Across the United States, the winter holiday season is upon us and many people are gathering with family and friends to celebrate. But as you go about trimming trees, lighting candles, and nipping eggnog, keep in mind a few tips for lowering your impact on the ocean.
After all, a clean and healthy environment sounds like a great gift to give others—along with world peace.
- Host a no- or low-waste holiday soiree. Set out reusable dishes for guests or use recyclable items and have a clearly labeled recycling bin at the ready. Compost napkins, half-eaten gingerbread people, and that fruitcake leftover from last year. Get more tips from the Marine Debris Blog. As they point out, “According to the EPA, the volume of household waste in the United States generally increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day—about 1 million extra tons.”
- Do your holiday shopping with reusable bags. Plastic shopping bags are among the top 10 items collected each year at the International Coastal Cleanup.
- Consider giving gifts that won’t end up on the shelf or in the trash. It takes a lot of oil (which can spill) to produce and transport the many items for sale starting Black Friday. What about giving the people you care about gifts they can experience, such as tickets to a show or gift certificate to their favorite restaurant? Or something they can use with little or no accompanying waste, such as homemade hand salve or your famous family latke recipe, along with a tasty batch to go with it?
- Keep your gifts under reusable wraps. Skip the plastic ribbons and bows and wrap your gifts in stylish fabric gift bags (which the recipient can then re-gift). At the very least, save what wrappings you can and use them again next time.
- Avoid giving gifts that contain tiny plastic microbeads. It may be tempting to give your sister-in-law a bottle of Cinnamon Stick Glitterburst Exfoliating Body Scrub, but check the label first. Personal care items, such as cleansers and body wash, often contain “microscrubbers” made of plastic that go down the drain, most times making it past waste treatment and into rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Look for “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the ingredient list.
- If you have a blast, clean it up. If you use fireworks to ring in the New Year, please do so responsibly. Fireworks can shatter into little plastic bits, which can be swept into storm drains and end up in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Volunteer for a beach cleanup on January 1, track what you pick up, and make sure marine debris doesn’t pollute 2015.
- Give public transportation the green light. Holly and mistletoe shouldn’t be the only green part of this season. When possible and safe, opt for lower-impact transportation options: walking, biking, or public transportation. NOAA responded to 138 oil and chemical spills in the past year. Less oil used means less oil transported and potentially spilled.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more great suggestions for greening your holiday season and all winter long. Do you have any tips? How are you keeping your holiday season happy and light on the planet?
January 1, 2015 marks a major milestone in preventing oil spills. That date is the deadline which the landmark Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) specifies for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters. That act, passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, required that all new tankers and tank-barges be built with double hulls.
Recently constructed single-hull tankers were allowed to operate, but 25 years after the Exxon Valdez, those vessels are now at the end of their operational life and will no longer be able to carry oil as cargo. The requirement was phased in gradually because of the difficultly of converting existing single-hull tankers to double hulls, and retiring the single-hull tankers more rapidly would have been a major disruption to world shipping.Counting Down to a New Era
There won’t be a dramatic change-over on New Year’s Eve; most of the tankers calling on U.S. ports have had double hulls years before this deadline. However, one ship which was not switched over to a double hull soon enough was the tanker Athos I. This ship, carrying 13.6 million gallons of heavy crude oil, struck a submerged anchor in the Delaware River and caused a relatively large, complicated oil spill near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 10 year ago.
In 1992, two years after the Oil Pollution Act, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (the MARPOL Convention) was amended to require all newly built tankers have double hulls. MARPOL has been ratified by 150 countries, representing over 99 percent of merchant tonnage shipped worldwide.Stay out of Trouble by Going Double
So, what is the big issue around single vs. double-hull ships? Historically, tankers carrying oil were built with a single hull, or single shell.
While we measure oil in barrels, it is not actually shipped that way. Instead, oil is pumped into huge tanks that are part of the structure of tankers and barges. For vessels with a single hull, one plate of steel is all that separates the oil on board from the ocean. If the hull were punctured from a collision or grounding, an oil spill is pretty much guaranteed to follow. On the other hand, a ship with a double hull has two plates of steel with empty space in between them. The second hull creates a buffer zone between the ocean and the cargo of oil.
Naval architects have debated the merits of various hull designs in reducing oil spills, and using a double hull, essentially a hull within a hull, was selected as the preferred vessel design.
