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Oil Spill in San Francisco Bay


This video shows volunteers from WildCare and other Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) organizations washing an oiled cormorant.

Although washing is very stressful for the bird, it is the only way to remove the toxic oil. Click to see the entire cleaning process step-by-step!

Oiled scoter awaiting medication
This severely oiled scoter was WildCare's first oil spill-related patient. She arrived on November 8, 2007. Click to see more photos.
Oiled Common Murre

They were still coming in a month later!
Oiled Common Murre at WildCare on December 7, 2007

Cosco Busan anchored in San Francisco Bay

The Cosco Busan anchored in San Francisco Bay after striking the Bay Bridge on the foggy morning of Nov. 7, 2007. Note gash in the mid section of ship. (Photo: US Coast Guard)

Common Murre showing his displeasure at treatment
Common Murre shows his oiled chest.
The bird came to WildCare from Bolinas.
Murre in bucket
Common Murre being weighed.
WildCare volunteers washing birds
WildCare volunteers washing birds at IBR (International Bird Rescue)
Red-tailed Hawk showing oil in her mouth
Patient #1551, one of two Red-tailed Hawks  released 12/12/07 at the Marin Headlands. These hawks were unusual patients to find oiled-- apparently the raptors had tried to eat dead oiled birds on the beaches and gotten oiled themselves! Click to read more about this patient on our Patient Updates Page.

a deadly day for wildlife

Five years ago today, an enormous container ship called the Cosco Busan slammed into the Bay Bridge and dumped over 53,000 gallons of toxic bunker fuel into the San Francisco Bay.
Seabirds started washing up on Bay Area beaches, coated in thick, foul-smelling gunk and shivering with hypothermia and stress.

As the tragedy unfolded, WildCare became a focal point of rescue efforts. Our first oiled patient was a Surf Scoter so black and sticky she was almost unidentifiable-- click to see her story in photos.

WildCare admitted over 20% of the recovered oiled birds. We provided warmth, fluids and other stabilizing treatment before rushing them to the washing stations set up by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), of which WildCare is a member.

Why Oil Is So Deadly to Birds

Although the entire San Francisco Bay ecosystem is affected by the oil spill, it is the waterfowl who float and feed on the surface that are the hardest hit.

Ocean-going birds have very special feather adaptations that allow them to stay warm in chilly ocean waters. The feathers of these birds weave tightly together to create a warm, impermeable barrier, keeping body heat in and cold water out.

Oil causes feathers to clump and stick, and disengages these carefully overlapping feathers, allowing cold water access to the bird's skin. This means the bird cannot control its own body temperature (thermoregulate).

Imagine sitting in San Francisco Bay with a wet towel wrapped around your body all day and all night, and you'll have an idea of what an oiled bird experiences in a catastrophe like this.

Birds recognize the dangers of hypothermia, so their immediate instinct is to clean the oil off themselves (called preening). Unfortunately preening causes them to ingest the oil which poisons the birds.

Weakened by cold and ingestion of the toxic oil,some birds end up on beaches and other areas where it's possible to rescue them. It is heartbreaking to think of all of the thousands of birds that never reach shore and die sitting in the cold water.

Once rescued, birds are kept warm and given fluids until they are stable enough to be washed. Unfortunately, the cleaning process is incredibly stressful for the birds, but it is the only way to remove the oil. Click for a PDF that shows the whole cleaning process step by step!

The Facts of the Spill

On November 7, 2007, the fully-loaded container ship M/V Cosco Busan struck a fender on a structural tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge while leaving the Port of Oakland. An estimated 53,569 gallons of bunker fuel oil were released into San Francisco Bay through a gash in the ship’s hull. The oil spill caused widespread injury to natural resources and natural resource services, including:

- more than 6,800 birds of 65 different species were killed including the threatened marbled murrelet, the threatened western snowy plover and migratory species
- as much as 29% of the winter 2007 – 2008 herring spawn in San Francisco Bay was lost due to egg mortality
- over 3,300 acres of shoreline habitat were oiled including lands managed by Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- over 1,000,000 human recreational user-days on public shorelines were lost

WildCare's Role During and After the Spill

The spill stretched the resources of WildCare and other wildlife organizations to the limit. Overall, 20% of the recovered oiled wildlife from the spill passed through WildCare's doors.

