There is a growing awareness that tiny pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, are now widespread in the world's oceans -- but we are only just beginning to understand its impacts on marine life.
Several recent studies by scientists around the world are revealing that microplastics, defined as pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters, are now present throughout the ocean food chain, and are being eaten and transferred from tiny zooplankton, to fish, and upwards to the turtles and seals that feed upon them.
One recent study by researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory analyzed scat from captive grey seals, which had been fed wild-caught Atlantic mackerel. One third of the mackerel and fully half of the scat samples from the seals contained microplastic, showing how these tiny synthetic particles move upward thought the food chain.
“Our finding that microplastic can be passed from fish to marine top predators is something we’ve long thought was the case but, until now, lacked the evidence to back our theory up," says Sarah Nelms, the study's lead author in a university news release. "We have shown that trophic transfer is an indirect, yet potentially major route of microplastic ingestion for these predators."
Microplastics have many potential sources. Larger plastic debris can degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, and synthetic fabrics like polyester fleece shed micro plastic fibers every time it is washed. Other potential sources include cigarette filters, toothbrushes, discarded fishing nets, tires, and microbeads, which are tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes.
"By examining scat from captive animals and the digestive tracts of fish they were fed upon," says Nelms, "we could eliminate the possibility that the seals were eating plastic directly and be sure that any microplastics we found in their scat came via the fish.”
A similar study on fur seals living in the wild by Cristóbal Galbán-Malagón, a professor in ecology and biodiversity at the Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile, also found plastic microfibers in the scat of fur seals on Guafo Island, a remote island off the Southwest coast of Chile. Galbán-Malagón, after collecting scat from wild fur seals and dissolving the organic materials using lye, found that 67% of the samples contained traces of plastic.
Of course, it's not just tiny bits of plastic that are contaminating the ocean environment. Researchers at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) recently reported that they have recovered a working USB stick photos inside a chunk of seal scat that has been frozen in their lab since 2017.
Dr. Krista Hupman runs a volunteer network via LeopardSeals.org where helpful Kiwis can send in leopard seal scat for her lab to analyze. In November 2017 a local vet sent in a sample from Oreti Beach, Invercargill, which was frozen, and then thawed for analysis just three weeks ago. Inside the sample two volunteers discovered the USB stick, which, once dried out, worked perfectly well.
Somewhat ironically, once dried it was discovered that stick contained photos of sea lions at nearby Porpoise Bay. NIWA would be happy to return the stick, should the owner come forward.
“From our work over the years we have found microplastic in nearly all the species of marine animals we have looked at," explains Dr Penelope Lindeque, a lead researcher on microplastic at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who was involved in a 2018 study that found synthetic plastic particles present in seven different species of turtles, collected in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. The list of impacted creatures now spans the marine food chain from tiny zooplankton at the base of the food web, to fish larvae, and upwards to include mackerels, dolphins, turtles, and seals.
“Our study demonstrates how microplastic can be transferred from prey to predator and therefore passed up through the food chain," says Dr. Lindeque. "More work is needed to understand the extent to which microplastics are ingested by wild animals and what impacts they may have upon the animals and ecosystems.”
Interested in learning more about marine debris? You can check out our pages on the subject right here! And if you’re reading this from New Zealand and would like to help the effort to collect leopard seal scat, you can find out how here.
50 YEARS AFTER THE SPILL
By Micah Fink
This is the story of a little oil spill that changed everything.
It all began nearly fifty years ago, on the foggy Tuesday evening on Sept 15, 1969, when a tugboat pulling a barge filled with light fuel oil, bound for a power plant on the Cape Code Canal, experienced a catastrophic series of mechanical problems.
First the radar failed, then the rudder stopped responding, and finally the tug’s towline broke, sending the Florida oil barge adrift until it ran aground on an underwater shoal near West Falmouth, Massachusetts. The rocks ripped into the hull, spewing nearly 175,000 gallons of Number 2 fuel oil into Buzzards Bay.
Just after midnight, John French, a local resident, called the Coast Guard after being awakened by the stench of oil wafting into his house from the bay.
By mid-morning strong winds had spread a thick coffee-colored oily mixture across miles of beaches and coastline, littering one of New England’s most popular tourist attractions with dead and dying marine creatures, including countless scallops, lobsters, and marine worms.
“Some folks called it ‘silent autumn,’ because there was so much death and destruction from the diesel fuel,” says Dr. Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist in the department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
While a fairly small spill by most standards, says Dr. Reddy, it triggered one of the longest running oil spill research projects ever conducted. The Florida spill also forever changing how we study marine oil spills as well as our understanding of oil’s long-term impact on sensitive ecosystems like salt marshes.
OIL IN THE MARSH
In the summer of 2018, Marine Defenders joined Dr. Reddy and Samuel McNichol, an undergraduate intern, on a research expedition to a salt marsh along the Wild Harbor River, a lovely oasis of green about a mile inland from Buzzards Bay, which is ground-zero for the study of the persistence of marine oil spills.