However, the double hull requirements only apply to tankers and tank barges. Container ships, freighters, cruise ships, and other types of vessels are still built with single hulls. While these ships carry a lot less oil than a tanker, a large non-tank vessel can still carry a lot of fuel oil, and some have caused some pretty big spills, including the 2007 oil spill caused by the cargo ship Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay.
Of course, double hulls don’t prevent all oil spills from tankers either, but the design has been credited with reducing the amount spilled, especially in the cases of low-speed groundings and collisions.
And some pretty spectacular collisions have resulted in double-hull tankers not spilling a drop.
Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The collision tore a huge hole in the side of the oil tanker, but, thankfully, none of the 41 million gallons of crude oil it had on board was spilled.
NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of February 23–27, 2015 at the NOAA Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama.
We will accept applications for this class through Friday, January 9, 2015, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, January 16, 2015, 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.
These trainings cover:
- 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 be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries 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.
Additional SOS courses will be held in 2015 in Houston, Texas, (April 27–May 1, 2015) and Seattle, Washington (date to be determined).
For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.
The cringe-inducing sound of a ship crushing its way onto a coral reef is often the beginning of the story. But, thanks to NOAA’s efforts, it is not usually the end. After most ship groundings on reefs, hundreds to thousands of small coral fragments may litter the ocean floor, where they would likely perish rolling around or buried under piles of rubble. However, by bringing these fragments into coral nurseries, we give them the opportunity to recover.
In the waters around Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, NOAA works with a number of partners in various capacities to maintain 27 coral nurseries. These underwater safe havens serve a dual function. Not only do they provide a stable environment for injured corals to recuperate, but they also produce thousands of healthy young corals, ready to be transplanted into previously devastated areas.Checking into the Nursery
When they enter coral nurseries, bits of coral typically measure about four inches long. They may come from the scene of a ship grounding or have been knocked loose from the seafloor after a powerful storm. Occasionally and with proper permission, they have been donated from healthy coral colonies to help stock nurseries. These donor corals typically heal within a few weeks. In fact, staghorn and elkhorn coral, threatened species which do well in nurseries, reproduce predominantly via small branches breaking off and reattaching somewhere new.
In the majority of nurseries, coral fragments are hung like clothes on a clothesline or ornaments on trees made of PVC pipes. Floating freely in the water, the corals receive better water circulation, avoid being attacked by predators such as fireworms or snails, and generally survive at a higher rate.
After we have established a coral nursery, divers may visit as little as a few times per year or as often as once per month if they need to keep algae from building up on the corals and infrastructure. “It helps if there is a good fish population in the area to clean the nurseries for you,” notes Sean Griffin, a coral reef restoration ecologist with NOAA.
Injured corals generally take at least a couple months to recover in the nurseries. After a year in the nursery, we can transplant the original staghorn or elkhorn colonies or cut multiple small fragments from them, which we then use either to expand the nursery or transplant them to degraded areas.
One of the fastest growing species, staghorn coral can grow up to eight inches in a year while elkhorn can grow four inches. We are still investigating the best ways to cultivate some of the slower growing species, such as boulder star coral and lobed star coral.
In 2014, we placed hundreds of coral fragments from four new groundings into nurseries in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This represents only a fraction of this restoration technique’s potential.
After the tanker Margara ran aground on coral reefs in Puerto Rico in 2006, NOAA divers rescued 11,000 salvageable pieces of broken coral, which were reattached at the grounding site and established a nursery nearby using 100 fragments from the grounding. That nursery now has 2,000 corals in it. Each year, 1,600 of them are transplanted back onto the seafloor. The 400 remaining corals are broken into smaller fragments to restock the nursery. We continue to grow healthy corals in this nursery and then either transplant them back to the area affected by the grounded ship, help restore other degraded reefs, or use some of them to start the process over for another year.
Nurseries in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands currently hold about 50,000 corals. Those same nurseries generate another 50,000 corals which we transplant onto restoration sites each year. Sometimes we are able to use these nurseries proactively to protect and preserve corals at risk. In the fall of 2014, a NOAA team worked with the University of Miami to rescue more than 200 threatened staghorn coral colonies being affected by excessive sediment in the waters off of Miami, Florida. The sedimentation was caused by a dredging project to expand the Port of Miami entrance channel.
