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Davis, California

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Veterinarians reflect on last year’s debilitating oil spill

A year ago this month, UC Davis veterinarians rescued over 418 seabirds in the San Francisco Bay Cosco Busan oil spill, which released over 58,000 gallons of crude oil into the bay.

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which is managed by the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, provided rescue and rehabilitation to the oiled birds. The OWCN oversees 25 organizations in California and brings them together in instances like the Cosco Busan oil spill on Nov. 7, 2007.

“During non-spill times, we’ve reached out to organizations to find out what their interests and their capabilities are if an oil spill occurs,” said Michael Ziccardi, director of OWCN. “We have the ability to coordinate all these different people and organizations so that when the spill occurs we can hit the ground running.”

The Cosco Busan spill occurred when a container vessel hit the S.F. Bay Bridge in the early morning hours. That afternoon, Zicarrdi and his staff were in San Francisco, evaluating the damage and coordinating help.

When a bird is oiled, toxins break down the feathers that retain their body heat, often resulting in hypothermia. In addition to this danger, the birds may also ingest oil, causing severe physiological damage. While the Cosco Busan spill released only a moderate amount of oil, the thick crude is especially damaging to seabirds.

Following the spill, OWCN conducted the second largest rescue effort of oiled birds in recent California history, establishing a distinguished world reputation for their care, said Nils Warnock, recovery and transportation coordinator of the OWCN

“[The OWCN] is a unique program and plays a huge role in the state of California,” Warnock said. “We’re real leaders in the state in treating oiled wildlife and people look to the university for advice from all over the world.”

However, the rescue didn’t end when the birds were released. The network saved roughly 38.5 percent of the birds collected, which is relatively low compared to the 50 to 60 percent rescue rate of other spills. Though this can mostly be accredited to the already poor condition the birds were in as a result of the winter season, OWCN leaders saw a few aspects of the rescue they hope to improve.

The network highlighted three areas of improvement: a greater amount of qualified staff for search and collection efforts, a more organized volunteer base and lastly, better technology to improve post-rescue survival.

Assembly Bill 2911, introduced earlier this year, ensures that the OWCN will have the amount of qualified staff they believe is necessary. It allowed them to hire staff members such as Warnock, who has a Ph.D. in ecology and has worked on oil spills since 1984 with direct expertise in Pacific flyway birds.

“My role is to create a system for collecting the oiled birds and bringing them to treatment centers,” Warnock said. “These birds can hurt you and you can hurt them, so it’s important that we are practicing good capture techniques.”

In addition to a larger, more qualified staff, the OWCN is also improving its rehabilitation techniques and post-rescue health tactics. Given the amount of birds taken in after an oil spill, it is difficult to administer individual care to each, so the network has been conducting studies to examine and track the health of oiled birds.

Also, the network has hired full-time volunteer coordinator Kaiti Ferguson to ensure that in the case of an oil spill, volunteers will be better organized and prepared to handle necessary tasks.

“Having a strong volunteer base is an extremely important aspect of our rescue efforts,” Ferguson said. “They do anything from medically evaluating the oiled birds to cleaning the facility, which is very important.”

Julia Burco, a Ph.D. student in the UCD veterinary school who works under Ziccardi at the OWCN, has been studying diseases in birds and offered veterinary care during last year’s oil spill clean-up. Knowing that the fungal disease, Aspergillus, was common in birds in captivity, Burco was able to provide information for the network after they collected the oiled birds. She was also able to enhance her own research on birds in captivity.

No one wished a big oil spill would happen but we were able to use it as an opportunity to do research in a real life setting,” Burco said. “That had a huge impact in future oil spills.”

Though the number of oil spills in California has decreased in the past 15 years, there are still approximately 20 per year, of which the OWCN responds to about 10. There are also currently heightened regulations on ships carrying oil in order to prevent the devastation oil spills create.

“Seeing a bird coated in oil is one of the most pathetic sights you’ll ever see,” Warnock said. “We’re trying our best to get them back into the wild so that they can be like any other bird and have an equal chance of survival.”


LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at adbonde@ucdavis.edu


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