“The conventional wisdom by the industry at the time of the Florida spill was that the oil would only last two weeks,” explains Dr. Reddy, dressed in shorts and a blue tee-shirt as he searches out an area of the marsh that has come to be known as M-1 (marsh sample 1).
“Could the oil from the Florida spill still be here 50 years later?” he asks. “That is what we’ve come here today to find out.”
Dr. Reddy’s field kit includes a long plastic tube, which, after getting his bearings, he proceeded to pound into the marsh using a heavy mallet. When the tube is extracted, after a fair amount of digging and manual exertion, it contains a long plug of grass, roots and fibers cut from heart of the marsh.
“A sediment core is like a tape recorder, or a tree-ring,” he explains, which will reveal the marsh’s hidden history when analyzed back at his laboratory at Woods Hole.
Dr. Reddy is literally following in the foot-steps of a marine biologist named George Hampson, who was doing research at Woods Hole in 1969, when he received a phone call from a friend saying that fish and marine invertebrates had begun washing up dead along the shore line.
Curious, Hampson invited his colleague, Howard Sanders, a specialist in benthic, or bottom-dwelling, marine life, to try to figure out what was happening.
“A massive, immediate kill occurred offshore during the first few days after the accident,” Sanders later noted in a report to the Office of Naval Research in October 1970. “A wide range of fish, shell fish, worms, crabs, and other crustaceans and invertebrates [were affected]. Bottom living fishes and lobsters were killed and washed up on beaches. Trawls in 10 feet of water showed 95% of the animals dead and many still dying. The bottom sediments contained many dead clams, crustaceans and snails.”
Toxins in the oil from the Florida barge, they concluded after collecting samples in the bay and shorelines around West Falmouth, were ripping apart the local marine ecosystem.
And it wasn’t just marine life in the bay that was affected.
Hampson and Sanders also took samples along the Wild Harbor River, a small tidal estuary close to Woods Hole, where the wind and waves had pushed large amounts of oil upstream, inundating the salt marsh along its shores.
“In the most heavily polluted locations of the river almost no animals have survived," Sanders wrote about the impact of the spill along the Wild Harbor River. "The affected areas have not been repopulated nine months after the accident.”
“It was a strange autumn,” Sanders later recalled. “You could go down to the marsh and there wouldn’t even be [bugs.] No mosquitoes, no greenflies, no nothing. And no birds… Even the gulls left… because there wasn’t anything to eat. It was absolutely quiet.”
Further research showed that while the oil had seemingly disappeared from the water and beaches along the bay, a thick band of oil had been absorbed into the fabric of the salt mash, and would remained in the sediment at least a decade after the spill.
“What they learned was that when it comes to marine oil spills, it's not the size that matters -- it's location, location, location,” Dr. Reddy says. “They found that the oil that came up on the sandy beaches either went away very quickly or they could just come in with a bulldozer and take it away. But when the oil gets into a salt marsh, it sticks really hard because the roots and fibers of the grasses that make up the marsh act like a chemical sponge, absorbing and holding the hydrocarbons.”
These discoveries have shaped how spill responses take place around the world. “Today, when folks are sitting at an oil spill headquarters, and they only have so much boom, and so much time, they ask, what can we protect in the time that we have?"
"They protect the salt marshes," says Dr. Reddy. "Why do they protect salt marshes? Because of the first studies done here in Wild Harbor in 1969.”
Sanders and Hampson also drew in Max Blumer, a world class geochemist and petroleum specialist at Woods Hole. He agreed to carry out a detailed chemical analysis of their samples, which he compared with a sample of the fuel oil from the Florida barge. Using a gas chromatograph, a fairly new instrument at the time, Blumer was able to graph the chemical composition of each sample, producing what he called a biological “fingerprint” of the oil.
“Any patch of crude oil has fingerprints in its composition,” Blumer later explained, making it possible to trace any sample back to its source.
Comparing the field samples with the sample of oil from the Florida, Blumer found a clear match. “The samples from the marsh and offshore showed very clearly the profile of the spilled oil, which was to become so familiar to us,” he explained.
"Our work in this spill has differed from other studies of oil in the environment,” Dr. Blumer told a reporter from the New Yorker in 1973, “because we have been able to show the presence of the original fuel oil in every case where there has been biological damage.”
His high tech detective work would later prove its value when the owners of the barge tried to dispute that the Florida spill had caused any particular environmental impacts.
The team’s research was also able to prove that the damage to the ecosystem continued long after the oil seemed to have vanished. “When spilled oil can no longer be seen,” Sanders later wrote in a study for the EPA released in 1979, “it does not mean that the oil, at toxic levels, is not present. Oil can be lethal or have significant sublethal effects in very small concentrations, concentrations as low as several parts per billion.”
The EPA would later characterize the work carried out by Sanders, Blumer and Hampson as “probably the most rigorous and comprehensive investigation ever made of a single spill event.”
The team’s findings would also shape enforcement of the US Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which requires polluters to clean up and return any ecosystem to its pre-spill status.