We relocated these colonies to the coral nurseries off Key Biscayne run by our partners at the University of Miami. The corals were used to create over 1,000 four-inch-long fragments in the nursery. There, they will be allowed to recover until dredge operations finish at the Port of Miami and sedimentation issues are no longer a concern. The corals then can either be transplanted back onto the reef where they originated or used as brood stock in the nursery to propagate more corals for future restoration.
Growing less than a quarter inch per year, the elaborate coral reefs off the south coast of Puerto Rico originally took thousands of years to form. And over the course of two days in late April 2006, portions of them were ground into dust.
The tanker Margara ran aground on these reefs near the entrance to Guayanilla Bay. Then, in the attempt to remove and refloat the ship, it made contact with the bottom several times and became grounded again. By the end, roughly two acres of coral were lost or injured. The seafloor was flattened and delicate corals crushed. Even today, a carpet of broken coral and rock remains in part of the area. This loose rubble becomes stirred up during storms, smothering young coral and preventing the reef’s full recovery.
NOAA and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources have been working on a restoration plan for this area, a draft of which they released for public comment in September 2014 [PDF]. In order to stabilize these rubble fields and return topographic complexity to the flattened seafloor, they proposed placing limestone and large boulders over the rubble and then transplanting corals to the area.
This is in addition to two years of emergency restoration actions, which included stabilizing some of the large rubble, reattaching around 10,500 corals, and monitoring the slow comeback and survival of young coral. In the future, even more restoration will be in the works to make up for the full suite of environmental impacts from this incident.Caribbean Cruising for a Bruising
Unfortunately, the story of the Margara is not an unusual one. In 2014 alone, NOAA received reports of 37 vessel groundings in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. About half of these cases threatened corals, prompting NOAA’s Restoration Center to send divers to investigate.
After a ship gets stuck on a coral reef, the first step for NOAA is assessing the situation underwater. If the vessel hasn’t been removed yet, NOAA often provides the salvage company with information such as known coral locations and water depths, which helps them determine how to remove the ship with minimal further damage to corals. Sometimes that means temporarily removing corals to protect them during salvage or figuring out areas to avoid hitting as the ship is extracted.
Once the ship is gone, NOAA divers estimate how many corals and which species were affected, as well as how deep the damage was to the structure of the reef itself. This gives them an idea of the scale of restoration needed. For example, if less than 100 corals were injured, restoration likely will take a few days. On the other hand, dealing with thousands of corals may take months.
NOAA already has done some form of restoration at two-thirds of the 18 vessel groundings with coral damage in the region this year. They have reattached 2,132 corals to date.
What does this look like? At first, it’s a lot of preparation. Divers collect the corals and fragments knocked loose by the ship; transport them to a safe, stable underwater location where they won’t be moved around; and dig out any corals buried in debris. When NOAA is ready to reattach corals, divers clear the transplant area (sometimes that means using a special undersea vacuum). On the ocean surface, people in a boat mix cement and send it down in five-gallon buckets to the divers below. Working with nails, rebar, and cement, the divers carefully reattach the corals to the seafloor, with the cement solidifying in a couple hours.Protecting Coral, From the Law to the High Seas
Nearly a third of the total reported groundings in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands this year have involved corals listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In previous years, only 10 percent of the groundings involved threatened corals. What changed this year was the Endangered Species Act listing of five additional coral species in the Caribbean.
Another form of protection for corals is installing buoys to mark the location of reefs in areas where ships keep grounding on them. Since these navigational aids were put in place at one vulnerable site in Culebra, Puerto Rico this summer, NOAA hasn’t been called in to an incident there yet.
But restoring coral reefs after a ship grounding almost wouldn’t be possible without coral nurseries. Here, NOAA is able to regrow and rehabilitate coral, a technique being used at the site of the T/V Margara grounding. Stay tuned because we’ll be going more in depth on coral nurseries, what they look like, and how they help us restore these amazingly diverse ocean habitats.
This is a post by Carl Alderson of NOAA’s Restoration Center.
Looking across the open fields of the surrounding farm community, I am reminded of the long history of both European and Native American settlement in this portion of southwest New Jersey. Before Europeans arrived in the 17th century, this area was part of Lenape Indian territory.
