Every Bird Matters
news and views from international bird rescue

Oil Spill Response

January 20, 2001

2001 – Jessica – Galapagos Islands

Overview of the Galapagos Oil Spill

  • The spill occured on January 16, 2001 approximately 870 yards off San Cristobal Island, one of the Galapagos Islands.
  • At least 22 oiled pelicans were returned to the wild. Over 100 animals were affected during the spill.
  • Nearly 200,000 gallons of diesel and bunker crude oil spilled from Ecuadorean tanker Jessica.
  • Aerial surveillance showed oil slick spread intermittently in an area of 300 square miles.
  • The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador’s coast in the Pacific Ocean, are famous for their giant tortoises and rare species of birds and plants. The islands were the basis for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
June 30, 2000

2000 – Treasure Spill – South Africa

Helping save 20,000 oiled penguins in Cape Town

Oiled African Penguin before capture. Photo: Jon Hrusa/IFAW

On June 23, 2000 the damaged bulk ore carrier MV Treasure sank off the coast of South Africa between Dassen and Robben islands, which support the largest and third largest colonies of African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), worldwide. The worldwide population of African penguins is numbered at less than 180,000 and dwindling. The ship spilled over 1,300 tons of bunker oil, which immediately oiled thousands of penguins on and around the islands.

The International Bird Rescue Research Center response team was immediately mobilized by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) who helped organize the rehabilitation effort of over 20,000 oiled penguins.

In addition to the rehabilitation program, there was a massive pre-emptive capture program initiated on the islands and it was successful in relocating over 19,500 non-oiled penguins. At this time, over 90% of the oiled birds have been rehabilitated and released.

While the number of oiled birds was staggering, the IBRRC response team was experienced with large scale spills effecting penguins, as they have responded to three previous spills in Cape Town, the largest of which was the Apollo Sea spill.

In 1994, six years previous to the Treasure spill, almost 10,000 African penguins were oiled from the sinking of the Apollo Sea bulk ore carrier. Of those oiled penguins, over 4,700 were rehabilitated and released. Immediately after the Apollo Sea spill, local trustees in Cape Town began a monitoring program on the nearby breeding islands of Robben and Dassen. Biologists have spent the last six years monitoring these breeding colonies and have found that seventy-five percent of the rehabilitated birds have been seen on the island and that the birds were breeding at normal mortality rates three years post spill.

While these study results are very exciting, the International Bird Rescue Research Center continues to research the effects of oil on wildlife in an effort to provide the best achievable care for oiled animals. Our protocols have advanced greatly since 1994, as research has shown new and better ways to provide care to oiled animals. With new advancements in the field, there is strong evidence that a much higher percentage of the oiled penguins from the Treasure spill will survive to breed again.

Within ten days of the Treasure spill, 20,251 oiled African penguins had been admitted into the rehabilitation center in Cape Town. The International Fund for Animal Welfare funded a major portion of the rehabilitation effort, bringing in the IBRRC response team and many other supervisors from around the country. The local rehabilitation center, The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) worked in unison with the International Team to provide care for the oiled birds.

Photo of Salt River Treasure oiled Penguin rescue

Rescued African Penguins were treated by staff and volunteers at Salt River in an old railroad maintenance yard. Photo: Jon Hrusa/IFAW

By late August over 18,000 oiled Africa penguins had been rehabilitated and released, 90% of all the oiled birds captured. Of the 20,251 brought in for care, 1,957 died or were euthanized. The rehabilitation effort lasted over twelve weeks.

Although this rehabilitation effort was the largest of its kind in the world, there were many factors that helped to make it so successful. After a large oil spill, it is imperative a wildlife response team is immediately mobilized, in the case of the Treasure spill, the IBRRC Oiled Wildlife Team was mobilized the same day the ship went down.

Our experience in managing oil spills, particularly large-scale operations has taught us what is needed in terms of facilities, human resources, equipment and supplies. It was apparent within hours of the Treasure spill that there would be thousands of birds oiled and that the team needed to prepare for the worst case scenario. A huge railway warehouse was secured for use as the rehabilitation center, over five acres of covered space was utilized to house the 20,251 African penguins. In addition to the indoor space, over six acres was used for pens and pools to house the clean birds while they were bringing up their waterproofing.

