Spill Response: High-Tech Techniques Help More Efficient, Safer and Productive

Workers from Global Diving and Salvage clean up a fuel spill. Photo courtesy of Global Diving and Salvage.

Above the surface or underwater, oil and hazardous material spill response and recovery in marine environments is making strides, thanks to technological advances and equipment upgrades, resulting in safer and more efficient work.

Autonomous systems are gaining traction, helping increase safety and productivity. Drones are helping make the job more efficient and practical. Skimmers, containment vessels and collection systems are showing promising improvements in both volume and recovery. Crane barges and other supporting craft utilized in responding to incidents are showing strength and maneuverability in recent case studies.

Staying on top of technological advances goes hand in hand with responding to environmental incidents. To learn more about recent developments, Fishermen’s News reached out to industry leaders.

Global Diving and Salvage

With decades of experience, Global Diving and Salvage understands that responding quickly and efficiently is vital to the health of the natural environment. 

Aaron Harrington, the company’s director of casualty response, noted that there hasn’t been much of a shift in recent years regarding the basic goal of oil or hazardous material spills—contain it and recover it. Yet how it’s done has changed, he added.

Advancing technology has played a big role in how the task has evolved over the years. Most recently, the development and use of autonomous vessels for oil skimming and containment is gaining traction in the industry, Harrington pointed out. 

Removing the human element by using this type of cutting-edge technology can be a benefit from a safety perspective. 

Autonomous vessels also allow contractors and the industry to counter the personnel shortage that many industries are facing with the graying of the workforce, Harrington said. 

Finding enough people to actually do the work is a big factor in the industry, he added. It’s difficult to find people willing to be available for unscheduled work on a 24/7 basis. People aren’t waiting around for the phone to ring when these types of incidents happen during bad weather in the middle of winter, he said.

So autonomous vessels can help fill the gap. 

QualiTech’s NOFI Current Buster 4 was recently redesigned with several advancements. Photo courtesy of QualiTech.

Vessel Autonomy

Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics successfully demonstrated the industry’s first spill-response vessel in late 2019. As a part of its cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, Sea Machines deployed its autonomous systems on board a Kvichak Marco skimmer boat owned by Marine Spill Response Corp. during an event at the Portland harbor.

Officials note the technology’s ability to increase the safety, productivity and predictability of response for marine oil-spill operations.

“The safety of our personnel is the most important consideration in any response,” John Swift, Marine Spill Response’s Atlantic region and marine division vice president, said. “Autonomous technology enhances safe operations.”

The SM300-equipped skimmer boat was remotely controlled from an onshore location and showed the capability for ENC-based mission planning, autonomous waypoint tracking, autonomous grid-line tracking, and collaborative autonomy for multi-vessel operations. A wireless remote payload control deployed on-board boom, skimmer belt and other response equipment.

Additionally, Sea Machines detailed how to operate the skimmer in an unmanned autonomous mode, which enables operators to respond to spill events 24/7 depending on recovery conditions, even when crews are restricted.

These configurations also reduce or eliminate exposure of crew members to challenging sea and weather, toxic fumes and other safety hazards.

“We’ve proven that our technology can be applied to the marine spill response industry—as well as other marine sectors—to protect the health and lives of mariners responding to spills,” Sea Machines founder and CEO Michael G. Johnson stated in a news release.

Autonomous technology also works underwater in response to oil leaks.

Engineers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recently developed a system that can autonomously detect and sample underwater oil plumes. Daniel Gomez-Ibanez, Amy L. Kukulya, and Abhimanyu Belani invented the Midwater Oil Sampler, which collects multiple 1-L samples of seawater when preset criteria are met.

According to an article the company authored and published in the April 2022 edition of Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, the sampler has a hydrocarbon-free sample path and can be configured with several modules of six glass sample bottles.

A REMUS 600 autonomous underwater vehicle was used for sampling, as it’s large enough to comfortably accommodate several 1-liter bottles, along with associated sensors. It can operate to a 600-meter (1,968-foot) depth.

