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A “One NOAA” Approach to Recovering Shoreline Debris from Lost Shipping Containers

APRIL 8, 2024 —NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is busy at work to address a container spill off of the California coast. On February 7, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) contacted the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for California to report the loss of 24 shipping containers from the M/V President Eisenhower the prior night, approximately 64 nautical miles southwest of Monterey, California. Hazardous materials were not identified in any of the lost containers and it was not clear at the time of the report whether any containers might remain floating (e.g., were insulated or refrigerated). NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) requested further trajectory information from OR&R on the floating container to better inform the sanctuary spill response decision.

About a month later on March 4, a cotton-like substance was observed and photographed within several rocky intertidal areas between Morro Bay and San Simeon Beach, as well as lumber from the wine barrel debris. Four shipping containers lost from the M/V President Eisenhower were known to contain 349 bales of raw cotton and wine barrels.

The cotton bales are reported to weigh 500 pounds when dry and are covered in blue plastic. When the cotton is released from a bale, it can cover sensitive flora and fauna in the intertidal zone and on the shoreline, threatening the health of these ecosystems. The cotton bales and wine barrels have been reported on the California shoreline from Big Sur Coast to Dangermond Preserve by Point Conception, including the Northern Channel Islands. The affected area includes Monterey Bay and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries and the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

ONMS played a key role in coordinating the initial response and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) stood up an incident command to coordinate across the sanctuary sites, proposed sanctuary, California State Parks, U.S. Forest Service, NOAA Fisheries, academics and others. The shipping company soon thereafter orchestrated contract support from a spill contractor to conduct overflights, determine debris collection areas, and work with the resource agencies to develop appropriate removal approaches. The spill contractors led daily coordination calls with multiple State and Federal natural resource agencies to identify, assess, and remove the debris while minimizing additional impacts. Thus far, assessment and recovery teams identified dozens of items for removal and are addressing them as safe access allows. All but one bale has been addressed on the mainland, and four or five bales at Channel Islands are being assessed and monitored. Contractors have been hired to professionally remove the debris. 

Many areas are difficult to safely access given the steepness of terrain, weather, waves, and tidal conditions. The areas impacted included a mixture of private, state, and federal lands. Even so, some of these areas are particularly sensitive, including marine mammal haulouts (e.g. elephant seals), rocky intertidal shorelines, and designated Critical Habitat for Black Abalone which is an endangered species. 

This incident impacted many NOAA trust resources, habitats, and sanctuaries. Channel Islands are isolated protected areas that serve as a habitat for endangered birds, four species of pinnipeds (California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals, and northern elephant seals), and endemic island foxes that do not live anywhere else in the world. Their location and rocky cliff topography make removals incredibly complex. While doing the spill clean-up, the contractors used this opportunity to clean up other consumers and single-use plastic items. 

Early in the cotton bale discovery, MBNMS coordinated with NOAA Fisheries to provide best management practices to California State Parks on removal of cotton bales from pupping beaches of elephant seals.  Further MBNMS coordinated with leading scientists in black abalone recovery and restoration on appropriate methods for removal of loose cotton from the intertidal and black abalone critical habitat.  These best practices for response on marine mammal pupping beaches and black abalone critical habitat were shared with the spill response contractor and other state and federal agencies.  MBNMS posted a Superintendent’s Statement on their website and shared it with interested media  requesting the public to report and not disturb cotton bales that have washed up recently on local beaches.

Another NOAA approach was led by OR&R to provide spill and debris resources. The OR&R team was led by the Marine Debris Program’s Christy Kehoe, Emergency Response Division’s Jordan Stout, and the Assessment and Restoration Division’s Kaitlin Leib. The OR&R team attended regular calls to coordinate recovery activities and, assisted with the development of removal best management practices (BMPs). OR&R’s Marine Debris Program provided references and contacts for microfibers, potentially relevant spill incidents, container ship reports, and research ideas from other areas of the US. OR&R continues to support ONMS partners in their response efforts and participate and share any lessons learned or resources across NOAA partners. 

Please visit the ONMS MBNMS website to learn more. 

Last updated Wednesday, April 17, 2024 6:36am PDT