The logistics of caring for over 20,000 birds is monumental and during the twelve-week rehabilitation process, more than 130 International Team members supervised over 45,000 different volunteers. Additionally, 400 tons of fish was fed to the birds (some days as much as 10 tons), 7,000 tons of beach sand was brought in for bird pens and 302 25-liter jugs of detergent were used.

Very strict pre-release criteria were set for the African penguins in rehabilitation to ensure that when released they had the best possible chance of survival. Many of the birds that were released in Cape Town have already been seen on the islands, paired up and producing new eggs.

We have also learned from the research of the University of Cape Town, Avian Demographics Unit and the Cape Nature Conservation that the rehabilitation of oiled penguins has become a necessary and vital conservation tool due to the vulnerable status of the Africa Penguin. Prior to release, each bird was given a permanent flipper band to aid in continued field research.

Cleaned of oil at the MV Treasure spill in Cape Town, African Penguins were released back into the wild. The temporary pink marking helped researchers track the seabirds. Photo: Jon Hrusa/IFAW

 

February 17, 1996

1996 – Pribilof Island – Alaska

Seaducks affected by remote Pribilof Island, Alaska oil spill

During the period between February 17 – 20, 1996 numerous reports of oiled birds beaching themselves on the shores of St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands began to come in the the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Alaska office. While no spill incident had been reported nor oil slick identified, the numbers of oiled birds prompted an investigation by USFWS biologists.

King Eiders in conditioning pool after being cleaned of oil. Photo © International Bird Rescue

By February 21, International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) was notified that there were several hundred oiled birds on the beaches of St. Paul Island. The majority of these birds were King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis ), a large northern seaduck that winters in the waters of the Bering Sea. During this time period, these birds were moving into their breeding season and the males showed their spectacular breeding plumage.

Later is was determined that the M/V Citrus spilled bunker-C fuel oil into the surrounding island areas.

The Pribilofs are a group of small, rocky islands set in the Bering Sea approximately 750 miles southwest of Anchorage, AK and north of the Aleutian Island chain. Also known as the Seal Islands, for the large population of fur seals that breed here, the two largest islands in this group are St. Paul and St. George. Many species of seabirds breed and reside in the Pribilofs and are vulnerable to the effects of an oil spill.

Initial Response

Three members of the IBRRC response team arrived in Anchorage the evening of February 21, 1996. At that time, two common murres ( Uria aalge ) had already arrived at the Alaska Wildlife Response Center (AWRC) in Anchorage from St. Paul island. The AWRC is maintained by IBRRC for the purpose of oil spill training and response in the state of Alaska. It is jointly funded by Alaska Clean Seas, a spill response organization, and Alyeska Pipeline Services, a cooperative of some of the largest oil production companies in Alaska.

Because IBRRC had been notified that there were perhaps two to three hundred oiled king eiders and other birds on the beaches of St. Paul island and many more in surrounding waters, two IBRRC response team members left for St.Paul on February 22. These two response team members, Curt Clumpner and Ken Brewer, were to be on site to conduct search and collection once USFWS finished their assessment and determined that it was necessary to initiate a full scale spill response. In addition, they were to assess facilities on St. Paul to see if any of them were suitable for conducting the entire rehabilitation process for these oiled birds. Because no adequate facilities were found, the decision was made to capture and stabilize the birds on St. Paul, then fly them to AWRC in Anchorage for the remainder of their rehabilitation.

pribilof_island_alaska_map copyTransporting oiled birds

An important and noteworthy point is that the transport of these birds from St. Paul Island to Anchorage took up to six hours per trip and went very well. Commercial airline flights were available between St. Paul and Anchorage on a daily basis except for Sundays and weather permitting. The actual flight time was three hours. Once the birds are caged and ready for transport they must arrive at the airport up to two hours prior to the flight so that they can be loaded with other cargo. The animals are gavaged just before they are caged and are immediately rehydrated once they arrive at the AWRC.