Today, however, it is the site of a future restoration project at Mad Horse Creek Fish and Wildlife Management Area.
In partnership with the State of New Jersey, I’m involved in an effort to restore nearly 200 acres of degraded marshland, wet meadow, and grassland in this part of Salem County.
The restored habitat will provide food as well as roosting and nesting habitat for birds. This is one of many projects NOAA and our partners have developed as part of the restoration plan in the wake of the 2004 Athos I oil spill, which killed nearly 12,000 birds along the nearby Delaware River.The Artifacts of Nature
Numerous historical artifacts have been uncovered on lands surrounding Mad Horse Creek, so it’s important that before we begin restoring the natural habitat, we make sure we are preserving any colonial or Native American artifacts that might be hidden beneath these fields.
I’ve been working with Vincent Maresca, a Senior Historic Preservation Specialist with the State of New Jersey to develop plans for a Phase I archaeological investigation of the area. Using a disk cultivator (a machine typically used to cultivate soil between rows of plants), we will be disking all 200 acres of the restoration site, turning over the soil at a depth of 18 inches.
Once we get a rainstorm, we can expect any artifacts in the soil to be revealed. At that point, it will take a team of 12 people two weeks to walk the site, one person to a row, looking for exposed shards of pottery or other objects. Anything we find will be placed into collection bags and identified with the GPS location.
If we find historical artifacts at the Mad Horse Creek restoration area, we will begin a Phase II archaeological investigation. This likely would involve digging more extensive excavation pits in the immediate area of each find to uncover other potential artifacts.
The people who do this work are known as field archaeologists. They typically have a degree in anthropology or archaeology and receive specialized training in testing and excavating archaeological sites; screening the soil for evidence; washing, bagging, and labeling artifacts; and completing field inventories of their findings.When Restoration Meets Preservation
No restoration work will begin until we complete this archaeological search. At all times, NOAA makes sure to consult with historic preservationists on each of our sites in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act.
In the first part of the process we ask for input from state experts like Vincent Maresca. Those experts determine whether we should do an archaeological evaluation of the site based on the likelihood of finding artifacts, as was the case at Mad Horse Creek. If the likelihood is high, we then seek input from the federal agency known as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
I don’t know what we’re going to find at Mad Horse Creek, if anything, but as we near Thanksgiving, I am particularly thankful to be working on a project that is working to restore and preserve both our natural and cultural treasures.
This is a guest post by Laura Craig, Ph.D., Associate Director of River Restoration, American Rivers.
Early settlement along Pennsylvania’s Darby Creek relied upon dams to turn the water wheels of mills, powering economic growth. However, as time wore on, the dams on this tributary of the Delaware River fell into disrepair and these days no longer serve a function. Instead, they have been blocking the passage of fish along this creek. That is, until now.
In late summer of 2012, American Rivers and our project partners, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, began tearing down some of those now-defunct dams as part of a multi-year effort to restore Darby Creek. Initiated in 2007, the effort involved removing three dams near Philadelphia: Darby Borough Dam, Hoffman Park Dam, and Kent Park Dam. In addition, we took out a set of abandoned railroad piers and realigned an 800 foot section of the creek.
We removed these barriers to improve passage for a range of resident and migratory fish, including American shad, hickory shad, alewife, river herring, American eel, bass, shiners, and suckers. The project also aims to enhance stream habitat, alleviate flooding, benefit public safety, and restore free-flowing conditions along the creek.
Overall, the Darby Creek Restoration Project connected 2.6 miles of upper stream to the lower 9.7 miles, which link directly to the Delaware River. It was here in 2004 when the Athos I tanker spilled oil that would spread along miles of the Delaware and its tributaries similar to Darby Creek.
This $1.6 million dollar effort to restore Darby Creek was funded primarily by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment settlement from the Athos I oil spill. Additional funding came from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Growing Greener Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. All restoration activities were completed in June 2013, but we are still monitoring the restored areas to ensure the area is recovering.
At the former dam locations we are already seeing recovery of shoreline areas planted with a diverse mix of seed, shrubs, and trees. Restoring vegetation along the creek stabilizes exposed soil and reduces erosion in the short term and provides shade, habitat, and food sources over the long term. We are also observing positive changes to stream habitat as a result, including fewer actively eroding banks and less fine sediment clouding the creek’s waters.