“The lesson we learned from the Florida spill was that just because you can't see the oil doesn't necessarily mean that it's not continuing to provide an impact,” says Dr. Reddy. “It's not just out of sight, out of mind. Today, how the government determines damages after a spill, and how they may move forward to make things whole, all comes back to the research done in 1969.”
“Blumer was such a good scientist that he laid out the study of how oil behaves in the environment and created the road map that scientists use to study oil spills science to this day,” he says. “They did fantastic work.”
SUBLETHAL EFFECTS: IMPACT ON WILDLIFE
Biologist Howard Sanders also documented the sublethal effects of the Florida oil spill on wildlife living in the salt marshes of Wild Harbor in 1969. He found that fiddler crabs became slow and disoriented after being exposed to the oil, making them vulnerable to predators. He also observed that the layer of oil deposited in the salt marsh was causing the crabs to dig shallower borrows, resulting in many being swept away by the winter tides.
These results were later replicated in a study by Jennifer Culbertson, a graduate student at Boston University in 2007. Her research also showed that the crabs did not burrow as deeply in the areas still impacted by oil as they do in oil-free areas in Wild Harbor. She found fewer crabs in the oiled areas of the marsh, and those she did find moved more slowly than crabs living in an oil free environment, making it easier for predators to catch them, thus passing the toxins in the oil up the local food chain. Four decades later, Culbertson concluded, the Florida spill was still wreaking havoc on Wild Harbor’s salt marsh ecosystem.
FIFTY YEARS AFTER THE SPILL
Back at his laboratory at Woods Hole, Dr. Reddy balances the tube with core sample from the Wild River salt marsh on a round platform. With Sam’s help, he carefully exposes the marsh grasses and begins to cut a series of two-centimeter slices from the core using a serrated bread knife. Each slice is carefully wrapped in tin foil and labeled, and as they work their way down to the bottom of the core, the sharp smell of diesel oil filling the laboratory.
It’s not entirely surprising, says Dr. Reddy, who first struck oil when collecting samples from salt marsh nearly two decades ago. This discovery of oil, Dr. Reddy says, actually changed the focus of his work – and led him to spend the next two decades studying oil spills.
It all began in 2000, when Aubrey Hounshell, an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii called Dr Reddy asking to spend the summer studying oil spills at his lab at Woods Hole. “I told him I can’t call up Exxon and tell them to dump oil,” he recalls, but then chemist John Farrington, one of his mentors at Woods Hole, suggested updating Blumer’s research on the Florida oil spill’s impacts on the Wild River salt marsh.
“We went out to Wild River with Hampson,” Reddy recalls. “Sure enough we pushed this core in and we smelled oil. I was astonished. I was like, oh, this can't happen. And that one core, that one smell from the 1969 spill, set me on a trajectory of studying oil spills for the rest of my career. I've been involved in every major oil spill since then,” he adds, “and it all goes back to this 1969 oil spill.”
NATURE HITS A ROAD BLOCK
Why oil persists in the environment continues to fascinate Dr. Reddy.
“Diesel fuel contains thousands of chemical compounds and some components break down faster or are more palatable to microbes than others,” he explains. “I’m interested in which compounds in the oil are the toughest kids on the block. What makes their chemical personality last? Why are these compounds still there? That's what keeps me up at night.”
“It’s fascinating from a basic science perspective,” he says. “But from an applied science perspective, this work also allows us to communicate to the industry what types of compounds and what types of chemical personalities are ones that can persist for a long time in the environment.”
“What we're basically doing is monitoring how that oil at Wild Harbor has changed through time,” says Dr. Reddy, while he places a sample from the marsh core into the chamber of a high tech version of Max Blumer’s original gas chromatograph.
The results, when they appear on a computer screen, reveal a bell-curved shape curve showing the biological components of the oil from the salt marsh sample.
This is evidence that not only is the oil still presen, but that the oil hasn't broken down in the environment. The results show that the sample is remarkably similar to the oil samples that Max Blumer originally studied in 1969.
“Nature has hit a roadblock,” Dr. Reddy says.
This is important because many oil spill cleanup plans still rely on a tactic known in the industry as “natural attenuation,” which relies on naturally occurring microbes to clean up the spill by eating the hydrocarbons in the oil. It’s cheaper than physically cleaning up a spill, and favored by industry, but results like these suggest it’s a tactic that may not always work, depending on the location of the spill.
“Everyone thinks we can rely on microbes to eat this oil and make it go away,” says Dr Reddy. “But I think the microbes no longer find this oil palatable. It shows you just can’t assume that nature is going to clean up all your problems.”
“While nature certainly has helped the marsh heal a little," Dr. Reddy says, "this is a chronic problem where nature is incapable of healing itself."
“What we see from these results from Wild Harbor is that nature can get stymied and that even a relatively small release in the grand scheme of things can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. And if the conditions are right it can last for a long time.”
HOW MUCH OIL REMAINS?
