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Making Waves: Episode 50 (April 28, 2010)

We have a round up of NOS news highlights for you today, and an overview of NOAA's ongoing involvement with last week's oilrig accident in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's Wednesday, April 28th, and you're listening to Episode 50 of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

NOS News Highlights

(Oxford Lab)

We're going to start off today in the mid-Atlantic, where the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory – a partnership between NOAA, the State of Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Coast Guard – just celebrated its 50th Anniversary.

The roots of the lab trace back to the 1950s, when a parasite known as MSX was devastating the oyster industry in Delaware and Maryland. By 1957, the parasite had wiped out just about all of the oyster population in the lower Delaware Bay – somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of the oysters in the Bay were killed. A couple of years after this huge loss, MSX was discovered in the Chesapeake Bay.

This is when the U.S. Department of Interior decided to establish a laboratory in Oxford, Maryland -- a little town on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay that's been around since the 1600s. This decision proved to be instrumental in halting the spread of MSX … and it was just the beginning.

Over the past five decades, scientists at the Cooperative Oxford Lab have developed a reputation as world-renowned experts in detecting shellfish diseases and helping to prevent their spread. Researchers there have guided the development of international regulations for shellfish import and export, and they've helped set the groundwork for regulations to prevent the introduction of invasive species in our waterways.

Science conducted at the lab also played a critical role in identifying factors in the collapse of the Chesapeake Bay's striped bass population in the early 1980s. Although the numbers of striped bass are up, high levels of disease and dwindling prey for this top predator are still a cause for concern. Oxford Lab researchers are working to understand the causes and consequences of these dynamics for the striped bass fishery.

And in addition to studying species like oysters and striped bass, researchers at the lab are also engaged in cutting-edge research on the impact of land use on water quality that's going to help states prioritize restoration dollars for the highest possible impact. Within the next sixth months, studies of three watersheds in Maryland – the Magothy, Corsica, and Rhode watersheds -- are due out. These studies will provide the first-ever detailed look at how different kinds of development -- from agriculture to urbanization -- has affected these watersheds.

And when those studies come out, we'll talk with a researcher from the Lab to talk us through the results. You'll find a link to the Lab in our show notes if you'd like to learn more online. Happy 50th to the Cooperative Oxford Lab in Oxford, Maryland.

(Corals Return Home)

Next up, we head down the coast to Florida, where more than one hundred coral colonies, including brain and various star corals, were recently reattached to their homes last weekend in the waters beneath the world-renowned Mallory Square wharf in Key West. The corals, some as large as two feet in diameter, were removed from the wharf's pilings last June by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Sea Byte, Inc. to prevent damage to the fragile animals during an extensive construction project on the wharf. After spending the last 10 months in a coral nursery beneath the sanctuary's docks, the colonies were transplanted back to their homes beneath the wharf by the contractor and sanctuary staff. The corals were attached using special cement that hardens underwater. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary collaborates with local, state and federal agencies on upwards of 100 permits per year to ensure that construction activities in the Keys do not impact coral and other sanctuary resources.

(Earth Day Activities)

And as those rescued corals were being cemented in place, NOAA Administrator and Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere Dr. Jane Lubchenco and Acting NOS Assistant Administrator David Kennedy were on hand at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary visiting a coral reef restoration project that is employing local people while simultaneously helping threatened species of coral recover. NOAA celebrated Earth Week at eight of the 50 coastal and habitat restoration projects around the nation funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Two of those projects are coral reef restoration projects. In the Florida Keys, project partners are rearing elkhorn and staghorn corals in underwater nurseries, and then transplant the genetically diverse farm-raised coral colonies to the reef. With stimulus funds, partners will help replenish 34 degraded reefs in eight coral reef areas in the Florida Keys and U.S. Virgin Islands. Another stimulus project, the Maunalua Bay Reef Restoration Project in Maunalua Bay, Hawaii, will restore coral reefs through manual removal of invasive alien algae from 22 acres of nearshore waters. 

