A Solution to ‘Defuel’ Sunken Ships
San Francisco, California
2017, High School, Prose
The Point Reyes, CA Tarball Incidents: Starting in November of 1997, scores of oil-drenched seabirds were found dead or dying on the shores of Point Reyes National Seashore along the California Coast. As these waves of perishing birds washed ashore, the National Park Service, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and the Department of Fish and Game investigated the source of this disaster. These organizations conducted numerous analyses to determine the number of seabirds affected, and the scope of the oil’s impact on the ecosystem. But they could not find where it was all coming from. After several months, the number of dead oiled birds found on the beaches declined, and the onslaught seemed to have ended.
The San Mateo, CA Mystery Spill: In 2001, oil-soaked sea birds were again found dead by the hundreds, this time in San Mateo, CA. Volunteers and National Park Staff rushed to try to rescue and decontaminate the birds in order to return them to the wild, but many were too far gone for saving and had to be put down; others died from the stress of human contact during the process of oil removal, because these birds rarely come in contact with people. Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard and California Department of Fish and Wildlife hunted for the culprit, but their efforts were in vain. Could this have been caused by some natural phenomena? Or perhaps by bilge dumping, the illegal discharge of oil at sea that tankers were sometimes known to engage in? Again, the guilty party could not be found.
Finally, in 2002, the investigators discovered oil to be gushing from the S. S. Jacob Luckenbach, a freighter that sank in the Gulf of the Farallones half a century ago. When they tested the oil samples from the ship and compared them to samples collected from the feathers of the unfortunate seabirds, the chemistry analysis showed a match. This discovery resolved the Point Reyes and San Mateo mysteries.
A 2006 report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife determined that the Luckenbach had been associated with multiple “mystery spills” over several decades, which occur as this sunken ship shifts with storms or tides. This vessel was responsible for the death of an estimated eight sea otters and 51,569 birds (including 31,806 Common Murres and 45 endangered Marbled Murrelets). $22.7 million were awarded by the National Pollution Funds Center to implement 14 restoration projects. The true cost of the devastation caused by this long and deadly disaster is far greater than can ever be repaired or restored by environmental remediation efforts. To prevent further oil leakage, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted diving operations in the summer of 2002 to remove the majority of the oil remaining on the Luckenbach.
We need to protect and restore our seas. Marine pollution kills seabirds and other ocean life, hurts the health and livelihood of people who live near the ocean or who eat fish that swim in it, and destroys the natural beauty of the sea and coasts. The story of the Luckenbach is not an unusual one, as the sea floor off the coast of the United States alone is covered in many thousands of known shipwrecks. From tankers and cargo vessels, to World War II battleships and submarines that all hold fossil fuels, the ocean floor is littered with potential sources of devastating pollution awaiting release from these ancient vessels. Trying to deal with this huge number of shipwrecks at once seems like an insurmountable task, but there is a way to make this task easier. A NOAA report estimates that 107 of these wrecks in U.S. waters pose “a substantial threat,” so we should “defuel” these specifically identified vessels first.
Further simplifying this challenging task is the fact that NOAA already has much-practiced, modern techniques in place for identifying shipwrecks, in a two-step process which utilizes historical analysis and multibeam sonar data. When investigating or excavating a historic shipwreck, historical documents such as newspaper articles and first-hand accounts from the time period provide researchers with a general sense of where a particular wreck is located, after which multibeam sonar data scans of the seafloor are scrutinized for patterns that indicate a sunken vessel.
I propose that NOAA be granted funding for a large-scale disaster-prevention excavation of the 107 wrecks that have been identified as a substantial threat to the ecosystem, in which all of the oil remaining in these ships is safely extracted.
Many of these shipwrecks are gravesites where sailors and passengers of the past have come to rest, and to respect the importance of these historical landmarks and honor the lives lost in these disasters, we must act immediately to prevent ecological damage, which would only be a further tragedy for these fateful ships. Acting now to deal with these future problems is not only a safeguard for the environment, but is also a cost-saving measure. The $22.7 million spent implementing the 14 Luckenbach restoration projects is monumental when compared to the one-time costs that would be required to extract fuel oil from other ships and prevent future spills from happening.
