OWCN goes on the road to Santa Cruz for drill

April 27, 2012

On Wednesday the entire OWCN crew headed down to Santa Cruz for a tabletop drill held with the MWVCRC (Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center) and OSPR (The Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, California Department of Fish and Game). The main goal of the 1-day drill was to test out existing and newly drafted response protocols for oiled sea otters.

The initial DRILL scenario (NOT a real spill) was a collision between a cruise ship (1.5 million gallons of fuel oil) and a 58’ sardine boat (3000 gallons of diesel) that occurred just off the breakwater in Monterey Harbor at 6 AM. The sardine boat was sinking and most of the diesel was presumed to be in the water. No fuel was observed leaking from the cruise ship. Since this drill was modeled to occur right in the heart of sea otter country, where otter densities are highest, the drill achieved its goal to test our protocols for any weaknesses during worst-case scenarios.

After an initial organizational meeting, Drill Attendees split out into Groups & Units as described by the Incident Command System (ICS) that is used by OPSR to organize oil spill responses. We limited our drill assignments to the Wildlife Branch of the ICS structure. The following positions were filled: Wildlife Branch Director and her support staff, Recovery & Transportation Group Supervisor, Care & Processing Group Supervisor and her support staff (Administration, Facility Volunteer Coordinator, Facility Coordinator, Facility Manager), Field Stabilization Unit Leader, & Care Unit Leader who supervised the Intake & Processing Team, Pre-wash Care Team, Wash Team, Post-wash Care Team, & Support Staff. It takes a lot of people to respond to an oil spill, even if its only a drill!

The drill was a great opportunity for the staff of OWCN and the sea otter experts at MWVCRC and DFG to collaborate. The teams worked together to fine-tune current oil spill response protocols. OSPR sent down a contingent of staff and their knowledge and familiarity with ICS and large spill protocols was greatly appreciated. Working closely with such dedicated and experienced professionals was a great experience. Plus the people that routinely work with wildlife are just fun!

My only complaint was that while we were just a few hundred yards away from the ocean, we worked so hard that none of us got outside to watch any waves or seabirds, much less sea otters!

Care & Processing Group Members discuss readiness during an oils spill drill at MWVCRC: from left to right: Barbara VanGilder (UC Davis Senior Veterinary Student Extern), Hannah Nevins (MWVCRC), Chris Fiorello (OWCN) & Melissa Miller (MWVCRC)

Recovery & Transportation Group discusses plans for capturing oiled otters during drill at MWVCRC: from left to right: Colleen Young (MWVCRC), Mike Ziccardi (OWCN), Kyra Parker (OWCN)



Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Two Years and Counting…

April 20, 2012

Last year, on this date, I noted that the DWH spill was still very much in everyones minds and hearts through retrospective media reports, images and personal stories.  Now that we are at two years after the start of the incident, media (and public) interest once again has peaked about the spill, but for more troubling reasons from an environmental perspective.

Reports have begun to surface related to potential impacts on the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico – impacts that scientists are attempting to carefully determine whether they may be associated with the more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and the more than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant applied. These (with appropriate links) include:

However, there is some good news on this front. Scientists, with sizable funding support, are attacking these questions with a voracity that is rarely seen with environmental issues, attempting to ascertain the root causes of these (and other) problems. While it is easy to point the finger and blame the spill outright for such impacts, without using sound scientific principles, the ultimate outcomes can become muddled due to little baseline (pre-spill) information, the possibility of several “smoking guns” causing sick animals, and other confounding issues. With the skills of the folks working these problems, I have little doubt that we will get better results than is often seen after other disasters.

You may say “who cares?” a bit to all this science-speak; the environment is still messed up. And shouldn’t we concentrate on other more important issues, such as increasing prevention and better understanding how to care for oiled animals in the future? Well, I would say: why not do all three? In addition to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment projects going on, we have basic science occuring, with organizations such as the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to better understand the impacts of oil and dispersant on the GoM ecosystem. We also have significant efforts occurring at the Federal level to minimize the risks of incidents such as the DWH occurring in the future, with new innovations on blowout prevention and control coming forward and a newly-aligned MMS focusing on the risks.

On the oiled wildlife front, most oiled wildlife response organizations I know of have taken the time to evaluate their own processes and methods to see how they can do things better. Just this past week, Emily gave a webinar on changes to the OWCN protocols for animal care, and a fully revised version of both the oiled bird as well as mammal protocols, are on the horizon. On the international front, a newly-energized effort has been taking place trying to better develop a method to provide worldwide oiled wildlife response capabilities through a organized collaboration of key organizations. In all, these are exciting times!