(Coral Reef Conservation Program Report)

And while we're on the topic of corals … on April 12, NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program delivered the Implementation of the National Coral Reef Action Strategy: Report on NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program Activities from 2007 to 2009" to Congress. This is the third biennial progress report to Congress required by the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000. The report provides summaries and examples of the activities conducted by the Coral Reef Conservation Program and its extramural partners between 2007 and 2009 to implement the thirteen goals addressed in the National Coral Reef Action Strategy. The report also describes the Program's reorganization to focus its efforts to understand and address the three major threats to reefs: impacts from climate change, fishing, and land-based sources of pollution. You'll find links to the report in our show notes at oceanservice.noaa.gov

(Oil Removed from WWII-era ship)

Now let's take a quick trip to American Samoa, where the Office of Response & Restoration's Emergency Response Division and National Weather Service staff recently provided support for salvage operations conducted on the sunken USS Chehalis in Pago Pago Harbor. About 55,564 gallons of aviation fuel and 1,269 gallons of diesel fuel were removed from the wreck by the U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage and the U.S. Navy Mobile Underwater Diving Salvage Unit out of Honolulu, with logistical support from the U.S. Coast Guard. The fuel will be shipped by barge, then transported overland to Kansas City, Missouri, where it will be used at a concrete manufacturing plant. The USS Chehalis exploded, burned, and sank in 1949 while off-loading gasoline. The ship had been releasing small amounts of oil ever since it sank.

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

And now on to our main story which – if you've been following the news over the past week – you know is about an oil spill that's underway right now.

Last week, there was an explosion that resulted in a massive fire on a Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles offshore of Louisiana. After the rig burned for hours, it capsized and sank into the Gulf on April 22. Now, the rig is located on the seafloor about 1,300 feet northwest of the undersea oil well it was connected to. So far, it's unclear how much of the estimated 700,000 gallons of fuel onboard burned before the rig sank.

Over the weekend, on-site operations were in full swing, but severe storms and high seas hampered response efforts. Two leaks have been identified so far. Preliminary estimates suggest that about 42,000 gallons of oil are being released a day at a depth of 5,000 feet. On Sunday, an attempt to control the leaking well using a Remotely Operated Vehicle – ROV for short – was not successful. As of Monday evening, ROVs were continuing to work on triggering what's known as a blowout preventer –this is a series of valves that sits at the well head – to contain the leak. On-scene crews are also designing and fabricating an underwater oil collection device that would trap escaping oil near the seafloor and funnel it for collection. The problem is that the leak is so deep. Collection devices have been used successfully in shallower water but never at this depth.

In total, over 1,000 people are now supporting the operational response to address well control and cleanup of the floating oil on the surface. The main effort is now focused on gathering more information about the spill, planning for undersea containment, drilling relief wells, recovering as much oil as possible, and preparing for potential impacts to Gulf Coast shorelines.

The latest NOAA oil-spill trajectory analyses do not indicate oil coming to shore over the next few days, but that could change if the rate of oil release increases or if the weather varies from what is forecasted.

While there are still many unknowns at the time of this recording on April 27, what we can tell you is what NOAA assets are involved in the operation.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration – part of the ocean service – has 8 personnel on-scene and another 25 are providing scientific support off-site. Many of the latter are also on standby to travel on-scene if necessary. Staff from NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration in the Emergency Response Division have been providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Unified Command that's coordinating operations, including predicting where the oil is going and its effects, identifying resources at risk, providing weather forecasts, and planning response and over flight operations. NOAA's Response and Restoration office is also coordinating with state and federal stakeholders to determine the potential severity of the incident and whether natural resource injuries may have occurred.

In addition, a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator is on-scene at the USCG Command Center in Louisiania, and another NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator is at the BP Command Post in Houston, TX. BP is the oil and gas company contracted to operate the rig.

In addition to the National Ocean Service activities outlined above, the National Weather Service is providing forecasting support. NOAA Data Buoy Center data is also being used in oil trajectory forecasting. NOAA Fisheries is engaged on issues related to marine mammals, sea turtles, and fishery resources. And NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service is providing experimental imagery support.

Now, this gives you a broad overview of NOAA's role in this event, but if you want to learn more about how NOAA responds to oil spills, I hope you visit our website and listen to our sister podcast, Diving Deeper, which covered this very topic -- quite by chance -- just a few weeks ago on April 7th. Tune in to here Dr. Amy Merten, NOAA Co-director of the Office of Response and Restoration's Coastal Response Research Center talk about NOAA's roles and responsibilities with oil spills. We'll have a direct link to this in our show notes.

Goodbye

And that's all for this week.

If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean – or if you have an ocean fact you'd like answered – send us a note at nos.info@noaa.gov.

Now let's bring in the ocean

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

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