Max Blumer and his colleagues estimated that four tons of oil remained in Wild Harbor eight months after the spill in May 1970.
Emily Peacock, a researcher at Woods Hole, spent two years carrying out a study exploring how much oil remained. She took core samples from 26 locations along the west and east side of the salt marsh. "Only a small amount of oil exists in a small area but at high concentrations," she wrote in September 2005 report, estimating that about 100 kilograms of oil remained in the marsh.
"Wild Harbor marsh continues to store petroleum residues 30 years after the Florida spill," she concluded. "The locations that were most heavily contaminated continued to have the most persistent residues."
Emily Peacock found "only 0.01% of the oil that was initially spilled persists," notes Dr. Reddy. "Yes, oil is there. Yes, it still affects the ecosystem, but its in a very very localized location."
"In the short term, it was catastrophic and the marsh hurt for a few years," he adds. "Now its is post-card pretty and thriving. You could argue it's a victory that the area recovered so well."
A Silent Fall: The Story of the West Falmouth Oil Spill by E. Graham Ward.
The West Falmouth Oil Spill: Persistence of the Pollution Eight Months After the Accident Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Sept 1970, unpublished technical report. By M. Blumer, J. Sass, G. Souza, H.L. Sanders, J.F. Grassle, and G. R. Hampson.
A Small Oil Spill at West Falmouth, US EPA Decision Series, Edited by Francine Sakin Jacoff, Text by Howard Sanders and others. 1979.
A Small Spill, The New Yorker, Nov 26, 1973. By William Wertenbaker
Oil in Our Coastal Back Yard. Oceanus Magazine, Oct 13, 2004. By Christopher M. Reddy
The West Falmouth Oil Spill: 100 Kg of Oil Found to Persist Decades Later, Environmental Forensics, Sept 2005. By Emily Peacock, Joseph Warren, Robert Nelson and Christopher M. Reddy.
Still Toxic After All These Years, Oceanus Magazine, April 23, 2007. By Christopher M. Reddy.
We’re kicking off 2019 with an optimistic report from Canada.
Researchers at the University of Calgary have developed a “magnetic sponge” that can be used to clean up oil spills. The sponge is made of magnetic nanostructured white graphene, which, according to a report in The Maritime Executive, is biodegradable and can absorb crude oil up to 53 times its own weight.
When placed in water, this new material repels water and soaks up the oil. A magnet held close to the surface of the water is able to attract the oil-soaked sponge and lift it -- and the oil it has trapped -- out of the water. Oil can also be wrung out of the reusable material, making recovery of the spilled oil possible for the industry.
The team in Calgary is not the first to consider magnetic nanomaterials for oil spill cleanups, but previous attempts used materials that posed human health risks. The white grapheme-based material, researchers say, is both biodegradable and safe.
“If someone wants to start manufacturing this,” says Dr. Nashaat Nassar, an associate professor at the Schulich School of Engineering who led the team conducting this research, “it is ready to be used right now.”
"We are always trying to go beyond the lab and try to have more real solutions to what the industry is facing today," Nassar recently told the Canadian Broadcasting Service. The next step involves testing the "super sponge" on a larger scale, he says.
Chemical dispersants currently used to cleanup oil spills can cause nearly as much harm as the oil itself, so its exciting that Dr. Nassar and other scientists continue to look for alternative ways to clean up oil spills, and leave the marine environment intact.
A happy start to the new year, indeed!
A major oil spill off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, is proving challenging for biologists trying to assess the damage caused to wildlife.
On November 16, Husky Energy’s SeaRose off-shore oil platform, located about 350 kilometres from St. John’s in the White Rose oilfield, dumped an estimated 250,000 liters of oil into the sea off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The SeaRose was attempting to restart oil production during a fierce storm that was, at the time, the most intense in the world. Husky was the only producer that attempted to restart production during the storm, according to a Global News report.
In this underwater oil field, wells are drilled by a mobile drilling unit and connected to the SeaRose through a network of flow lines. The spill was the result of a damaged underwater connection between the oil platform and the oil tanker.
It is the largest spill every reported in Newfoundland and it happened at a particularly dangerous time for migrating sea birds.
“This is perhaps the worst time of year for an oil spill to occur with respect to seabirds,” Gail Fraser, a biologist who specializes in maritime seabirds told The Guardian. “There are literally millions of [them] that move down from the Arctic. They’re there in really high densities and they are highly vulnerable to even small amounts of oil pollution.”
Arctic seabirds such as murres and dovekies migrate south and spend their winters off the shotes of Newfoundland. The birds are extremely vulnerable to the cold, in part because oil damages the natural insulation provided by the bird's feathers. When oil disrupts the birds' feathers, it leaves them vulnerable to hypothermia.
“They depend on their waterproof feathers to survive in this harsh environment, which is exactly what this oil attacks," Ian Jones, a seabird ecologist at Memorial University, told iPolitics. "Once their feathers are compromised, they’re chilled. Then they’re desperately trying to stay alive over a number of days, ultimately succumbing to a combination of exhaustion and drowning.”
