Oil crisis response

The Sacramento region sent teams of scientists to the Gulf spill. SN&R asks them: Is the worst really over?

Workers are seen here at the triage center on Grand Isle, La., attempting to rescue a pelican that was oiled in the Gulf crisis.

Workers are seen here at the triage center on Grand Isle, La., attempting to rescue a pelican that was oiled in the Gulf crisis.

Photo By Steve Martarano, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

For more information about the oil-spill-response team at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, go to www.owcn.org.

Four months after an explosion released an estimated 206 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, 23 sea turtles were released on August 18 into the ocean off southwest Florida.

The first rescued turtles released were Kemp’s ridley turtles, one of five endangered and threatened species native to the Gulf. They’re among the nearly 500 visibly oiled turtles being rehabilitated by scientists who selected the area on Florida’s Gulf coast for release because it is an important foraging area for the species, the water was never oiled and the habitat provides everything these turtles need for survival.

Since recovery efforts began immediately after the April 20 explosion, more than 1,000 sea turtles have been collected. More than half of those were dead—not all due to oil—but only three of those rescued have died in captivity. For Michael Ziccardi, who leads the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis and in mid-August handed over responsibility for coordinating rescue efforts for turtles and other mammals in the Gulf, that’s a success. Still, he worries: “We’re holding them longer than we’d like.”

Ziccardi’s crew was only one of many teams from the Sacramento region who brought specialized help to the Gulf during its time of crisis.

The Gulf is home to five species of turtles, including the also-endangered green, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles. As oil threatened to destroy future generations of sea turtles during the hatching season, biologists relocated more than 250 nests from Alabama and the Florida panhandle safely by working with FedEx to devise a vehicle to protect the eggs from jostling during transit. More than 8,600 primarily loggerhead hatchlings—a threatened species, which may be reclassified as endangered as a result of this spill—have been released into the Atlantic.

The relocation is the largest-scale nest moving in history, said Ziccardi.

A veterinarian and international expert on wildlife rescue who’s responded to more than 45 oil spills, Ziccardi explained his view on why UC Davis got the call to coordinate turtle and other mammal recovery efforts: “We were called on to lead this effort because we have the best wildlife response program in the world.”

Additionall, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sent 70 biologists, contamination specialists and PR staffers from California and Nevada to the Gulf. Twenty-three of those came from the Sacramento office, including Terry Adelsbach, a senior biologist with expertise in endangered species and contamination.

So far, Adelsbach has spent nearly two months in two rotations as the lead biologist for reconnaissance and recovery on Grand Isle, La.—an area of water and marshland covering some 600 to 800 square miles. From one of a dozen boats staffed by biologists, he netted oiled birds on the open water and in the marshes where they had retreated or were nesting in rookeries. Most were brown pelicans, which were removed just last November from the endangered species list, and through October will be in the fragile fledgling stages of their life cycles.

In an interview before he returned to the Gulf last Thursday, Adelsbach recalled having to make difficult decisions about whether attempting to rescue oiled birds might cause more damage to breeding colonies.

Of the 6,373 birds collected as of August 19, 4,432 were dead. Four thousand showed signs of visible oil. But the good news is that as of early August, more than 800 birds had been released back into the Gulf according to the International Bird Rescue Research Center. In addition to brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, skimmers, gulls and terns are among the many species affected.

Given some good news for wildlife in recent weeks and the cap holding firm on BP’s busted well in the Gulf for more than a month now, does that mean animal lovers and wildlife biologists can now breathe a sigh of relief?

Not by a long shot.

Recovery efforts are continuing. In just two days in the first week of August, some 100 oiled turtles were collected. Boats from three ports continued to search for oiled turtles and other sea life. Daily flights staffed by scientists are being made, and recovery efforts along the shoreline and in marshes are ongoing.

And Ziccardi promised, “Wildlife efforts will continue as long as there are oiled animals out there.”

Sacramento sent multiple teams of experts to rescue wildlife in the Gulf, like the pelicans and gulls seen here in an oiled habitat in Barataria Bay.