Recently, I attended a press conference at the Maritime Research Center of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park announcing the discovery of the shipwreck McCulloch; I saw first hand how the hunt for a shipwreck draws people and organizations together in a way unlike any other search. In attendance were not only members of NOAA, but also research specialists from the San Francisco Maritime Museum, park rangers, an Admiral from the Coast Guard, and an R.O.V. submersible operator. I believe that an effort to extract oil from the 107 shipwrecks identified by NOAA as sources of danger to our natural ecosystems would draw an even wider fleet of allies, which would include marine biologists, activists, climate scientists, politicians, fishing organizations, and the amateur diving community.
While NOAA’s historical analysis and multibeam sonar data process for uncovering shipwrecks is efficient, it could be made more so by enlisting a larger coalition of supporters. In particular, I think that members of the active amateur diving community could lend their expertise. In the past, NOAA maritime archaeologist Robert Schwemmer has used first-hand interviews with lay people, fisherman, and wreck divers, to assist in the organization’s hunts, and I think that these techniques should be an integral part of my proposed investigation of the 107 substantial-threat wrecks. Furthermore, interviews with local communities and coastal residents would help pinpoint reports of oil leakage and reveal gleams of local knowledge regarding the precise locations and conditions of these 107 wrecks.
An undertaking of this large-scale excavation would begin with a pilot project, in which a particular wreck is chosen from the total 107 to be used as a proof-of-concept for this program. A video would be recorded to explain the research methods used to locate the wreck, along with underwater camera footage of the oil removing process at the wreck itself. This undertaking would be carried out by a local branch of NOAA, such as California, to act as an example to all other United States states and territories that border the sea, as well as to the global community of conservationists, divers, and maritime research organizations. An online site would allow the public to track the progress of these excavations across the coastal United States and to offer their local knowledge and advice to the researchers. This pilot project would provide a basis to assess lessons learned and to implement process improvements for future “defueling” efforts.
Our seas provide us with food, employment, recreation, and are a source of magnificent natural beauty. These seas also absorb huge amounts of carbon from our atmosphere, an evermore pressing issue for those concerned about the future of our globe’s climate. As the shipping industry surges ahead in the modern era, almost invisible to the general public, shipping containers bring us nearly everything we use on a daily basis, from our shoes to our cell phones. There are small and large measures that we can take on a daily basis which will have a profound impact on our world’s future: organizing a beach clean-up, reducing waste, sorting compost and recycling from trash, and eating sustainable seafood. While we need to improve regulations to safeguard the future from the damaging effects of modern container ships, from oil leakage to noise pollution, we must also not neglect the lingering effects of a past era of shipping, which may have faded from our thinking, but its scars have not been erased from the bottom of the sea. The need to excavate oil from sunken vessels cannot wait until the next “mystery spill” – we must decide today to address the threat posed by shipwrecks to our oceans and coastal ecosystems.
Carter, H.R. and R.T. Golightly, editors. 2003. Seabird injuries from the 1997-1998 Point Reyes Tarball Incidents . Unpublished report, Humboldt State University, Department of Wildlife, Arcata, California. 215 pp.
Luckenbach Trustee Council. 2006. S.S. Jacob Luckenbach and Associated Mystery Oil Spills Final Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan/Environmental Assessment . Prepared by California Department of Fish and Game, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2013. Risk Assessment for Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , Silver Spring, MD. 127 pp + appendices.
NOAA. “NOAA team reveals forgotten ghost ships off Golden Gate.” News release. September 16, 2014. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2014/20140916_shipwreck.html .
San Mateo Mystery Oil Spill (Unified Command News Release, 2002), accessed June 17, 2017, https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=20586.
I became interested in maritime history when I started researching the wreck of a San Francisco steam schooner called the J. B. Stetson. When I finished researching this vessel and its wreck, I published a book, J. B. Stetson: The Story of a Ship, which is available on Amazon.com. Through my research I learned about what shipwrecks mean to the captains and crews involved, to the companies who own the vessels, and to the historians who study these events. What I eventually realized was more important than any of these elements is what shipwrecks do to our seas. I investigated the impact that current and ancient shipwrecks have on the quality of ocean water, particularly vessels that leak oil. Through my research of the damage caused by previous shipwrecks and the “defueling” solutions that have been used to address this damage, I came up with an idea for a large-scale excavation of shipwrecks that pose the greatest threat to our marine ecosystems and coastal communities.