The birds seemed to handle the transport without much additional stress. During one flight, an IBRRC staff member was able to assess their behavior by entering the cargo area in mid-flight and observe. Most birds spent their time sleeping and there was no indication of any escape behavior. During the return Dark areas help to reduce stress in captive wild birds. During the flight they were kept in a dark holding area that is ventilated and heated. The return flight was equally well coordinated and all birds were released in calm and healthy condition.

Once IBRRC team members were in place on St. Paul, it was obvious that many of the beached birds from the initial estimate of 200 to 300 birds were already dead after being eaten by Arctic foxes. Oiled birds were being found in all locations on the island, with the majority on the leeward side of the island. By Feb. 25, an estimated 1,000 oiled birds and carcasses were present on the island with 500 carcasses already collected. At this point, there were already 29 birds that had been sent to AWRC in Anchorage. During the next week, another 157 live birds would be collected, though not all of these birds were oiled. While most of the birds were netted by hand, the use of mist nets and spotlighting the birds at night also enabled more lightly oiled birds to be captured. 144 of the collected birds were king eiders but other species such as old squaw, common murres, crested auklets, red-faced and pelagic cormorants and pigeon guillemots were also represented.

Eiders were captured in mist nets. Photo © International Bird Rescue

The type of oil in this spill was identified as a Bunker grade crude. Two team members, Mark Russell of IBRRC and Dr. Vicky Vosburg from the Sitka Raptor Center managed the stabilization site that was identified to stabilize the birds prior to transport. The majority of birds admitted were very thin to emaciated, having lost an average of 35 to 40% from established normal body weights. In addition, most were dehydrated and had copious diarrhea, further evidence of severe malnutrition. Abrasions were noted on the posterior aspect of the tarsometatarsal bones and hock joints in some of the birds – possibly from sitting on hard surfaces such as ice flows and boulders when forced out of the water by hypothermia. Two of the birds had wounds consistent with predator attacks. Stabilization efforts consisted of restoring normal core body temperature, removing any oil from eyes, nares and glottis, starting to correct dehydration by oral, SQ or IV fluid administration and giving an activated charcoal product, Toxiban (Vet-A-Mix, Shenandoah, IA), orally to aid in toxin adsorption.;
Bloodwork taken on admission to AWRC revealed that while very few of these birds suffered from anemia, many had very low total protein values, presumably from malnutrition. Remarkably, out of 31 king eiders that presented with total protein values of 1.0 g/dl or less on admission, 21 of these birds survived to release.

Once out of the hospital and following intake procedures, the birds were housed in 4′ by 8′ wooden pens that were divided into three equal sections. The pens were raised 2′ off the ground by wooden legs and the substrate was tightly strung cotton netting. This sea bird housing design was developed by IBRRC to protect feathering by allowing droppings to fall though, to provide adequate airflow and to deter the formation of hock and keel lesions. The pens are covered by light colored sheets to provide ease of access, limit injury to birds that attempt to jump up or out, and most importantly to reduce visual stimulus. Birds were housed in groups of 3-6 per section. Floor drains in the area allowed for hosing off of droppings after each feeding and whenever necessary (approximately 6 times daily).

Every other day, the birds were weighed, a blood sample taken, and their keels and feet were checked for lesions that are associated with being out of water. This information was used to monitor overall health, to determine individual feeding regimes and to determine when each individual was ready to proceed to the washing stage. Packed cell volumes of 30% or higher, total protein values of 2.0 g/dl or higher, together with weight gains and behavioral criteria enabled IBRRC to determine when birds were ready to be washed.

