Skip to main content

Oil Spill and Disaster Management

Oil spill and disaster response begins years in advance with meticulous planning. FWRI’s Information Science and Management division has a detailed plan in place to protect Florida’s habitats in the event of disaster.


Disasters, whether natural or anthropogenic, can wreak havoc on ecosystems and pose significant threat to biodiversity, human health, and economic stability. Effective disaster management is a proactive endeavor that begins long before the onset of calamity; FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) boasts a team of dedicated scientists at the forefront of this effort. These scientists work diligently to formulate comprehensive action plans and stand ready to respond in the aftermath of hurricanes, pollutant spills, wildfires, and other environmental crises. In Florida, historical devastation brought by oil spills on wildlife, ecosystems, and the economy underscores the need for improved response strategies. In this regard, FWRI’s Information Science and Management group has implemented a three-phase system aimed at enhancing our preparedness, with preliminary planning as its inaugural phase.

Screenshot of an online mapping system with multiple colors for data layers and data points.

The Environmental Sensitivity Index Map used during response to visualize different shorelines, habitats, and species at risk. 

At the core of effective disaster control lies meticulous planning, particularly in the realm of coastal mapping and ecological assessment. Florida has a unique advantage compared to other states in the planning phase because of our dedicated research institute. FWRI fills a vital role in providing comprehensive assessments of the state’s ecosystems, habitats and species. Leveraging GIS technology and mapping efforts, FWRI staff scrupulously compile detailed biological evaluations for each segment of coastline habitat ranging from vast open beaches to the densest mangrove forests. FWRI scientists’ countless hours of surveys, field work, and data collection yield a statewide repository of habitat and species data with incredible depth and consistency. This wealth of information serves as the foundation for the Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI), a tool used to prioritize response efforts based on the status of imperiled species, habitat resilience, and the logistical challenges of intervention in a disaster. The ESI guides decision making and is used to identify areas of critical concern. FWRI was recently awarded a $1.5 million dollar grant from the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) fund to update our Gulf facing ESI regions. These updates will better reflect the current state of habitats along the Gulf of Mexico, therefore enhancing our response ability. 

FWRI’s Timyn Rice and his team bridge the gap between FWRI biological data and response operations, ensuring a seamless integration that optimizes conservation efforts. Rice says, “We are taking our scientists’ work and putting it to an important practical response application. In addition to the initial intent of the data for our scientists’ specific research, we can use it in a second application to further conserve the species they study.”  

In conjunction with FWRI, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) plays a pivotal role in coastal disaster response, with five Sector bases strategically positioned throughout Florida. These stations undergo rigorous training drills with local, state, and federal partners to prepare for large scale oil spills, further displaying the collaboration necessary in disaster management.  

FWRI scientists work with the USCG to create Geographic Response Strategies tailored to maximize the efficacy of response efforts. The Geographic Response Strategies utilize the Environmental Sensitivity Index to prioritize areas of critical concern in disaster. This proactive approach minimizes confusion and delay and ensures a prompt and coordinated response. Moreover, FWRI's initiatives extend beyond state borders, facilitating the development of Geographic Response Strategies with our response partners across the southeastern United States from South Carolina to Alabama and to Puerto Rico to preemptively ease the response to future disaster events.  

In October 2023, Hurricane Idalia produced a large oil spill of unknown origin near Port Manatee in Palmetto, Florida. This large spill prompted a focused response effort aimed at safeguarding the nearby sensitive mangrove habitat and bird nesting areas identified through the Geographic Response Plan. Once the spill was contained using booms, response teams were able to begin cleanup and removal of the oil pollutants. A specialized pressure cleaning device was used to remove even the smallest accretions of oil and scientists were able to ensure that no oil residue was transferrable to wildlife or could cause ecological harm. Timely response and smart control of the area helped minimize the effects of the spill and prevent permeation in highly sensitive ecosystems. 

The final phase of disaster management entails comprehensive restoration efforts, essential for abating the long-term effects of environmental crises. This phase is multifaceted and tailored to the specific needs of each affected ecosystem, aiming to repair damage inflicted by both the initial disaster and subsequent response actions. A poignant example is the case of the El Dorado, a 150-foot dilapidated casino boat stranded on a shallow seagrass bed in St. Andrews Bay, Panama City, during Hurricane Michael. FWC and the USCG conducted complex salvage operations, removing hazardous materials and moving the vessel across approximately 1000 feet of shallow seagrass habitat to deeper water where it could be parbuckled, refloated, and removed to an offshore artificial reef location. The soft bottom and seagrass habitat was left cratered from the boat, and a large area of seagrass was damaged during the removal process. Subsequent restoration efforts aimed at repairing the ecological damage left by El Dorado exemplify the holistic approach to disaster management, where planning, response, and restoration converge seamlessly to safeguard our ecosystems. Grant funds recently allocated will ensure further effort to restore this once healthy seagrass bed.

Two images show a large white boat on its side in a large body of water. The left image shows the boat stationary with other vessels around. The right image shows the boat being moved across the water.

Left: The team parbuckles and refloats El Dorado to begin the removal process. Two towing lines are used to gain rotational leverage and encourage the boat to float upright once again. Residual oil and other pollutants are controlled using booms. Right: Damage to the seagrass and a crater left by El Dorado. Funding has recently been allocated to fully restore this area and others in St. Andrews Bay. Read more about this project and other restoration efforts on our webpage.

Effective disaster management in the scope of environmental conservation demands a complex approach encompassing planning, response, and restoration. The collaborative efforts of institutions like FWRI and the USCG exemplify the importance of preemptive preparation in mitigating the adverse impacts of disasters and ensuring our wildlife can rebound swiftly. Through meticulous planning, smooth response actions, and specialized restoration efforts, we can enhance the resilience of ecosystems and promote conservation.