In terms of fisheries, we are noting a shift since the dams were removed toward a resident community of fish that prefer free-flowing water conditions. While we haven’t yet encountered any migratory fish at the former dam locations, this fall fisheries biologists with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission came across several pods of very young blueback herring in the tidal portion of the creek, near where it joins the Delaware River at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. This is great news, because it suggests that blueback herring are using the lower part of the tributary as a nursery. In future years we hope to see them advance up the creek to the locations where the dams were removed.
For more information on the Athos I oil spill and the resulting restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos and http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/northeast/athos/restore.html.
“I’ve never reopened a nuclear power plant,” thought NOAA’s Ed Levine. Despite that, Levine knew it was his job to get the right information to the people who ultimately would make that decision. This was his role as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator during oil spills. However, most major oil spills do not affect nuclear power plants. This wintry day in 2004 was an exception.
Forty miles north of the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, an oil tanker called the Athos I had struck an object hidden beneath the Delaware River. As it was preparing to dock at the CITGO refinery near Philadelphia on November 26, the ship began tilting to one side, the engine shut down, and oil started gushing out.
“Not your typical oil spill,” later reflected Jonathan Sarubbi, who served as U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port and led the federal response during this incident. Not only did no one immediately know what the ship had hit—or where that object was located in the river channel—but the Athos, now sitting too low in the water to reach the dock, was stuck where it was. And it was still leaking its cargo of heavy Venezuelan crude oil.
Capt. Sarubbi ordered vessel traffic through this busy East Coast shipping channel to stop until the object the Athos hit could be found. Little did Capt. Sarubbi, Levine, and the other responders know that even more challenges would be in store beneath the water and down the river.Getting Mixed up
Most oils, most of the time, float on the surface of water. This was precisely what responders expected the oil coming out of the Athos to do. But within a couple days of the spill, they realized that was not the case. This oil was a little on the heavier side. As it shot out of the ship’s punctured bottom, some of the oil mixed with sediment from the river bottom. It didn’t have far to go; thanks to an extremely low tide pulling the river out to sea, the Athos was passing a mere 18 inches above the bottom of the river when it sprung a leak.
Now mixed with sediment, some of the spilled oil became as dense as or denser than water. Instead of rising to the river surface, it sank to the bottom or drifted in the water column. Even some of the oil that floated became mixed with sediment along the shoreline, later sinking below the surface. For the oil suspended in the water, the turbulence of the Delaware River kept it moving with the currents increasingly toward the Salem nuclear plant, perched on the river’s edge.
NOAA’s oil spill trajectory model GNOME forecasts the spread of oil by assuming the oil is floating on the water’s surface. Normally, our oceanographers can verify how well the forecasts are doing by calibrating the model against twice-a-day aerial surveys of the oil’s movement. The trouble with oil that does not float is that it is harder to see, especially in the murky waters of the Delaware River.
Responders were forced to improvise. To track oil underwater, they created new sampling methods, one of which involved dropping weighted ropes into the water column at various points along the river. The ropes were lined with what looked like cheerleader pom-poms made of oil-attracting plastic strips that would pick up oil as it passed by.Nuclear Ambitions
Nuclear plants like the Salem facility rely on a steady flow of freshwater to cool their reactors. A thin layer of floating oil was nearing the plant by December 1, 2004, with predictions that the heavier, submerged oil would not be far behind. By December 3, small, sticky bits of oil began showing up in the screens on the plant’s cooling water intakes. To keep them from becoming clogged, the plant decided to shut down its two nuclear reactors the next day. That was when NOAA’s Ed Levine was tasked with figuring out when the significant threats due to the oil had passed.
Eleven days later, the Salem nuclear plant operators, the State of New Jersey, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the plant to restart. A combination of our modeling and new sampling methods for detecting underwater oil had shown a clear and significant drop in the amount of oil around the plant. Closing this major electric generating facility cost $33.1 million out of more than $162 million in claims paid to parties affected by the Athos spill. But through our innovative modeling and sampling, we were able to reduce the time the plant was offline, minimizing the disruption to the power grid and reducing the economic loss.
Levine recalled this as an “eye-opening” experience, one yielding a number of lessons for working with nuclear power plants should an oil spill threaten one in the future. To learn more about the Athos oil spill, from response to restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos.