Photo By Steve Martarano, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Even if the well is capped permanently, there’s still risk. Steve Edinger, administrator of the Sacramento-based California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which has deployed 50 employees to assess damage and evaluate resources and technologies in the Gulf, said, “As long as there is oil in the environment, there will be damage.”

The problem is that much of the 206 million gallons of oil released by the broken well is unaccounted for, and no one knows where it is.

“We’re no longer able to locate recoverable or skimmable oil, but it’s not true that there’s no oil left,” Adelsbach said. “There is still sheen and oil coming to the surface, and the beaches haven’t been completely cleaned.”

And there’s fear about unknowable damage that could result from oil filtered onto to the ocean floor or diluted in the water column by dispersants.

Under contract to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since immediately after the explosion, OSPR staffers have been helping to assess oil thickness in order to position booms and skimmers in the best spots, conduct damage assessments, and evaluate the best equipment and processes. California’s plan for use of dispersants in oils spills was employed in the Gulf, though the controversial subsurface use of dispersants is not part of that plan, since the procedure is not permitted in the state.

“I couldn’t come up with a scenario where we would do that here,” Edinger said, though he hastened to add that he isn’t questioning the decision. “We’re looking forward to the science on that.”

Scientists are looking to what they can learn from the largest oil spill in the country’s history. Ziccardi hopes others will model recovery and rehabilitation efforts on his how his organization operates and welcomes what’s been learned about caring for sea turtles in case he needs those lessons learned for future spills. Others talk about experiences in this catastrophe they hope will improve response the next time—because history has taught that there’s bound to be a next time.

These kinds of comments by scientists are infused with guilt, however, because they, like no one else, understand the high cost to wildlife and the environment.

Just how high is that cost?

That’s another unknown.

Though small in comparison to the world’s top oil spills—including the intentional release of some 380 to 520 million gallons into the Persian Gulf by the Iraqis in an attempt to keep Americans from landing in that country—the Exxon Valdez disaster is often held up as America’s worst spill. The damage of the 206 million-gallon Gulf of Mexico spill will be less gallon for gallon than the destruction wrought by the 11 million gallons of crude oil unleashed on the pristine Prince William Sound in 1989. More than 20 years later, oil is still being spotted, and the herring population has yet to recover.

Billons of salmon and herring eggs were destroyed. Estimates are that 300 harbor seals perished, as did 250 bald eagles and two dozen killer whales. Although only 35,000 bird carcasses were recovered, scientists estimate that between 250,000 and 600,000 birds were killed by oil from the Exxon Valdez.

The differences are accounted for by a number of factors. Geography of the Sound spread the oil along 1,100 miles of the Alaska shoreline, whereas the Gulf eruption happened some 40 to 50 miles offshore. The differences in type of crude made a difference as well. In a settlement, Exxon ultimately paid $1 billion for the damage to wildlife from the 1989 spill. It will be some time before the full cost in the Gulf is estimated. When asked what he thinks the damage to wildlife might cost BP, Adelsbach only laughed and said, “It’s going to be substantial.”

The bottom line is that scientists still don’t know what the immediate and continuing cost to wildlife will be from the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. There are no estimates yet of what percentage of harmed animals is being recovered, nor of the potential damage to such things as fish larvae, important for the continued cycle of life in the area.

Teams are now shifting from emergency response to planning for something BP calls “right-sizing,” which is essentially a scaling back of efforts for the long term. Edinger says OSPR’s plans run through November, but he expects his Sacramento teams will continue working through the spring at least. Adelsbach said U.S. Fish & Wildlife will have a presence in the area anywhere from five to 15 years or more. Ziccardi hopes recovery is years away, rather than the decades it’s taken to return Alaska’s Prince William Sound to relative health.

“We still don’t know what the devastation is going to be,” Edinger said. “I’m not willing to say that the damage in the Gulf is less that the damage from the Exxon Valdez spill. Louisiana has 40 percent of the coastal wetlands for the entire United States—the damage is devastating.”

Add to that worries about as many as a billion birds migrating through the Gulf each year, and it’s easy to see why biologists still aren’t breathing easy. Workers are preparing now for the annual migration. Adelsbach sums it up: “Vigilance is going to be the key to keeping the effects from spreading to previously unaffected areas and species beyond the Gulf.”