This is not to say we should become complacent. The best clean-up effort, after all, is prevention of oiling of our wildlife in the first place. Both Nationally as well as Internationally, we have a long way to go to be able to be comfortable with our plans and systems. On the oiled wildlife side, while we have come a long way in the past decades, we always have things to learn and plans to develop and test to ensure rapid, efficient and effective collection and care, should animals become affected.

In closing, I would like to conclude this blog/discussion/soapbox asking you to join me in remembering the 11 crewmembers of the Deepwater Horizon rig who perished on this day. I wish everyone a safe and healthy April 20th.

- Mike

On the road

March 9, 2012

Hello, Emily here.  I’m writing from the road as I spend a couple of weeks traveling in California.  This week, Christine, Tim, Nancy, Megan (a UCD 4th year vet student extern), and I have had the pleasure and the privilege of helping with the initial efforts of a research project on sea otters in southern California.  The project is a collaboration among biologists, veterinarians, and researchers from the US Geological Survey, CA Department of Fish and Game, Monterey Bay Aquarium, University of Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara Zoo, and others.   Researchers are working here to understand the life of an otter at the southern extent of the range.  For a few pictures of our work, you can visit OSPR’s Facebook site.

Next week, I’m headed to the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center in San Pedro to work with International Bird Rescue.  Winter weather often brings oil to the surface of the ocean especially in southern California, and this year is no different.  Over the past week, we’ve seen tarballs and oil patties on the beaches and in the water, likely from these seeps.  A large number of birds, especially common murres, have been affected by natural seep oil over the past few months.  OWCN Member Organizations work hard to rehabilitate these animals and return them to the ocean.  They also report them to the OWCN so that we can monitor trends in space and time.  Feather samples can be analyzed by the California Department of Fish and Game’s Petroleum Chemistry lab to determine the source, and if the oil is determined to be from an anthropogenic source, rather than a natural seep, the OWCN is activated to respond.  The OWCN is not activated for animals affected by natural seeps; instead, we work to support our Member Organizations by helping to offset costs and by providing our time.  I’m looking forward to my time at LAOBCEC next week – it will be a fantastic learning opportunity for me, and I’m eager to help out.  For some more information about natural seep oil, check out this site by USGS.


What Has Brown Done For The OWCN Lately?!?

February 24, 2012

For those of you who have attended Oilapalooza for several years now, you know that the OWCN has been working diligently on developing a medical records database that will capture electronically much of the basic information that we all collect during spills.

Imagine – field data that doesn’t have to be entered on the bird box, the beach search effort, the field stabilization form, the Live Animal Log, and the Intake sheet! Paradise you might say – and I would agree! Even better, for those of us who have played “Bird Record Bingo” with the records late at night during large spills to collate and reconcile the data so that wash lists, pre-wash exam lists, pre-release evaluations can be done at the earliest opportunity. Ah, it brings a small tear to my eye just thinking of it!

Well, in order to try and make this happen, the OWCN has been working for a long, long time on different iterations of just such a system (and as the resident Ol’ Timer on this, I have files and versions dating back to 1998 discussing this very issue). The most recent exciting evolution of this has been partnering with UPS (yes, Big Brown) on the modification of their TrackPad system, used for tracking packages throughout the world, to track birds (and their data) through the facility. This system will use a combination of handheld PCs and laptop computers, all connected to both a local server and a remote server at UC Davis, to capture the basic info we need to move animals through to system. Ideally, this will also include the integration of bar codes on bands, on cages/pools and on examiners so that those basic data can be quickly and effectively collected with few errors.

On the data analysis side, this system would (and will) be coupled with custom reports so that, at the push of a button, we can have bird wash lists generated based on pre-established criteria, medical records available to review, and the animal number so urgently needed by the Unified Command available on a near-real-time capability.

All this sounds great, you say. Well, where is it?!? Well, we have had a number of hurdles to go over – some more challenging than others (Deepwater Horizon, loss of key OWCN staff), some more technical in nature (the OWCN Director needing to learn server technology) and some simply due to the lack of time from all parties involved. However, in the last several months, due largely to the persistence of Emily and the availability of Mike Dutra (our UPS lead contact), we are making great strides in moving forward. We actually have a system ready to be “alpha-tested”, looking at entering the data from each of the facility areas and ensuring this information is correctly transferred to the servers. Once that is done, we will be ready to work directly with our other rehabilitation partners to ensure the information captured is done in the most effective manner.

