Planning Could Save More Birds Caught in Oil Spills

By Christopher Dunagan
Saturday, March 29, 2008

The ability to save the lives of blackened seabirds caught in an oil spill will be enhanced later this year, thanks to plans for quickly mobilizing up to four times as many bird-cleaning stations.

Ideas for protecting Puget Sound’s killer whales in an oil spill and for rescuing other marine mammals also are moving into high gear. It’s all part of more sophisticated planning for spill prevention and response.

Oil-spill prevention has always been a top priority, but state regulations were overhauled following the Point Wells spill in 2004, when oil drifted across Puget Sound and landed on a beach in North Kitsap. The Dalco Passage spill near Tacoma the following year added to the urgency for better planning.

Out of the new rules, approved last year, came an understanding that plans for rescuing wildlife depend too much on a voluntary network of wildlife experts. Further lessons were learned in November, when more than 1,000 oiled birds were recovered in San Francisco Bay and moved to rehabilitation centers in California.

“In San Francisco, they were prepared,” said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian and regional director of the SeaDoc Society on Orcas Island. “They have been working on this for many years, and it kind of brought the message home.”

In California, the state collects enough tax from the oil industry to set up state-run rehabilitation centers, which manage wildlife care following a spill. In Washington, the state requires the industry to mount an adequate response, often using private contractors.

Wildlife has always been a part of planning, said Linda Pilkey-Jarvis of the Washington Department of Ecology’s Preparedness Section. Now, a new 24-hour standard has “propelled people to take a really big step.”

The proposed standard, which is similar to California’s approach, is to have equipment at the site of an oil spill to handle 100 oiled birds within the first 24 hours, said Andy Carlson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That number could be refined if upcoming drills show it to be inadequate, he said.

The 100-bird capability represents only the initial response, since most birds are brought in days or even weeks after a spill, Carlson said. That allows time for more buildings, equipment and personnel to be put into play, if needed, he added.

To reach the 100-bird, 24-hour standard, Carlson is working to coordinate four large bird-cleaning trailers available throughout the region. The trailers, which currently stand alone, would be modified to work either singly or in conjunction with each other. For example, one trailer could be used for cleaning birds and another for drying and so on.

The state agency operates one 53-foot trailer; two are operated by the spill contractor National Response Corp.; and one is owned by Clean Rivers Cooperative, which operates on the Columbia River. All would be set up to roll quickly and be anywhere in the state within 24 hours.

“This will be a more consistent and maintained approach,” Carlson said. “This will be a really big increase in our capacity. The more you are prepared up front, the less your costs will be when you do respond.”

If things go as planned, the trailers should be ready by October, Carlson said. Improvements to the state’s trailer will be made with restoration funds collected from the 1988 Nestucca oil spill near Grays Harbor. Industry will pay for the other trailer upgrades.

Planning to assist marine mammals during an oil spill is not as far along, but it is occurring on several fronts. Under current plans, oiled wildlife could move into available marine aquariums and other rehabilitation facilities in Washington state plus specialized facilities in California.

Since an oil spill is considered the greatest threat to the survival of the Puget Sound killer whales, a task force has identified methods of “hazing” to be used to drive orcas away from an oil slick. The effort is part of recovery planning for the orcas, listed as endangered by the federal government.

Suggested techniques include using recorded orca calls, banging on pipes that reverberate in the water, setting off explosive “seal bombs” and calling in the Navy to use its mid-frequency sonar. If adopted, the ideas would become part of the Northwest Area Contingency Plan, which spells out how one should respond to a spill.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, said he would like to see more details about when the various methods are effective. The pipes are relatively cheap, he said, and they could be stowed on all whale-watching boats in which operators have been trained.

Air guns, which release bursts of sound, could be especially effective, he said, because the sound levels can be dialed up or down depending on the conditions. The next step should be to determine where air guns and other equipment should be stored for quick deployment, he added.

Carlson said operational details will come out as the current round of planning continues. More research may be needed to see what techniques work the best.

In the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, a large number of killer whales just disappeared, said SeaDoc’s Gaydos. Not one carcass was recovered, so researchers are not sure how the oil affected the animals. Researchers fear that a spill in Puget Sound could decimate the local orcas.

Carlson said Fish and Wildlife is working on a plan to respond to oiled sea otters, while plans for other mammals are in the works. It is important to know when to leave animals alone as well as when to take action, he said. Since seals and sea lions have a layer of blubber, they are less at risk than birds to die of hypothermia in an oil spill, he said.

“In our contingency planning, our focus has been mainly on birds,” Carlson said, “but we’re following the same track for marine mammals. The approach seems to work very well, … and we may need to develop a 24-hour responsibility for marine mammals.”

For a discussion about water-related issues, check out the blog Watching Our Water Ways at kitsapsun.com.

© 2007 Kitsap Sun

~ by fredfelleman on April 2, 2008.

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