The type of nutritional diet administered was also dictated by these blood values. Birds with a total proteins of <2g/dl received Ensure (Ross Laboratories, Columbus, OH), a human elemental diet which is easier for them to digest in a debilitated condition. Birds with total proteins of >2g/dl but not ready for washing due to low body weight, injury or poor blood values received “Inside” mix. This formula is high fat, high protein and calorie dense. It is used only for birds not housed in water or for birds scheduled for washing within 24 hours. The birds with improved protein level and adequate weights and behavior were started on “Outside” mix 24 hours prior to being washed. This formula is modified and contains reduced amounts of fat. It is not as calorie dense as the “Inside” mix, but it can be used for birds being housed in water. If birds are fed a diet too high in oil their droppings contain some of this fat and oil which rises to the surface of the water and re-contaminates clean feathers . This can lead to compromised waterproofing and is avoided. The three formulas above were administered by gavage.

All birds were gavaged three times daily with a rehydrating solution of Pedialyte to avoid dehydration prior to being washed.  Once birds were clean and waterproof they had full access to water in the pools and these tubings were no longer required. One hour after each hydrating gavage the birds were tube fed a nutritional diet. All birds were nutritionally gavaged three times daily alternating with the hydrating gavages. The birds were given a two hour rest period after each of these nutritional feedings. Initially, the feeding schedule consisted of up to 900 individual tubings daily. Therefore, although the birds were given a break in between gavages, the staff was going constantly. As soon as the last bird was fed the staff cleaned up and set up for the next gavage and started again. This schedule was intensive and required a staff of three IBRRC supervisors and 6-8 volunteers per shift minimum. The supervisors administered all the gavages and the volunteers assisted with the capture and holding of the birds.

Once the birds had progressed to “Inside” mix they were offered whole Night Smelt. These fish where individually quick frozen and shipped from Washington State. Before these arrived we used donated, locally available Hooligan that were a good size, but proved too oily for the pools. For animals that did not readily eat from bowls, individual fish were “bounced” on the net bottoms of the pens to get their attention. With a little work most birds began to self-feed from bowl and tube feedings were lessened accordingly. The fish were provided in clean bowls 4 times a daily and those birds that were not eating from bowls were thrown fish 4 times daily.

Birds were washed according to IBRRC protocols developed over years of working with oiled wildlife. Photo © International Bird Rescue

After washing, rinsing and drying, the birds were placed in one of four large indoor pools. All pools were equipped with “haul-out” areas for birds to climb on for more intense preening or if they have a problem with waterproofing during the night. These haul-outs are rectangular PVC pipe framed netting with floats and were affixed to the side of the pool. Fresh water was constantly flowing through the pools 24hrs a day to provide surface skimming. The water was 32 degrees Fahrenheit and was mechanically softened to a hardness of 30-50 mg calcium carbonate per liter. The water used came from the main at this temperature and this is colder than we usually have access to. The cold water was acceptable to the birds and also aided in keeping the pools cleaner probably because of less fish oil dispersal through the water column. These pools required cleaning a minimum of twice daily. This cleaning was carefully performed with large siphon hoses and scrub brushes. Care was taken during cleaning to not stir up contaminants that were being siphoned from the pool floor. Maintenance of water quality is vital to maintain the birds waterproofing ability.

These birds readily ate fish thrown in the pools. Once birds were eating only fish every attempt was made to give one fish to each bird daily that contained a B1 (thiamine) supplement. This supplement was provided to avoid thiamine deficiency associated with thiaminase in frozen fish. Thawed fish was thrown to the birds in the pools every hour from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00p.m. with additional feedings at 8:00 p.m. and 11:00p.m. The increase in scheduled feedings was to facilitate the weight gains towards the release criteria. At this time the male and female Eiders were segregated into different pools. This was done to reduced stress and increase feeding behavior by the females. Once all the birds (131) were in pools we fed out approximately 120 pounds of fish a day, or .9 pounds per bird. The feeding of fish was relatively simple and significantly less labor intensive than the gavaging necessary prior to washing. The fish feeding program consisted of one or more individuals tossing freshly thawed fish by small handfuls towards the birds. The birds became stimulated to feed by this activity and would catch fish at the surface, from each other or dive for the ones that sank. Initially, the birds were stimulated to the point of feeding frenzy with lot’s of aggression and competition. As the birds gained weight this behavior tapered off and feedings were less frenzied. This was also probably due to the birds becoming accustomed to the feeding procedure and schedule. Small amounts of fish were left in the pool bottoms and on the haul-outs. Too much fish left in the pools or excess of fish eaten in a short period of time results in too much oil being dispersed into the pools and this could compromise all waterproofing capability of the feathers. The feedings were closely monitored by staff to prevent overfeeding.