A special thanks to NOAA’s Ed Levine and Chris Barker, former U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jonathan Sarubbi, and Henry Font, Donna Hellberg, and Thomas Morrison of the Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center for sharing information and data which contributed to this post.
Carrying on a Nearly Fifty Year Tradition, Scientists Examine the Intersection of Pollution and Marine Life
As reliably as the tides, each month biologist Donald J. Reish would wash over the library at California State University, Long Beach, armed with stacks of 3×5 index cards. On these cards, Reish meticulously recorded every scientific study published that month on pollution’s effects on marine life. When he began this ritual in 1967, this did not amount to very many studies.
“There was essentially none at the time,” says Reish, who helped pioneer the study of pollution’s impacts on marine environments in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, after a year of collecting as much as he could find in scientific journals, he would mail the index cards with their handwritten notes to a volunteer crew that often included his former graduate students, including Alan Mearns, now an ecologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Like a wave, they would return to the library to read, review, and send summaries of these studies back to Reish. At his typewriter, he would compile the individual summaries into one comprehensive list, an “in case you missed it” for scientists interested in this emerging field of study. This compilation would then be published in a scientific journal itself.
By the early 2000s, Reish handed off leadership of this annual effort to Mearns, an early recruit to the project. Today, Mearns continues the nearly 50 year tradition of reviewing the state of marine pollution science and publishing it in the journal Water Environment Research. Their 2014 review, “Effects of Pollution on Marine Organisms,” comes together a little differently than in the 1960s and 70s—and covers issues that have changed with the years as well.Signs of the Times
For starters, vastly more studies are being published on marine pollution and its environmental effects. For this year’s publication, Mearns and his six co-authors, who include Reish and NOAA scientists Nicolle Rutherford and Courtney Arthur, reviewed 341 scientific papers which they pulled from a larger pool of nearly 1,000 studies.
The days of having to physically visit a library each month to read the scientific journals are also over. Instead, Mearns can wait until the end of the year to scour online scientific search engines. Emails replace the handwritten 3×5 index cards. And fortunately, typewriters are no longer involved.
The technology the reviewers are using isn’t the only thing to change with the years. In the early days, the major contaminants of concern were heavy metals, such as copper, which were turning up in the bodies of fish and invertebrates. Around the 1970s, the negative effects of the insecticide DDT found national attention, thanks to the efforts of biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal book Silent Spring.
Today, Mearns and Reish see the focus of research shifting to other, often more complicated pollutants, such as nanomaterials, which can be any of a number of materials roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. On one hand, nanotechnology is helping scientists decipher the effects of some pollutants, while, on the other, nanomaterials, such as those found in cosmetics, show potentially serious effects on some marine life including mussels.
Another major trend has been the evolution of the ways scientists evaluate the effects of pollutants on marine life. Researchers in the United States and Western Europe used to study the toxicity of a pollutant by increasing the amount animals are exposed to until half the study animals died. In the 1990s, researchers began exploring pollutants’ finer physiological effects. How does exposure to X pollutant affect, for example, a fish’s ability to feed or reproduce?
Nowadays, the focus is even more refined, zeroing in on the molecular scale to discern how pollutants affect an animal’s genetic material, its DNA. How does the presence of oil change whether certain genes in a fish’s liver are turned on or off? What does that mean for the fish?A Year of Pollution in Review
With three Office of Response and Restoration scientists working on this effort, it unsurprisingly features a lot on oil spills and marine debris, two areas of our expertise.
Of particular interest to Mearns and Rutherford, as oil spill biologists, are the studies of biodegradation of oil in the ocean, specifically, how microbes break down and eat components of oil, especially the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Scientists are examining collections of genes in such microbes and determining which ones produce enzymes that degrade PAHs.
“That field has really exploded,” says Mearns. “It’s just amazing what they’re finding once they use genomics and other tools to go into [undersea oil spill] plumes and see what these critters are doing and eating.”
