National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

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The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) conducts and supports research, monitoring, assessment, and technical assistance for managing coastal ecosystems and society’s use of these ecosystems. NCCOS activities fit within a framework of five environmental stressors, including climate change, extreme natural events, pollution, invasive species, and land and resource use.

NCCOS highlights from fiscal year 2009 include:

  • Providing data and products that supported the designation of the Pacific Marine National Monuments. In a direct response to a request from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, information provided by NCCOS, with support from NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, significantly contributed to the designation of three Marine National Monuments in the Pacific Ocean by President Bush on January 6, 2009. The data demonstrate that the new marine national monuments – Marianas Trench, Rose Atoll, and Pacific Remote Islands – contain some of the largest areas of live coral cover, high biomass, and abundance of reef fish in U.S. waters. NCCOS, in collaboration with the National Marine Fisheries Service, prepared extensive geographic information system maps and reports to support the President’s Executive Order to increase conservation efforts for the Pacific areas.
  • Conducting research in marine spatial planning to inform development in Massachusetts. Coastal planners and managers in Massachusetts are using the results of a long-term research effort by NCCOS to help make ocean zoning decisions. The state managers seek to balance ocean energy, commerce, recreation, and conservation as they determine where certain activities, such as pipelines and oil and gas installations, can take place, and where protected areas should be located to protect threatened whales. They refer to NCCOS’s analysis of whale abundance and distribution patterns in Massachusetts waters from An Ecological Characterization of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Region, published in 2006,to inform development of the Massachusetts Ocean Plan. The plan,which was mandated by the Massachusetts Ocean Act of 2008, is the first of its kind in the nation. This research also supported NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries when it evaluated the relocation of the Boston Harbor shipping channel to reduce marine-mammal vessel strikes, as well as the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Protected Resources when it assessed potential threats from a proposed offshore liquid gas facility.
  • Releasing the first-ever comprehensive report on the level of flame retardant chemicals found in U.S. coastal waters, including the Great Lakes. In recent years, these chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have generated international concern due to their global distribution and associated adverse environmental and human health effects. In this study, the NCCOS researchers determined the level of PBDEs by evaluating mussels, oysters, and sediments at a national scale. The study determined that PBDEs are found throughout the U.S. coastal zone, with elevated levels near urban and industrial centers. PBDE production has been banned throughout Europe and Asia, and production of some PBDE mixtures has been voluntarily discontinued by U.S. industry, although one form of PBDE is still produced. Because the application of PBDEs has been so widespread – including many consumer plastics, textiles, electronics, and furniture – scientists speculate that they may present an ongoing and growing problem in coastal environments.
  • Providing research and training that allowed for improved environmental management
    Research provided by NCCOS and other NOAA scientists at a May 2008 workshop prompted the Town of Southold, New York to amend its laws regulating the town’s wetlands and natural resources to better manage the impacts of residential docks. The local ordinance change marks a successful transition of NCCOS research to operations and is a model for future collaboration with other local and regional managers.

    NCCOS collaborated with the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, the NOAA Coastal Services Center, National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and Sea Grant to offer more than 10 of these workshops, including the most recent workshop in January 2009 for 50 coastal zone managers, permit writers, planners, and municipal officials in Virginia. NCCOS-funded research has also led to the modification of the permit process for bulkheads in tidal estuaries and rivers in North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties. This direct application of science to management is helping protect vital fisheries habitat and ensuring that coastal managers are making decisions using sound science.

  • Announcing the discovery of a natural antifouling compound that may have environmental, economic, and human health benefits. The discovery, made in partnership with scientists from NCCOS and North Carolina State University (NCSU), involves a naturally occurring compound from a Caribbean sponge, Agelas conifer, which reduces fouling of marine vessels while exhibiting low toxicity to humans and marine species. The agents reduce fouling by stopping the production of biofilms by bacteria that form a base for the collection of barnacles and algae often found on the bottom of ships. NCSU scientists have developed synthetic derivatives from the compound that companies hope to commercially manufacture, and NCCOS scientists are working with several U.S. Department of Defense offices to use the derivatives in marine paints in the future.