Additionally, each bird received prophylactic anti-fungal treatments daily, given at the first and last gavage. This prophylactic treatment is administered as a preventative against aspergillosis (Aspergillus fumagatus) infections. Aquatic species of birds, especially sea birds, have proven especially susceptible to this fungal infection of the lungs and air sacs when in captivity. IBRRC has used this drug successfully in the past to treat species that previously were difficult or impossible to rehabilitate due to aspergillosis infection. The drug used was Itraconazole (Sporanox) by Janssen Pharmaceuticals (Piscataway, NJ) at 10 mg/kg orally twice daily prior to washing. The average weight of the birds in care of each species was used to determine the general dosage. The treatments were reduced to once daily once the birds were in the pools. This reduced stress by reducing the number of times a bird had to be caught and removed from the pool and minimized the risk of capture related injury. Ventilation was also increased when birds went to pools by opening large roll-up doors in the aniimal holding area. IBRRC has found that stress and lack of ventilation are primary contributors to infection.

All birds were also treated one time while in care with a vitamin B Complex and iron dextran injection to facilitate red blood cell replacement. Many of the king eiders presented to the facility were passing tape worms and it was decided to treat all birds of this species with one injection of praziquantel (Droncit, Haver/Diamond Scientific, Shawnee, KS) against this parasite to facilitate weight gain and general health.

  • Birds treated – 165
  • Released – 127
  • Release rate – 77%

Release

IBRRC was able to aid in the development of the release plan with USFWS. Goals of this plan included releasing healthy birds to optimize their chances of survival in a marine environment with extreme and variable weather conditions, releasing near land and prime feeding areas, and releasing in an area of minimal human disturbance. Release criteria included use of minimal acceptable weights, normal hematology values, normal physical examinations, normal feeding and diving behavior in captivity and impeccable waterproofing. All birds had tarsal and culmen lengths measured by USFWS and were Federally banded prior to release. Birds were flown back to St. Paul island for release accompanied by IBRRC or USFWS personnel. A total of 126 birds were released by March 23, 1996. The survival rate at the completion of this response was 78%.

Summary

The goal of the rehabilitation effort was to provide proper nutritional, medical and housing needs to restore the animals to normal condition. The success of this response was due to several important factors. First, the qualified and experienced staff which included seven IBRRC response team members at the center and five at the capture and stabilization site. Of additional importance was the large volunteer pool from the community and petroleum industry. Over 150 volunteers were used, of whom a dozen were previously trained by IBRRC and another dozen were Bird TLC volunteers who regularly work with injured wildlife. Another important factor in this rehabilitation program was the effectiveness of the capture, stabilization and medical programs that directly affected the condition of the animals admitted to the rehabilitation program and increased their chance of recovery. Of equal importance was the preexistence of an adequate facility with necessary equipment and supplies. Although upgrades to this facility were necessary during this response, the already operational facility expedited the success or this effort. The hardiness of the species, especially the king eiders, certainly added to the success.

March 24, 1989

1989 – Exxon Valdez – Alaska

Exxon Valdez oil spill left its mark on Alaska, history of spill response

One of the nation’s worst oil spills occurred in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. At least 11 million gallons of crude oil spewed out of the Exxon Valdez tanker after it struck Bligh Reef in the early morning hours. While only 20% of its cargo leaked into the surrounding waters, the huge spill caused wide environmental damage, damaged Alaska fisheries and killed thousands of seabirds. The resulting slick stretched for 1,300 miles along Alaskan coastline.

Studies of oil spills continue to show what incredible damage is caused by these spills. It has been documented that petroleum-based hydrocarbons can severely impact aquatic life at concentrations as low as one part per billion.