For oil-spill response, the REMUS 600 AUV was configured with several in-situ sensors along with the newly developed Midwater Oil Sampler. The sensor suite included a Licor LI-192 photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) sensor, Seabird Sea-OWL fluorometer, Anderaa 4831F optode, Seascan Holocam and a GoPro Hero 3 video camera. 

In the JMSE article, the authors also share details from a multi-agency cooperative exercise that located, mapped and sampled naturally occurring oil seeps offshore of Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2019.

The fishing vessel Speranza Marie lays on its port side after running aground on Santa Cruz Island off the Southern California coast on Dec. 15, 2022. Photos: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm.


Another revolutionary change in the spill-response industry in recent years has been the use of drones. What previously required a helicopter or satellite imagery, can now be done with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), although it should be noted that mariners also need a remote pilot certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to operate one.

Remotely controlled drones have been incredibly helpful for continual surveillance, Harrington noted, calling them “instrumental for initial and continued assessments during oil spills.” 

Safe Harbor Pollution Insurance officials note on the firm’s website that “drones have the potential to be invaluable” for spill response teams. 

UAVs can help contain and control worst-case scenarios by improving situational assessments, reducing health and safety risks and deploying much faster than traditional aircraft. They can also help track offshore oil slicks and evaluate damage to vessels. 

“Response teams can use footage from drone flights to identify, map and measure oil buildup on coastlines, particularly in areas that can’t be accessed via foot,” the insurance officials note.

Authors Bilal Hammoud and Norbert When propose a wide-band radar on drone platforms, in an open-access book published in September from IntechOpen about advances in oil spill monitoring using drone-based radar remote sensing.

Hammoud and When, part of the Microelectronic Systems Design Research Group at Technical University in Germany, note that in order to reduce the impact of oil spills and respond faster to incidents, it’s crucial to have an efficient system to detect slicks, estimate thickness and determine oil classification. 

“This work shows that by processing radar power reflectivity values, taken from nadir-looking systems under weather conditions suitable for cleaning operations, thick oil-slick thicknesses (of) up to 10 mm can be detected, estimated and classified,” they explain in the chapter.

Radar systems on drones are capable of using “high spectral resolution and parallel scanning” to do that work and provide valuable information to contain the damage.

“Visible and ultraviolet cannot work at night. Moreover, infrared sensors cannot provide estimations of thicknesses. Therefore, we select radar sensors for the proposed monitoring system because they operate during the day and night and under all weather conditions,” Hammoud and When explain.

They suggest incorporating “both C-band and X-band using remote sensing nadir-looking wide-band radar sensors that can be implemented on drones as oil spill monitoring systems.”

“Our new approach targets the spills happening during calm and moderate ocean conditions, which are challenging for state-of-the-art SAR systems,” they stated. 

The idea aims to provide a complementary system to satellite SAR systems. 

“During the early stages of a possible oil spill, drone systems act as small-scale tactical-response systems improving the large-scale surveillance obtained by satellite systems,” Hammoud and When wrote. “Over the spill duration and based on satellite scans, the drones can track the spill using the high spatial resolution feature provided by the mounted wide-band radars.”

New technology is also helping improve software used in spill response.  

The Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services is working on a new data-visualization product that will include dissemination of surface current observations and predictions from high frequency radar stations in San Francisco Bay and elsewhere. 

The product’s expected to be available in late 2024. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials emphasized the benefit to oil spill response (and other services and programs) in a statement. The program provides surface current observations and tidal current predictions for coastal areas in near real time.

Global Technology

Around the world, experts are using modern tech for solutions to respond to even the smallest oil spills.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an Australian government agency responsible for scientific research, noted a need to need to quickly separate and remove oil from the seawater, including at very low concentrations. The government of Canada funded CSIRO scientists’ efforts to create the new spill-response technology, which focuses on removing these droplets.

The process includes taking a typical domestic sponge and coating it with a special superhydrophobic polystyrene-based polymer. The coating is also very efficient at separating oil from water emulsions, so the oil soaks into the sponge and the water wicks away.