    The compounds have also been licensed for testing in stents, arterial lines, and other medical devices to determine whether they can serve as an antifouling agent in the human health arena as well. Biofilms, and the subsequent macrofouling of marine vessels, cost billions of dollars each year. These new derivatives could replace harmful copper chemicals in marine paint formulas that, by law, were to be eliminated in 2009, and save money with improved maneuverability and energy efficiency of vessels.

  • Providing forecasting capabilities to help protect human health and coastal economies. NCCOS’s annual forecasts for the red tide outbreak in the Gulf of Maine and the annual ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico are important tools for protecting human health, local economies, and the health of our nation’s ecosystems.

    The dead zone is an area off the Texas and Louisiana coasts in the Northern Gulf of Mexico where oxygen levels drop too low to support most life in bottom and near-bottom waters. Based on models using data from the U.S. Geological Survey on river flows and nutrient concentrations, NCCOS-funded scientists predicted a larger-than-normal dead zone for 2009, measuring between 7,450 and 8,456 square miles. The actual size measured 3,000 square miles. Although smaller than predicted, the dead zone was severe where it did occur. The smaller-than-expected area appears to be related to short-term weather patterns before measurements were taken, not a reduction in the underlying cause of excessive nutrient runoff. 

    The Gulf of Maine red tide produces potent neurotoxins that can accumulate in shellfish and cause illness, and even death, in people who have eaten tainted seafood. The actual size of the 2009 red tide event was consistent with the seasonal forecast, issued earlier this year by NCCOS-funded scientists who predicted a moderately severe harmful algal bloom. The scientists produced weekly forecasts to provide resource managers with updates on probable bloom locations and magnitude. Predictions of red tides in the Gulf of Maine and hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico are the first of many planned ecological forecasts under development in NCCOS.

  • Monitoring silver salmon die-off and providing information to improved management of deaths. In June, volunteers from the NCCOS-managed Phytoplankton Monitoring Network reported a bloom of the non-toxic alga Chaetoceros that subsequently caused a die-off of silver salmon smolt that had been released for stock enhancement. This type of algae lacerates fish gills, leading to an increase in mucus secretion and fish death. Approximately 80 percent of the 93,000 smolt that were released during the bloom died; an estimated 1,500 adult silver salmon are expected to return late next summer from the surviving smolt. As a result of the volunteer monitoring efforts, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has changed its smolt release procedure to include phytoplankton observations. The NCCOS-trained volunteers periodically monitor six sites in Kachemak Bay for harmful algal blooms by taking samples and then examining them under microscopes to look for suspect algae.
  • Providing DNA analyses that helped convict defendants in a criminal seafood smuggling case. DNA analysis of more than 800 suspect fish samples by NCCOS researchers was used as evidence in the prosecution of a seafood smuggler, leading to a sentence of 63 months in federal prison and forfeiture of over $12 million for one defendant, and one year of probation for a second. The individuals were found guilty in U.S. District Court of conspiring to sell illegally imported and fraudulently labeled Vietnamese catfish in the United States. Called as an expert witness in the October-2008 trial, an NCCOS scientist testified about the results of his DNA analyses, which showed that the fish had been mislabeled as grouper or other more valuable or marketable species. 

    In 2009, NCCOS scientists used DNA to identify evidence in other law enforcement cases involving short-finned pilot whales, killer whales, blue marlin, six species of sharks, and two federally protected species of sea turtles. Forensic analysis of evidence helps the U.S. Department of Justice and the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Office for Law Enforcement protect our nation’s marine resources from the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade.

  • Releasing an interagency report to Congress that illustrates progress toward improved management of marine harmful algal blooms. The NCCOS-supported interagency report, Scientific Assessment of Marine Harmful Algal Blooms, was released to Congress in December 2008. The report focuses on harmful algal blooms (HABs) in U.S. marine waters and provides a comprehensive review of the most important research advances by federal HAB programs over the last decade. It also highlights the major HAB problems and accomplishments by U.S. region, an important step to guide future research. The report is the fourth of five mandated by Congress under the 2004 reauthorization of the Federal Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act.