During the spill, seabirds were immediately affected by the oil. The resulting spill penetrated their plumage, reducing the insulating ability of their feathers. Oiled birds are prone to hypothermia and much less buoyant in the water. The oiled feathers also impairs birds’ flight, thus making it difficult or impossible to feed and escape from predators.

As they attempt to preen or clean their feathers, birds will ingest oil that coats their plumage, causing kidney damage, altered liver function, and digestive tract distress. The limited feeding ability coupled with the ingestion of the oil quickly causes dehydration and metabolic imbalances. Most birds affected by an oil spill will die without human intervention.

The Prince William Sound has always been abundant with water-loving birds – including ducks, murres, cormorants and grebes. It’s estimated by wildlife biologists that at least 250,000 birds died and disappeared in the sound following the spill. Biologists also counted over 1,000 dead sea otters.

Read this research paper: How Many Seabirds Were Killed int he Exxon Valdez Oil Spill? (PDF)

New stabilization protocols developed

The Exxon Valdez disaster was the first major spill where field stabilization and transport were utilized extensively.  In order to cover the vast coastline that had been oiled, four regional centers were set up at Valdez, Seward, Homer and Kodiak Island. Birds were often kept overnight on boats in the most remote areas.

Stabilization consists of warming or cooling birds to help maintain a normal body temperature, providing oral fluids to combat dehydration and providing them with much needed rest in a dark quiet place. After initial stabilization birds can be transported to the main rehabilitation center. After the stabilization, even the five-hour boat ride over rough waters to the nearest center increased the chances of survival.  If not for this basic field stabilization and transport many more birds would have lost their lives to the Exxon disaster.

Alyeska, the oil response association that represents seven oil companies who operate in Valdez, including Exxon, assumed responsibility for the cleanup. Alyeska later opened an emergency communications center in Valdez after the spill and set up a second operations center in Anchorage, Alaska.

  • Birds arrived live – 1,604
  • Died/Euthanized – 803
  • Released – 801

More: In a podcast, Jay Holcomb talks about his rememberances of the Exxon spill response

October 31, 1984

1984 – Puerto Rican – San Francisco, CA

Nearly 2,000 murres among bird victims in 1984 Puerto Rican spill

Just after dawn on October 31, 1984, the oil tanker T/V Puerto Rican exploded offshore of San Francisco and released nearly 1.5 million gallons of oil near the Farallon Islands.

At least 1,856 Common Murres, 548 Cassin’s Auklets, and 176 Arctic Loons died during the spill. The oil spill came during the non-breeding season when Common Murres float in the sea making them more susceptible in a oil spill. The oil continued to leak from the vessel over a two-week period.
The stern area of the ship later sunk with 365,500 gallons of bunker fuel that reportedly leaked for several years following the incident.

An IBRRC response team helped care for the oiled birds. During this spill net-bottom caging for seabirds was conceived by IBRRC Director, Jay Holcomb. This caging allowed birds to be treated without developing major keel sores that was so evident in early oil spill responses.

According to a U.S. Coast Guard report:
The ship exploded 20 miles offshore releasing approximately 1,470,000 million gallons of oil (lube oil, lube oil additives, and bunker oil).

• The spill reached Farallon Islands and vicinity of Bodega Bay and south past San Francisco.
• An estimated 2,874 seabirds died. Also unknown damage to water quality, fishery resources, marine mammals, and human uses.

• In 1985, the USCG had recovered a little more than 61,000 gallons during cleanup operations
• The stern section sunk 17 km south of Farallon Islands at 37° 30.6′ N 123° 2’W

Bird facts

  • Birds treated – 624
  • Died/Euthanized – 309
  • Released – 315
  • Release rate – 50%

Common Murres have a penguin-like appearance. They use wings to dive under water for cod and herring. Murres are extremely sensitive to oil spills as these birds spend most of the non-breedding season at sea. Major oil spills along central California coast have had a significant impact on their populations.

Also see Farallones Marine Sanctuary Fact Sheet on spill: http://www.farallones.org/documents/TVPuertoRican.pdf