The sponge material is cheap and scalable. It also can be easily recycled and reused after it’s been mechanically compressed.

“Best of all, our technology can be used after the bulk of the oil is removed,” CSIRO researchers explain on the group’s website. “This is when there the oil is at extremely low—but still environmentally harmful—concentration in the water. The hydrophobic sponges can separate oil from water even with extremely low concentrations (of) lower than 1000 ppm.”

The new technology allows oil spills to be cleaned at sea. 

“This is a cheaper, faster way to treat oil spills, ultimately helping reduce the impact on our marine life,” officials note.

The team is now scaling the synthesis of the materials and carrying out trials with the ultimate goal of large-scale deployment.

The technology for skimmers has improved in recent years as well, said Harrington, of Global Diving and Salvage, noting “advancement in skimmers, both in size and recovery efficiency.”  

CRUCIAL, Inc. manufactures and distributes oil spill containment and recovery equipment and has continually improved the design of disc and drum skimmers. 

The firm’s patented “fuzzy technology” has proven to be a game-changer. According to company officials, it’s increased recovery rate has been recognized and certified by the Coast Guard as among the highest recovery rates of any technology. 

The Louisiana-based company has also designed the Magna ORD disc skimmer, which has multiple sets of oil recovery discs for greater recovery capacity for larger, offshore spills.

Responding in freezing conditions also has challenges and training in these environments can make a difference during an actual incident. During a three-day oil-spill-on-ice response simulation early this year in Anchorage, Alaska, members of the Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Navy Supervisor of Salvage gained hands-on experience and practiced various response techniques.

SUPSALV’s contractor, Global PCCI simulated an oil spill on Otter Lake and demonstrated various containment and recovery methods suitable for arctic conditions. 

It was an opportunity to come together to exchange knowledge, practice recovery techniques and test equipment before an actual incident, said Lt. Andrew Ratti, Sector Anchorage, Incident Management Division, in a Feb. 3 statement.

“We’re learning the practical application of tactics and techniques, but we’re also networking to ensure better communication when we need to coordinate efforts at an actual incident,” Ratti said. 

Oil spill exercises provide a safe and collaborative environment where the response community can exchange ideas and concerns, added ADEC State On-Scene Coordinator Anna Carey. 

Current Buster

Other equipment used in spill-response work has been upgraded as well. 

Resolve Marine Manager Todd Duke pointed to some improvements QualiTech Environmental is working on with its Current Buster oil collection system.

The NOFI Current Buster technology is a high-speed containment system that incorporates temporary storage and oil/water separation, QualiTech Environmental Operations Manager Josh Clifford explained in an interview with Fishermen’s News.

“The technology has significantly changed the oil response industry for the betterment of the industry and the environment in the event of a release,” Clifford said.

The technology has been both tested and used successfully in 5 knots (five to 10 times faster than conventional methods), he added. The system has also been tested offshore, nearshore and in controlled test environments.

The company recently introduced the newly re-designed NOFI Current Buster 4, an update in the series of four systems (which include NOFI Current Busters 2, 6 and 8), Clifford explained.

The new NOFI Current Buster 4 incorporates some great advancements from the previous design including:

  • A more hydrodynamic shape.
  • And increased operational speed of 4.4 knots.
  • A larger oil water separator and storage tank.
  • Greater stability and improved performance in high-wave conditions.
  • Incorporated debris and wave dampeners.
  • Dedicated pump area; preparation for Integrated Pump System (IPS).
  • Double air-valve configuration for deployment and recovery from both sides.
  • Quick drain system for recovery.
  • A smaller floating net to minimize damage to net during deployment and recovery.

The Current Buster is often included in oil spill response plans utilizing vessels of opportunity, with fishing vessels being the backbone of the fleet/response program, Clifford said.

One of the largest response programs in the world is the Alaska-based Ship Escort Response Vessel System. Created in 1989, SERVS is meant to prevent oil spills and provide oil spill response and preparedness capabilities for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and the marine shipping companies that operate tankers calling at the Valdez Marine Terminal, according to the company’s website.