WildCare is a proud member of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) a legislatively mandated program within the California Department of Fish and Game Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) which strives to ensure that wildlife exposed to petroleum products in the environment receive the best achievable treatment by providing access to permanent wildlife rehabilitation facilities and trained personnel for oil spill response within California.

Final Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan

In March of 2012, state and federal trustee agencies released the Cosco Busan Oil Spill Final Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan (DARP). The document summarizes the injuries to wildlife, habitat, and recreational uses from the Cosco Busan oil spill and describes a number of restoration projects that will be implemented to compensate for injuries from the spill.

Click to read the DARP and find out what the selected restoration projects are!

HAZMAT and Oil Spill Response Training    

After this spill, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) revamped their training program for future oil spill responders. Classes focus on expanding the team of trained volunteers able to rescue oiled animals and assist in clean-up efforts.

In general, OWCN only accepts trainees with previous animal-handling experience and recommendations from participating agencies.

WildCare volunteers donated hundreds of hours not only to our hospital's efforts, but also to bathing birds, cleaning up beaches and rescuing oiled animals with OWCN and International Bird Rescue.

Becoming a WildCare volunteer not only gives you an incredible opportunity to work with, learn about and heal ill, injured and orphaned wild animals, it also places you within a network of people eligible to take OWCN classes in oil spill response.

Click for more information on WildCare's volunteer program.

Click to learn how you can help in the event of another oil spill!

San Francisco Chronicle map of oil coverage

Map of oil coverage and birds threatened-- SF Chronicle

How You Can Help in the Event of Another Oil Spill

bird print bullet points

Do not approach or handle an oiled animal under any circumstances. Please call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network's hotline at 877-823-6926 to report the location of the animal. The oil is extremely toxic, and only HAZMAT-trained rescue volunteers with proper protective gear should handle oiled animals.

bird print bullet points Become a WildCare Volunteer and be prepared to help both onsite at WildCare and in Oiled Wildlife Care Network-sponsored rescue, cleaning and treatment efforts.
bird print bullet points

When a spill happens, go hiking in "places less travelled" where you know there are birds. Check for oil and call 877-823-6926 or (415) 701-2311 so OWCN has an accurate idea of the locations most in need of help. DO NOT touch oiled birds!

bird print bullet points Make a much-needed donation to WildCare to help us care for oiled and other injured wildlife!
bird print bullet points

Donate supplies to WildCare
Our most-needed items are:

  • Nets of all sizes
    We need large nets, but the smaller the mesh, the better (think sharp beaks and feet that can tangle in larger mesh). Available for purchase at bait and tackle shops, and online at http://www.livetrap.com/. We especially need net #3543 from the Tomahawk Live Trap site.
  • Heating pads (must have low, medium, high settings, and not have an auto-shut-off feature)

  • Blenders for making fish mash must be commercial-grade. Regular household blenders are not strong enough or durable enough to make the quantity of mash needed. Questions about your blender? Email Melanie at melaniepiazza@wildcarebayarea.org.

  • Snuggle Safes
    These are microwaveable heat disks that stay warm for hours, allowing us to warmly transport hypothermic (cold) oiled birds. SnuggleSafes may be purchased at most pet stores. They are usually bright pink.

  • Gram Scales to weigh birds (include batteries if possible)
    Must weigh in 1 - 2 gram increments for our smallest patients.
    Available at Costco or at office supply stores

  • PediaLyte (unflavored only) to hydrate birds.

  • Large and small ceramic pet food bowls

  • Wooden or plastic clothes pins

  • Spray bottles
  • Cash donations. Cash donations enable us to purchase supplies as needed

WildCare's First Oiled Patient from the Cosco Busan Spill

This little scoter arrived at WildCare on 11/8/2007 at 4:45pm. She was the first oiled patient we admitted.
Oiled scoter being weighed

Scoters are diving ducks, and there are many of them in the San Francisco Bay.  This one was was found on Angel Island where the beaches were completely inundated with oil.

Comparing beak size to check species

Identification can be difficult on birds whose feathers are
entirely coated in black gunk. Comparing beak size and
structure is often the surest way.

Oiled scoter awaiting medication 
The bird shows her distinctive beak as she awaits treatment to
stabilize her until she can be transferred to the OWCN emergency
cleaning station.
Read more about the Cosco Busan Oil Spill in November 2007!

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