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Friday, October 31, 2014         

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State environmental experts bring knowledge to Gulf

By Helen Altonn

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Hawaii experts on sea turtles and geographic information systems were among scientists from across the country recently helping with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

T. Todd Jones and Shawn Murakawa, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, were part of the sea turtle early response team in Mississippi.

Jones, with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR), operated by NOAA and the University of Hawaii, also assisted with turtle recoveries in Louisiana and Florida.

"It's heartbreaking as a scientist to see what is happening to the environment," said Jones, who has researched sea turtles for more than a decade. He said it was "very rewarding" to be part of the response effort, retrieving animals and getting them to rehabilitation facilities if needed.

Tom Schroeder, University of Hawaii Meteorology Department chairman and JIMAR administrator, said other Isle scientists either are at the Gulf or will be going, primarily for protective species or stock assessment operations.

Daniel Turner, Joey Lecky and Lasha Salbosa, geographical information system programmers with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, worked in Robert, La., to support the response effort.

They coordinated data from a wide variety of sources, including satellite imagery, aerial observations, radar, subsurface water sampling, ships and field surveys of the beaches and ocean.

"It's an enormous logistical challenge," Turner said.

Lecky, whose job is split between the monument and the humpback whale sanctuary, said he was in charge of putting together daily PowerPoint briefings for the White House with the latest data and maps. "It's pretty cool that it went to brief people high up."

David Swatland, deputy superintendent for policy and programs for the monument, went to the National Marine Sanctuaries Office of Response and Remediation in Silver Spring, Md., to fill in for someone who went to Louisiana as an environmental unit leader. He said he put some of his previous Coast Guard experience to work for resource management, logistics and scheduling people.

Turner said he was impressed that so many different federal and state agencies were working together on the spill.

"It's really phenomenal. ... There is conflict, but everybody feels like they're working on an important cause."

Jones and Murakawa said they collected Kemp's Ridley sea turtles that washed onto the beach and went by boat to collect others from the water. The dead turtles were mostly juveniles, 1 to 3 years old, Jones said.

He said they retrieved one live turtle while he was in Mississippi. About 30 live turtles had been found since the spill began and were placed in rehab facilities, he said.

The sea turtle death toll won't be known until necropsies are done, he said. (The Fish and Wildlife Service reported at the end of June that 411 dead turtles and 128 live ones had been collected since April 30 in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.)

The turtle experts swabbed, tagged, measured and recorded the animals and took samples for analysis.

"Everybody was happy that we were doing it," Murakawa said. "They were so touched that we came out of our way (from Hawaii) to do this."

The lives of people along the gulf "have changed drastically," first with Hurricane Katrina, then the oil spill, she said, adding that she "felt honored" to help with the spill response.

"It's something I never thought I could do in my lifetime, making a small dent in the big problem they had out there," she said.

Lecky, with the GIS team in Robert, La., and then New Orleans, said, "I was definitely impressed with the level of response, just the amount of people putting in crazy long hours day after day."

He said they worked an average of 14 hours a day managing a constant deluge of data and putting it into an interactive mapping tool called ERMA, or environmental response management application.






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