Wild life biologists working to determine the extent of the damage to wildlife are aware that a much smaller spill from the Terra Nova in 2004, also off the coast of Newfoundland, killed 10,000 seabirds. Some estimates put the number as high as 100,000.
The company that operates SeaRose has only reported 11 oiled birds so far, but Fraser fears the impact may be much higher, since the birds live far off shore, and likely will not wash up on any local beaches. "We’re not going to see dead birds on land," Fraser told the Guardian."There’s no graphic images to grab the public to help them realize how important the impact of this spill could be."
Newfoundland's natural resources minister, Siobhan Coady, was critical of the oil company's decision to begin production while the waters in the area were still rough after the storm. “If they did everything according to protocol, then we need to change the protocol,” she said.
Defending the Roseate Terns of Ram Island
By Micah Fink
Near the eastern edge of the Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, about half a mile off shore, lies Ram Island, a tiny two-acre speck of rock and sand that serves as a spring nursery for roseate terns, one of the most elegant and endangered seabirds in the Eastern United States.
The island's highest point rises just nine feet above the salty waves, and as Carolyn Mostello, a veteran seabird biologist with MassWildlife, approaches in a small motor boat, a swirling cacophony of roseate and common terns, small white birds with black caps and forked tails, rises up to defend their shared nesting ground.
“Ram Island has about 1,100 pairs of roseate terns that nest on it each year,” says Mostello, who leads the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife’s Buzzard Bay Tern Restoration Project. "This represents about 25 to 30 percent of the total breeding population in the United States," Mostello explains, as she puts on a weathered guano-stained floppy blue hat with a foot-long stick taped to the top before landing on the island.
"The theory is that the terns will peck at the stick, instead of your head, hands and face," she says, "but it doesn’t always work."
Mostello has been visiting the island for most of the last two decades, and has come to appreciate the fierce intensity of these small birds. “Even though they are pretty aggressive and sometimes you are not always happy with them, you have to admire parents that are so tenacious and go to such lengths to protect their young.”
The island’s small size, she says, and the absence of trees or houses where predators can perch, combined with close proximity to waters rich with American Sand Lance, a small fish favored by the terns, makes it an idea nesting site for both roseate and common terns, which tend to nest alongside each other.
While the two species look similar, the roseates have longer tails, sport at light pink coloring on their breasts during the summer season, and their beaks are mostly black during the breeding season, while the common terns are slightly larger and sport an orange bill with a black tip.
“Terns, like most seabirds, nest directly on the ground,” Mostello says, pointing out speckled two small sand colored speckled eggs blending into island's rocky ground. Common terns tend to nest in the open, while roseate terns prefer to nest under vegetation or simple wooden shelters provided by their human caretakers, which is why unescorted visitors are not allowed on the island during breeding season.
“The terns are only visitors here,” Mostello explains. They usually arrive in Buzzards Bay in April to breed, and then, after the chicks are hatched and fledged, they migrate in the fall to South America, with a brief stop in the Caribbean. “Some of the roseate terns go down as far as southern Brazil, while the common terns winter as far south as northern Argentina.”
A Species at Risk
Roseate terns were a popular source of hat feathers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which caused the population to declined very sharply. The commercial trade in their feathers was eventually banned and the population rebounded. Their numbers declined again in the 1970s as gulls began to expanded their range northward, taking over many of the terns coastal nesting sites. By 1978, only 2,500 breeding pairs remained.
Today, as a result of intensive management of the species and nesting grounds by scientists like Carolyn Mostello, the roseate tern has increased to nearly 4,000 breeding pairs.
“These aren’t populations that are self-sustaining," she explains. “If we weren’t out here working every summer and didn’t intensively manage the island, you would again see the population decline very quickly."
The problem, she says, is there are only three breeding colonies left in North America, and all are located on small low-lying islands along the North Eastern coastline.
This makes these breeding grounds vulnerable to long list of potential threats, including careless human visitors, dogs, rising sea levels as a result of climate change, destructive storms, and oil spilled into the water, either intentionally by commercial vessels looking to dispose of used oil and oily waste, or as a result of industrial accidents, both of which happen far more frequently than you might imagine.
An Oiled Island
Buzzards Bay is about 8 miles wide, 28 miles long, and is a popular destination for fishing, boating, and tourism. It also serves as a major transit route for tankers and barges transporting oil and gasoline to Boston and northern New England, with nearly 2 billion gallons of oil passing through Buzzard’s Bay in 2017.
More than a dozen major marine oil spills have occurred over the last sixty years, including one that took place on Sunday, April 27, 2003, just as the terns were arriving on Ram Island to mate and nest. That’s when the Bouchard 120, a squat red oil tanker passed on the wrong side of a navigational marker and hit an underwater shoal, ripping a 12-foot long tear in its hull, spilling 98,000 gallons of No. 6 bunker fuel into the bay.