Marine debris research in 2013 focused on the effects of eating, hitchhiking on, or becoming entangled in debris. Studies examined the resulting impacts on marine life, including sea birds, fish, crabs, turtles, marine mammals, shellfish, and even microbes. The types of debris that came up again and again were abandoned fishing gear and plastic fragments. In addition, quite a bit of research attempted to fill in gaps in understanding of how plastic debris might take up and then leach out potentially dangerous chemicals.Attitude Adjustment
Perhaps the most significant change over the decades has been a change in attitudes. Reish recalled a presentation he gave at a scientific meeting in 1955. He was discussing his study of how marine worms known as polychaetes changed where they lived based on the effects of pollution in southern California. Afterward, he sat down next to a professor from another college, whose response to his presentation was, “Don, why don’t you go do something important?”
In 2014 attitudes generally skew to the other end of the spectrum when it comes to understanding human impacts on our world and how intertwined these impacts often are with human well-being.
And while there is a lot of bad news about these impacts, Mearns and Reish have seen some bright spots as well. Scientists are starting to observe slow declines in the presence of toxic chemicals, such as DDT from insecticides and PCBs from industrial manufacturing, which last a long time in the environment and build up in the bodies of living things, such as the fish humans like to catch and eat.
The end of the year is approaching and, reliably, Mearns and his colleagues are again preparing to scan hundreds of studies for their annual review of the scientific literature. Reflecting on this effort, Mearns points out another benefit of bringing together such a wide array of research disciplines. It encourages him to cross traditional boundaries of scientific study, enriching his work in the process.
“For me, it inspires out-of-the-box thinking,” says Mearns. “I’ll be looking at wastewater discharge impacts and I’ll spot something that I think is relevant to oil spill studies…We can find out things from these other fields and apply them to our own.”
On April 17, 2013, in the farming community of West, Texas, the storage and distribution facility of West Fertilizer Company caught fire. As firefighters attempted to douse the flames, tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the facility detonated, resulting in an explosion [warning*] packed with the force of a small earthquake. The blast killed fifteen people, injured more than 300, and damaged or destroyed more than 150 buildings.
Just two months later, on June 13, disaster struck again—this time at one of 12 chemical plants along a 10-mile stretch of the Mississippi River. In the industrial town of Geismar, Louisiana, the Williams Olefins chemical facility exploded and caught fire, killing two workers and injuring at least 75 others. The blast sent a huge fireball and column of smoke into the air. Fueled by the petrochemical propylene, the fire burned for more than three hours. Authorities ordered residents to remain indoors for hours to avoid the billowing smoke.
Getting Information into the Right Hands Before an Emergency
One of the challenges in preventing disasters such as these is to ensure that critical information gets into the planning cycle, and into the hands of the local emergency planning and responder community. To reduce the likelihood of chemical disasters in the United States, Congress has imposed requirements for governments, tribes, and industry.
For example, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 was created to help communities plan for emergencies involving hazardous substances. EPCRA requires federal, state, and local governments; Indian tribes; and the chemical industry to plan for hazardous chemical emergencies. It also requires industry to report on the storage, use, and releases of hazardous chemicals to federal, state, and local governments.
NOAA’s CAMEO software suite, jointly developed since 1987 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Emergency Management, is a key tool in the implementation of EPCRA. CAMEO is a suite of software tools used to plan for and respond to chemical emergencies. Developed to assist front-line chemical emergency planners and responders, CAMEO can access, store, and evaluate information critical for developing emergency plans, such as locations of hazardous chemical storage and nearby hospitals, schools, and other at-risk population centers.
From the Desk of the President
After the two major chemical disasters of 2013, President Obama signed Executive Order 13650 (EO 13650) to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and to reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to workers and communities.
In addition to several other provisions, this executive order established a senior work group from six different departments and agencies, including the EPA, all of whom are responsible for chemical facility safety and security. In a report released June 6, 2014 [PDF], this work group identified specific actions for the agencies to take, and directly called out enhancements to the CAMEO suite to help address chemical facility safety and security.
A Safer Future Is a More Mobile-Friendly One
Because the executive order specifies that the changes in CAMEO be completed by the end of fiscal year 2016, our office and our EPA partner are crafting a two-year plan for CAMEO. Here are a couple of examples of the work we have ahead.
To ensure broad access to critical chemical information for emergency planners and responders, we will be adding new standards—the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards—to the regulatory section on our chemical datasheets, which already includes information from EPCRA, the Clean Air Act, and other regulations. This addition will help provide a linkage between regulatory programs.