SERVS’ vessel-of-opportunity program, which started in 1990, contracts with more than 400 vessels and employs locals in oil spill response, specifically those working in the fishing industry.

They conduct extensive training throughout the year to maintain a state of readiness, Clifford added. A key part of the program is the NOFI Current Buster technology, due to its ease of use as well as the fact that the technology translates very well to the fishing industry. SERVS operates more than 50 NOFI Current Buster Systems, he confirmed. 

“The fishing industry plays an important role before, during and after an environmental response. It is very important that we protect the livelihoods of the folks in the industry as their local knowledge is invaluable to the response industry,” Clifford said. “There is certainly a need for strong partnership amongst the variety of industries ensuring the environment is best protected for future generations.”

Case Studies

Other equipment used in responding to oil and hazardous material spills makes it possible to perform precise and skilled work in tricky situations, as demonstrated in several recent cases.

On Aug. 13, the 58-foot fishing vessel Aleutian Isle sank 300 yards off San Juan Island, Wash., near Sunset Point. Everyone on board was rescued safely just before the vessel sank.  

Oil absorbent mat pads encompass the fishing vessel Bill Ketner in San Pedro, Calif. on Oct. 25, 2022. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

After weeks of complex dive operations, on Sept. 17, it was recovered from a depth of more than 250 feet in Haro Strait. It was towed to Mitchell Bay to provide divers and response crews a safer, shallower environment to prepare it for the final lift out from the water.  

“The unique environment of the San Juan Islands and location of the vessel made this a complicated and technical response,” Coast Guard Commander Kira Moody, the federal on-scene coordinator representative, explained in a statement.

Aleutian Isle had about 2,500 gallons diesel on board, along with about 100 gallons of hydraulic fluid and lube oil.

Responders used drones to capture imagery and track the sheen on the water. The drones, as explained by incident management division staff, utilized 4K cameras and were able to fly up to 400 feet into the air.

After drone and helicopter overflights confirmed a light visible sheen spanning about three miles—which reportedly entered Canadian waters—3,800 feet of absorbent boom was placed throughout the area.

Remotely operated vehicles assisted divers during the response effort as they reviewed the wreck site and worked to secure the fuel oil vents and clear away entanglement hazards. 

After Aleutian Isle was removed from the water, responders still monitored for any residual fuel that could impact the shoreline or wildlife for several days.

The local salmon fishery was also closed amid the response efforts. It reopened on Aug. 16, but a 1,000-yard safety zone remained in effect. Officials encouraged fishermen to avoid catching fish in areas where sheens were observed.

In another incident, the 70-foot fishing vessel Bill Ketner partially sank at the pier in San Pedro last October. The Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach Incident Management Division oversaw the successful four-day clean-up operation. The boat had a max capacity of 2,500 gallons of diesel onboard and was actively sheening.

Responders placed a boom to contain the impacts and the Coast Guard contacted NOAA to request trajectory support. Oil absorbent mat pads were used as a response organization raised the vessel using eight flotation air bags. The hull was patched, onboard fuel was removed and any leftover discharge in the water was cleaned up. 

“Our main priority of containing the pollution was met thanks to the cooperation and coordination with our port partners,” Petty Officer 2nd Class David Britt said in a statement. 

In addition, a unified command responded to the 60-foot fishing vessel Speranza Marie that ran aground by Chinese Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, Calif. A good Samaritan fishing vessel responded to the incident and safely rescued six crew members without injury and transported them to Ventura, Calif.

The grounding location was along the shores of the Channel Islands National Park and within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Coast Guard led the response with assistance from the National Park Service, NOAA, Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The vessel was carrying roughly 1,000 gallons of diesel. A boom was deployed to contain the spillage. Response teams stabilized the vessel and removed fuel and cargo to help salvage efforts and minimize environmental impact.   

Sara Hall has 15 years of experience at several regional and national magazines, online news outlets, and daily and weekly newspapers, where coverage has  included reporting on local harbor activities, marine-based news, and regional and state coastal agencies. Her work has included photography, writing, design and layout.