“The captain didn’t realize the damage right away and the oil was dragged nearly 10 miles up the bay," recalls Mostello. "A few sites were heavily hit, including Ram Island. The birds had just begun arriving in North America, and were just beginning to nest and mate, so the timing couldn’t have been much worse.”
The thick fuel oil arrived silently in the night, she recalls, leaving a black band around the high tide line. And the following morning the bodies of oiled sea birds, including roseate terns, were found scattered along the island.
“It was very sad,” she says.
Nearly 100 miles of shoreline in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island were eventually coated with oil, forcing the closure of beaches and shellfish beds along the Bay.
“The problem with oil, even in small amounts,” says Mostello, “is that it can compromise the waterproofing of the seabird’s feathers, leaving them vulnerable to death from hypothermia.”
Seabirds spend a lot of time coating their feathers with a thick, waxy substance produced by a gland at the base of their tail, which protects their skin from direct contact with water. Oil can damage or destroy this layer of waterproofing with often lethal results.
Mostello was faced with a singular challenge.
How could she keep the nesting birds from further contact with the deadly oil?
The following weeks were a nightmare of frenzied activity for Mostello, who helped organize the clean up of the island.
About 2,000 terns were already roosting on Ram Island, and she feared that extended contact with the thick sticky oil could decimate the entire nesting population.
There was only one solution. They had to convince the birds to leave and delay their nesting until the island could be completely cleared of oil.
“Hazing is something we would never, under normal circumstances, never do,” Mostello says. But this situation was far from normal.
She set up a battery of sound cannons on the island to scare the sensitive birds away during the day, and “at night we would go out with flashlight and shine lights on them,” she recalls. “The terns are very skittish at night. That would keep them off the island at night. But they would come back during the day and some of them actually nested next to the cannons while they were still firing, so it wasn’t 100 percent effective."
Eventually, many of the terns moved to two other small islands in Buzzards Bay to nest.
"This is why it’s so important to have multiple islands available for nesting in case of a catastrophe," which is now part of the long term conservation strategy for Buzzards Bay.
“It wasn’t easy to do,” she says. “Terns can live to their mid-twenties, and the older birds are quite determined to roost at their traditional nesting sites, and it was quite hard to deter them.”
The clean up was originally estimated to take one week, but it took a 40 person crew nearly four weeks to clear all the oil from the island.
“The shore line is very rocky,” says Mostello, “and each and every rock was power washed and scrubbed, then flipped over and scrubbed again, because we were so concerned that the oil would continue to leach into the environment and impact our terns.”
The stress of the clean up, and the removal of all the oiled seaweed, plants and marsh grasses, damaged the islands ecosystem, Mostello says, and a salt marsh at the north end of the island never fully recovered.
On May 30, 2013, nearly a month after the spill, the terns were allowed to return.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later estimated that at least three adult roseate terns were killed by the oil and 350 chicks were lost because of the delayed nesting, which cut the annual production of chicks by roughly ten percent.
“In the short term, we definitely had reduced productivity of the birds here due to the oil,” says Mostello. “Those reduced numbers continued into the following year. Certainly, there was a harm in the year of the spill and for a few years after that.”
Assessing Oil Spill Impacts
The official clean up, recovery, assessment and compensation for the environmental damages caused by the 2003 spill is still unfolding today.
In the weeks after the spill, volunteers and clean up crews found the bodies of 315 birds from 34 different species, including common and roseate terns, cormorants, willets, dunlin, great yellow legs, mute swans, common loons, and piping plovers along nearly 100 miles of coastline reaching from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. Migrating birds were also exposed to the oil, and two oiled loons were found in New Hampshire.
Estimating the total effect on the roseate terns is complicated, Mostello says. “There is definitely an impact on the next generation, there are fewer birds in the next generation, and those birds killed during the spill are not able to available to produce chicks into the future."
“So you have to compensate for lost productivity when you are trying to assess how much an impact an oil spill has on birds. Birds that are actually killed, birds delayed in nesting, birds that have reduced productivity because of oil effects, all of that has to be wrapped together to assess the total injury to the population. All those things are taken into account.”
The spill also impacted a variety of salt marshes, rocky shorelines, recreational beaches, and local shellfish beds, some of which would remain closed to the public for more than a decade.
Bouchard, the company which owned and operated the barge, agreed in 2004 to pay a $10 million dollar fine for violating the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The company also settled a class action lawsuit for $11.45 million filed by 700 private property owners on Buzzards Bay.
The company was also liable for the costs of the cleanup and restoration of natural resources in accordance with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and paid out $6 million for injuries to shoreline and aquatic resources in 2010, and an additional $13 million to compensate for additional injuries to loons, sea ducks and other migratory birds and their habitat in 2017.
Some of these funds, once the settlement is approved by the courts, may be used to help defend the low-lying nesting grounds on Ram Island from flooding and erosion taking place because of rising sea levels, which represents the newest threat to the species long term survival.
“We just completed a big project to raise the altitude of Bird Island, another roseate tern nesting site a few miles up the Bay, to counteract the effect of sea level rise related to climate change,” says Mostello.