Another recommendation is that chemical facility data reported under EPCRA be easier for emergency responders and planners to access. As a result, we and our partners will review plans for providing online access to this data via mobile applications. Currently, our CAMEO software programs are mostly stand-alone, computer desktop applications.
To expand offline access to emergency response information for people working in the field, we plan to add a mobile app version of our chemical database tool CAMEO Chemicals, which will have all of the program’s data loaded onto an individual’s smartphone. This will be in addition to the desktop, website, and mobile website versions of CAMEO Chemicals already available.
To maximize access to our chemical plume modeling program, ALOHA, we will make an Internet browser-based ALOHA program that is available as both a website and a desktop application. In addition, we will completely redesign the CAMEO data management program, CAMEOfm, which includes creating a supplemental CAMEO mobile application for viewing the EPCRA data from the linked desktop program.
Chemical accidents are infrequent, and through work like this, we hope to keep them—and their impacts—that way.
*The video and audio recording of the explosion linked to here may be disturbing to some audiences.
No, ghost fishing has nothing to do with ghostbusters flicking fishing rods from a boat.
But what is ghost fishing? It’s a not-at-all-supernatural phenomenon that occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear remains in the ocean and continues doing what it was made to do: catch fish. These nets and traps haunt the many types of marine life unlucky enough to become snared in them. That includes species of turtles, fish, sharks, lobsters, crabs, seabirds, and marine mammals.
Fortunately, the NOAA Marine Debris Program isn’t scared off by a few fishing nets that haven’t moved on from the underwater world. For example, through the Fishing for Energy partnership, NOAA is funding projects to study and test ways to keep fishers from losing their gear in the first place and lower the impacts lost gear has on marine life and their homes.
You can learn more about these four recent projects which are taking place from the South Carolina coast to Washington’s Puget Sound. A project at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at The College of William and Mary will pay commercial fishermen to test special biodegradable panels on crab pots. After a certain amount of time underwater, these panels will break down and begin allowing creatures to escape from the traps. If successful, this feature could help reduce the traps’ ghost fishing potential. The researchers also will be examining whether terrapin turtles, a declining species often accidentally drowned in crab pots, will bypass the traps based on the color of the entrance funnel.
Another, unrelated effort which NOAA and many others have been supporting for years is focused on fishing out the thousands of old salmon nets lost—sometimes decades ago—in Washington’s Puget Sound. These plastic mesh nets sometimes remain drifting in the water column, while other times settling on the seafloor, where they also degrade the bottom habitat.
According to Joan Drinkwin of the Northwest Straits Foundation, the organization leading the effort, “They become traps for fish, diving birds, and mammals. Small fish will dart in and out of the mesh and predators will go after those fish and become captured in the nets. And as those animals get captured in the nets, they become bait for more scavengers.”
You can watch a video about this ongoing project produced by NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant to learn more about both the problem and the solutions.
Thousands of miles away from the Pacific Northwest, ghost nets are also an issue for the otherwise vibrant coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Every year for nearly two decades, NOAA has been removing the lost fishing nets which pile up on the atolls and small islands. This year, divers cleared away 57 tons of old fishing nets and plastic debris. One particularly troubling “super net” found this year measured 28 feet by 7 feet and weighed 11.5 tons. It had crushed coral at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and was so massive that divers had to cut it into three sections to be towed individually back to the main NOAA ship. During this year’s mission, divers also managed to free three protected green sea turtles which were trapped in various nets.
But the origins of this huge and regular flow of old fishing nets to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands remain a mystery. The islands lay hundreds of miles from any city but also within an area where oceanic and atmospheric forces converge to accumulate marine debris from all over the Pacific Ocean.
“You’ll go out there to this remote place and pull tons of this stuff off a reef,” comments Jim Potemra, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, “that’s like going to Antarctica and finding two tons of soda cans.”
You can learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts related to ghost fishing and why certain types of marine life may be more likely to get tangled up in discarded nets and other ocean trash.
In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.
Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:
“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.
Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”
Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:Net Results
While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].
They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.
One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.
But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?Location, Location, Location
The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.
For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.Just Behave
While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.
Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.
Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.
While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:
- Learn more about how marine life gets entangled in and eats marine debris.
- Explore the many solutions for preventing and reducing marine debris.
- Report a stranded or entangled marine mammal or sea turtle by calling the stranding network member for your area (U.S. only).