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Stewards of the shoreline: A handful of alumni help mitigate damage wrought by the Golden Ray cargo ship

The view out Jared Flowers’ office window has changed a bit in the past year.

Flowers (BSFR ’04) is marine biologist supervisor for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division. Last August, he could see boats drifting by as they headed out of Oglethorpe Bay and Brunswick’s port. But today, the view is dominated by barges, cranes and a 665-foot cargo ship lying on its side.

Crews lift a section of the rudder from the Golden Ray“It happened over a weekend, in the middle of the night,” says Flowers, recalling the evening in September 2019 when the ship, loaded with about 4,000 cars, capsized and caught fire in St. Simons Sound. “My wife and I saw the news reports and we hopped in our car. We drove over the bridge to get a good view of the sound and we were like, ‘Wow.’”

From that moment forward, the professional landscape for Flowers and his coworkers changed as dramatically as the view. The Coastal Resources Division, a team of about 60 professionals, is tasked with managing Georgia’s marshes, beaches and marine fishery resources. So, when a cargo ship capsizes within view of all of these, they’re going to be involved.

But along with their care and diligence for the marshes and fisheries along Georgia’s coastline, several key decision-makers in the Brunswick office also share a connection to the University of Georgia. Flowers’ supervisor, Carolyn Belcher (PHD ’08), is chief of marine fisheries for the Coastal Resources Division. Her supervisor, Doug Haymans (BS ’90) is director of the division. And Warnell graduate Clay George (MS ’02), is a senior biologist for the agency.

Since September, they have been working alongside representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, Gallagher Marine and, more recently, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to assist with cleanup and salvage of the wreck. “It gives you an appreciation for other peoples’ field of science,” says Belcher. “For something like this, the responding agency is typically the EPD, because they are involved in the environmental contamination part of it. But EPD is not trained in the ecological impacts. We’re looking at it from the perspective of how much marsh was affected? Does it impact the fisheries? For us, there’s a whole suite of people involved.”

 

IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING

Agencies plan for a number of horrific events—natural disasters or hostage situations, for example, might be a worst-case scenario you can wrap your head around. In federal agency terms, it’s called “critical incident management training,” and it involves taking a group approach to managing a disaster. When a variety of agencies are involved, each handles a portion of it, with cooperation between the agencies coming through a command center. That central component involves all the leads on the project, striking a balance of numbers and expertise to keep it manageable.

“I’ve been in my current position two years and I think the training was during the fall of my first year,” says Belcher. “It gives functionality within that group; we’ve all been exposed to that training.”

In the case of the Golden Ray, there are three main parties handling the operation, adds Haymans: A “responsible party,” or the private company responsible for the ship; the federal party, this this case the U.S. Coast Guard; and the state party. This was Haymans’ team until recently. Now that the cargo ship is largely contained and is now being prepared to be cut apart, the state Environmental Protection Division now represents Georgia during the recovery efforts.

A crane lifts a 150-foot-wide section of netting, which will serve as the environmental protection barrier surrounding the motor vessel Golden Ray. The custom-made netting stretches from the seabed to above the surface of the water and catches potential debris as the vessel is being cut and removed, while marine life may safely swim through it. The netting was installed in May. JAIME SANCHEZ-PEREZ/UNIFIED COMMANDWhich means Haymans and his team can focus on monitoring the shoreline for oil or other environmental issues. Termed SCAT for shoreline cleanup assessment team, this responsibility involves going out into the marshes and surveying for potential pollution. And this is where the Coastal Resources Division shines, as its biologists have specific knowledge of the area’s geography and tides.

“I manage part of the group under the marine fisheries section. Biologists who work for me have most of the experience working in and around the sound. We have the local knowledge,” says Flowers. “We have tricky tides here and some of them who have worked the area know where there may be sandbars.”

But even the SCAT trips are a team project—crews represent all parties involved. If pollution is found, an assessment is made and the group has to sign off on the assessment. Then, the group looks at remediation solutions.

 

LEARNING SOMETHING NEW

But Flowers admits, this is a new aspect of his job. When the Golden Ray came to a rest on its side, Flowers had been in his position just under a year. Until then, he was primarily looking at fisheries and sampling fish for management plans.

Belcher, too, has taken on new responsibilities in the past year—although, as an administrator, her role was assisting with logistics or connecting others working on the project to the right sources. She previously held Flowers’ position and came up through the ranks as a field biologist. When the central command center was set up, Belcher found herself sitting at a table in a hotel conference room assisting with reviewing documents or getting the right equipment into the right hands.

But she says she appreciates the overall experience. And thankfully, the ship hasn’t brought the environmental damage it could have.

“We have sensitive areas, like Bird Island. (The contractor) put a boom around the island to keep it protected. If we had a more active biota kill, in terms of the fish, we probably would have been more involved,” adds Belcher. “And, we have a coastal ornithologist and marine mammal biologist who are being attentive to what’s happening with the marsh birds and marine mammal populations.”

The plan was to stabilize the cargo ship, then position a crane over it to cut through the boat in sections, removing swaths of metal and carrying them away for scrap. Ideally, this would have been done before June 1, the start of hurricane season. But with equipment delays and now COVID-19, progress has stalled. At press time, nine members of the crew set to dismantle the ship had tested positive for the coronavirus, and with hurricane season looming, questions remain about the value of pushing forward on a skeleton crew.

While the next steps remain in flux, though, Haymans says he’s thankful for the training he and his team received. It put them in step with their federal partners and made for a smooth response to something that could have been an environmental disaster.

“Even though it’s not our normal operations, it would be nice to get some training in oil spills or these types of environmental disasters,” notes Haymans, when asked what he had learned from the experience. “But, it’s fortunate that in the past 18 to 24 months, DNR has taken critical incident management training very seriously. We’ve had enough hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms and floods to know that we have an infrastructure to work with other entities, which prepared a lot of people to understand the unified command process.”

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