“We have plans to do a similar project here on Ram Island to get ahead of that as much as we can. It’s expensive, but it has to be done. Climate change is here.”
By mid-June, the breeding season is already well advanced. “We got a range of chick ages on the island now,” Mostello says while lifting up the roof of a small plywood breeding box, revealing two plump young roseate tern chicks about a week-and-a-half old.
“Once they hatch it takes about three weeks for the chicks to fledge, Mostello explains. “So for the next few weeks we’ll still have chicks out here that are growing and being fed by adults, before they are ready to take off and start migration.” Once the young chicks are able to fly, they will move north in small family groups to the tip of Cape Cod to feed and prepare themselves to migrate to their winter feeding grounds in South America.
The number of roseate terns in Buzzards Bay has increased by thirty-seven percent over the last eight years and Mostello is hopeful this trend will continue.
“We've still got plenty of eggs that haven’t hatched but this seems to be a pretty good year for chicks,” she says, while weighing and banding a series of fluffy young birds.
“Sometimes there are two chicks in the nest, and the older chick almost always does quite well. It’s the younger chick that are kind of iffy, but this year seems like a good year so far for the younger chicks and we are really pleased about that.”
The US National Climate Change Assessment is now on-line and it isn't pulling any punches.
"Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities."
The news for Mariners is deeply concerning.
Did you know that the Oceans have absorbed 93% of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?
This is causing the world's ocean waters to warm, become increasingly acidic, while decreasing the amount of oxygen available in the world's waters. These three changes in the ocean's chemistry are already producing a variety of devastating impacts, including widespread coral bleaching in tropical regions, disruption of traditional fisheries and marine ecosystems around the world, and the loss of sea-ice based ecosystems in the polar regions.
The report also notes that we can expect to experience larger, more powerful hurricanes fueled by the warming atmosphere, and that warmer, higher seas, will pose growing challenges for island-based economies in the US Caribbean, Hawaii, and communities living along coastal shoreline in the US and around the world.
While this report focuses on specific impacts being felt in the United States -- it is clear that similar changes are unfolding across the entire planet.
"Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action," warns the authors, "and decisions made today will determine the degree of risk faced by both current and future generations."
Climate change are now upon us, the report concludes, and not enough is being done to avoid the worst case scenarios now looming before us.
"Neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damage to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades."
Maritime polluters beware!
A new global initiative launched by the United Nations is working to coordinate the fight against oil and other forms of marine pollution around the world.
Codenamed "30 Days at Sea," the joint UN and INTERPOL led mission involved 276 law enforcement and environmental agencies, 122 national coordinators, and police, customs and environmental officers in 58 countries. The coordinated sweeps resulted in 5,200 inspections, and uncovered more than 500 marine offenses, including illegal discharges of oil and garbage from vessels, breaches of ship emissions regulations, and pollution on rivers and land-based runoff to the sea.
“Criminals believe marine pollution is a low-risk crime with no real victims,” explains Jürgen Stock, the According Secretary General of INTERPOL. “This is a mistake and one which INTERPOL and our partners are addressing as demonstrated by this operation. Marine pollution creates health hazards worldwide which undermine sustainable development and requires a multi-agency, multi-sector cooperative response within a solid global security architecture.”
Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, who spearheaded the effort, said that the issue of illegal marine pollution is one that global communities may well be able to tackle successfully in the next decade. “But we need the help of our law enforcement partners to make sure that there is no impunity for the perpetrators of marine pollution crime."
From Germany to Ghana, 30 Days at Sea proved that concentrated effort by enforcement agencies is an effective way to catch criminals and prevent further disaster. In Albania the operation successfully prevented 500 liters of oil from being spilled from a sinking vessel. The operation also made use of satellite imagery, aerial surveillance, drones, and night vision cameras to detect criminal acts.
This global effort followed the globally coordinated effort called "30 Days of Action," led by INTERPOL in June 2017, which took on the illegal disposal of hazardous waste in 43 countries around the world. This effort resulted in 483 individuals and 264 companies being charged with illegal dumping and environmental violations, involving more than 1.5 million tons of illicit waste.
30 Days at Sea expands this global enforcement model to the world's oceans and reflects a growing awareness that harm to the marine environment is a crime that impacts everyone on earth. We’re excited to see what comes next!
Six years ago, scientists studying the long-term effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill began noticing something very odd. They found enormous rainbow oil slicks on the surface of the water off the coast of Louisiana – which, curiously, were many miles away from the area where the Deep Water Horizon spill had taken place.
What these scientists discovered was on-going leakage from the Taylor Oil Spill, which has been quietly releasing between 300 and 700 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf Coast over the last 14 years. The spill began in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan's 145 mph winds and 70 foot waves toppled an oil production platform owned by Taylor Energy.
Because the shattered wells that fed the platform were buried under a mud slide and never capped, the site has quietly leaked vast quantities of oil into the gulf, and is now threatening to overtake the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster as the largest marine oil spill in American history.
