live in the “benthos”—the mud, sand, and stones at the bottoms of rivers—are called benthic macroinvertebrates. Sometimes mistakenly called “bugs,” the benthic macroinvertebrate community actually includes a variety of animals like snails, clams, and worms, in addition to insects like mayflies, caddisflies, and midges. They play several important roles in an ecosystem. They help cycle and filter nutrients and they are a major food source for fish and other animals.

Though we don’t see them often, benthic macroinvertebrates play an extremely important role in river ecosystems. In polluted rivers, such as the lower 10 miles of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, these creatures serve as food web pathways for legacy contaminants like PCBs and DDT. Because benthic macroinvertebrates live and feed in close contact with contaminated muck, they are prone to accumulation of contaminants in their bodies.  They are, in turn, eaten by predators and it is in this way that contaminants move “up” through the food web to larger, more easily recognizable animals such as sturgeon, mink, and bald eagles.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River. (Portland Harbor Trustee Council)

The image above depicts some of the pathways that contaminants follow as they move up through the food web in Oregon’s Portland Harbor. Benthic macroinvertebrates are at the bottom of the food web. They are eaten by larger animals, like salmon, sturgeon, and bass. Those fish are then eaten by birds (like osprey and eagle), mammals (like mink), and people.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As PCB and DDT contamination makes its way up the food chain through these organisms, it is stored in their fat and biomagnified, meaning that the level of contamination you find in a large organism like an osprey is many times more than what you would find in a single water-dwelling insect. This is because an osprey eats many fish in its lifetime, and each of those fish eats many benthic macroinvertebrates.

Therefore, a relatively small amount of contamination in a single insect accumulates to a large amount of contamination in a bird or mammal that may have never eaten an insect directly.  The graphic to the right was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to illustrate how DDT concentrations biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain.

Benthic macroinvertebrates can be used by people to assess water quality. Certain types of benthic macroinvertebrates cannot tolerate pollution, whereas others are extremely tolerant of it.  For example, if you were to turn over a few stones in a Northwest streambed and find caddisfly nymphs (pictured below encased in tiny pebbles), you would have an indication of good water quality. Caddisflies are very sensitive to poor water quality conditions.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom are indicators of high water quality. (NOAA)

Surveys in Portland Harbor have shown that we have a pretty simple and uniform benthic macroinvertebrate population in the area. As you might expect, it is mostly made up of pollution-tolerant species. NOAA Restoration Center staff are leading restoration planning efforts at Portland Harbor and it is our hope that once cleanup and restoration projects are completed, we will see a more diverse assemblage of benthic macroinvertebrates in the Lower Willamette River.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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Texas City “Y” Incident: Aftermath of the Oil Spill in Galveston Bay, Texas

photo of people cleaning up contaminated sand.

Task force members remove oil-contaminated sand from the beach on Matagorda Island, Texas, March 30, 2014. Cleanup operations are being directed by a unified command comprised of personnel from the Texas General Land Office, U.S. Coast Guard and Kirby Inland marine. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The March 22, 2014 vessel collision in Galveston Bay (see Kirby Barge Oil Spill, Houston/Texas City Ship Channel) resulted in an oil spill of approximately 168,000 gallons.

Although scattered and trace amounts of oil were found as far west as Mustang and Padre Islands, almost all of the oil is still thought to be stranded on shorelines between Galveston and Matagorda.  Some widely scattered floating tarballs and sheens may be possible, but no floating oil was observed on overflights today.

As of Monday, March 31, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service teams report 21 dolphins and 4 turtles stranded. Most of these are in the Galveston area but reports from Matagorda Island are increasing.  All of the dolphins were dead, two turtles were captured alive and are being rehabilitated.  Most of the animals were not visibly oiled but necropsies are still underway.  Approximately 150 dead birds have been reported in the Galveston area and 30 in the Matagorda area.

Cleanup activities in the Galveston area are proceeding and the U.S. Coast Guard is beginning the process to downsize staffing and phase out response efforts.

Photo of two people locating oil on beach.

Two members of the Shoreline Assessment Team locate oiled impact points on Matagorda Island, March 29, 2014. The Unified Command in Port O’Connor is overcoming logistical challenges posed by the remote island in order to clean up the migrating oil from the Texas City collision. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Surveying Oiled Shorelines

After an oil spill like this one happens along the coast, spill responders need to figure out and document where oil has come ashore, what habitats have been affected, and how to clean up the shoreline.

NOAA helped develop a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill. This method, known as Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT), is designed to support decision-making for shoreline cleanup. We have SCAT experts helping coordinate these shoreline surveying efforts for the oiled beaches in Texas.

In general, SCAT surveys begin early in the response to assess initial shoreline conditions (including even before oil comes ashore, as a reference) and ideally continue to work in advance of cleanup.

Surveys continue during the response to verify shoreline oiling, cleanup effectiveness, and eventually, to conduct final evaluations of shorelines to ensure they meet standards for ending cleanup.

SCAT teams include people trained in the techniques, procedures, and terminology of shoreline assessment. Members of a SCAT team may come from federal agencies (usually from the NOAA Scientific Support Team or U.S. Coast Guard), state agencies, a representative of the organization responsible for the spill, and possibly the landowner or other local stakeholders.

While out walking the shoreline, SCAT team members prepare field maps and forms detailing the area surveyed and make specific cleanup recommendations. Later, they go back to the areas surveyed to verify cleanup effectiveness, modifying guidelines as needed if conditions change.

The data they collect informs a shoreline cleanup plan that maximizes the recovery of oiled habitats and resources, while minimizing the risk of injury from cleanup efforts. This means, for example, determining whether active cleanup is necessary or whether certain limitations on cleanup are needed to protect ecological, economic, or cultural concerns.

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