The Washington Post recently broke the story in an article by Darryl Fears, which explains how it took scientists six years to catch on to reality of the enormous spill, which federal officials estimate could continue through this century.
"The Taylor Energy spill is largely unknown outside Louisiana because of the company’s effort to keep it secret in the hopes of protecting its reputation and proprietary information about its operations," writes Fears, and the extent of the spill was only discovered when a lawsuit filed by environmental watchdog groups eventually forced the company to reveal its cleanup plan.
After the spill was discovered, initial estimates by the NRC put the amount of oil leaking into the water at 1 to 55 barrels of oil per day. However more recent data shows that the truth is closer to 1 to 700 barrels of oil per day.
"The Interior Department is now fighting an effort by Taylor Energy to walk away from the disaster," reports Fears. "The company sued Interior in federal court, seeking the return of about $450 million left in a trust it established with the government to fund its work to recover part of the wreckage and locate wells buried under 100 feet of muck."
While scientists are just beginning to assess the environmental damage caused over the past fourteen years, there is growing potential for similar spills take place. The article notes that the Trump administration has proposed to expand drilling leases to the entire out continental shelf, including along the Atlantic coast, where hurricanes are twice as frequent as they are in the Gulf.
The risks associated with these new developments are greatly increased by the growing intensity of storms, fueled by waters warmed by climate change, and environmental groups worry that officials have not learned from the mistakes of the Taylor spill.
To learn more about the background of the spill, and how Taylor Energy kept it so quiet for all these years, be sure to check out Fears’ original article!
The Department of Justice has fined another polluter for intentionally discharging oil from its vessels, this time off the shores of Massachusetts!
Two New Bedford fishing companies, Challenge Fisheries and Quinn Fisheries, have agreed to pay $414,000 and perform compliance measures and fleet wide improvements.
The penalties were in response to a complaint filed by the US Coast Guard alleging that the companies released approximately 4,200 gallons of oil into the waters of New Bedford Harbor, when the fishing vessel Challenge sank on Aug. 16, 2017.
The Coast Guard complaint alleges the ship's owners had emptied diesel fuel into the harbor after returning from a fishing trip, but failed to turn off the bilge pump, which caused the ship to sink after a valve failed. At least 17 ducks were oiled and five died, the complaint noted.
Before the Challenge sank, according to the complaint, the defendants routinely “on a daily or near-daily basis” pumped oily mixtures out of the engine room bilge and into New Bedford Harbor and other U.S. waters.
The companies also violated the Clean Water Act by failing to provide sufficient capacity to retain all oily bilge water onboard the vessel. The complaint alleges that the defendants discharged engine room bilge, which contains a mixture of fuel, lubricating oils, water, and other wastes, into the ocean and New Bedford Harbor rather than retain the waste onboard in order to extend the duration of their fishing trips while harvesting scallops at sea.
“Today’s action sends a clear message to the commercial fishing fleet that Clean Water Act compliance must be a non-negotiable part of operations," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood, for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. "We appreciate our partners at the U.S. Coast Guard for their diligent investigation and referral of these violations.”
“This enforcement action will help protect people and the environment in and around New Bedford Harbor from the effects of oil pollution, and other fishing vessel owners and operators should take note,” said Andrew E. Lelling, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
So often when we write about these crimes, we describe them as being far out at sea, and extremely difficult to enforce. This case in New Bedford Harbor goes to show that intentional oil pollution can happen close to home, right on top of Massachusetts' marine food sources and valuable ecosystems.
To learn more about the case, read the Justice Department’s press release regarding the settlement.
What do the loons of Minnesota have to do with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? While it may seem like a "loony" question because the two places are so far apart, there is potential for some of an $18 billion fund that was created in the wake of the spill to be used for the protection of loon habitat in Minnesota.
The connection between the iconic black and white birds and the gulf oil spill is that some 85% of Minnesota's loons migrate to the gulf each year. When the spill happened in 2010, it killed hundreds of loons immediately, and exposure to chemicals may have impacted many more over the following months. Given this connection, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has applied for some of the fund to be used for the loons.
The funds requested by the state of Minnesota would total about $7.5 million, and would be used to improve and grow loon habitat. They would also create a media campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of lead fishing tackle, which is one of the greatest causes of death among the birds. The money would be spent over the course of 15 years, and much of it would go toward preserving shoreline habitat where the loons breed. When development comes too close to loon nesting grounds, research has shown that they simply stop breeding.
The project in Minnesota is one of three that is being recommended for funding by the governmental committee that oversees the BP fund. The other projects include one spanning North and South Dakota for the restoration of black tern habitat, and a proposal to restore sturgeon habitat in the Gulf Coast.
The argument is that the impact of the spill, even after eight years, continues to echo through the ecosystem -- and it goes to show that just because oil is no longer visible to the human eye, that it continues to have extremely long-lasting effects.
If you’d like to learn more about the loon restoration project, it’s open for public comment on the National Park Service website.