So, while it isn’t ready for the official unveiling quite yet, I am ecstatic about our most recent progress. Hopefully, at the next Oilapalooza, we will have more than just pretty pictures to show – maybe we can have wet labs on how to run the system! Stay tuned!

- Mike


February 11, 2012

That’s right, yesterday was the Inaugural Oiled Southern Sea Otter Care and Response for Veterinarians Training Course.  Well, I know Mike likes acronyms, but  . . . . perhaps we’ll just stick with Oiled Sea Otter Vet Training Course.

As I said, yesterday the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz hosted the first ever OWCN training course for veterinarians in sea otter care.  With the help of Drs. Melissa Miller, Mike Murray, and Dave Jessup, we trained a dozen California (and one Washington) wildlife vets in the basics of oil spill response and clinical medicine of southern sea otters.

Dr. Miller demonstrating sea otter necropsy findings.

Sea otters are unique marine mammals for a number of reasons, both regulatory and biological, so they warrant a day all to themselves.  After covering some background on spill response, we heard about clinical medicine, anesthesia, diseases, and washing of sea otters from the world’s experts in the field (all of whom maintain close relationships with OWCN).

Dr. Miller, who has conducted literally thousands of necropsies on sea otters, had some specimens for us to poke and prod.  She gave us a crash course on the differences one might see when examining an otter killed by a shark bite compared to one killed by a boat strike (both all too common for southern sea otters), and gave us some great tips on what to look for when examining a living otter.  Dr. Murray then demonstrated some clinical techniques using the carcasses.  Being veterinarians, we had no problem going directly from the necropsy lab to the kitchen for lunch!

Dr. Jessup leading veterinarians on a tour of the sea otter facility he helped design.

We also got a tour of the “otter taj mahal,” as we like to call it, by Drs. Jessup and Ziccardi, who designed the facility to care for, wash, and hold over 100 sea otters in the event of an oil spill.  Although the facility has been around for a while now, yesterday’s course was an important step in increasing California’s readiness to care for sea otters affected by petroleum spills.  The participating veterinarians were incredibly enthusiastic and asked us great questions that are going to help us refine and clarify sea otter response protocols.

The two Dr. Mikes enjoying their coffee before the lectures start.

The MWVCRC staff, including its new director, Laird Henkel, did a great job welcoming us and making sure everything ran smoothly.  No one wants there to be oiled sea otters, but as of yesterday, we are all confident that best achievable care just got better.


ICS Training Opportunities

February 2, 2012

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in ICS training (Incident Command System) offered by the United States Coast Guard. I was so impressed with the professionalism, enthusiasm, and commitment to protecting our nation’s waterways that was shown by all the “Coasties” that I met during the four-day course. When I sometimes start to wonder if all our efforts are making a difference, all I really need to do is re-energize by spending a little time talking with the amazing people that make up our partner organizations and affiliated agencies.

While you may have heard that ICS training can be a little less than stimulating at times…it really is an essential tool for everyone who wants to work on an oil spill response. It’s the system that our government agencies have agreed on to use to organize the response for any disaster. Therefore a basic knowledge of ICS helps the average citizen to be better prepared for any emergency such as wildfire, earthquake or flood that might occur in their “backyard”. In fact the system works so well, that many non-governmental organizations use the same principles to organize events such as concerts, festivals, and community events (4th of July Fireworks displays, parades, etc.).

If you ask any oil spill response veteran to list the three biggest challenges faced when responding to a large oil spill, they will say, “Communication, communication, communication!”

Communication difficulties: http://www.jimbo.info/weblog/?m=200909

One of the main objectives of ICS is to solve this problem.   It does so by setting up an organization system that is:

  • Flexible: Can be scaled to the size of the “event”
  • Establishes a Chain of Command: All responders know who their supervisor is (i.e. who they should report to and who will hold them accountable) and all supervisors know who and what information they are responsible for communicating to their staff.
  • Establishes a common communications plan that includes use of common terminology and protocols.
  • Establishes a single command structure where the most qualified on-scene authority becomes the Incident Commander (single person, mostly in small response) or the Unified Command (Small team of experts that act as single command, larger responses).
  • The response is managed by Incident Objectives that are based on the following priorities:
    • Human safety
    • Incident stabilization & protection of the environment
    • Protection of property or commerce

If you are interested in learning more about ICS, there are several free, online courses. They are offered through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. Allow approximately 3 hours to take each course.  You must complete the course in a single uninterrupted session in order to receive your certificate.  If you have to leave the course for a break, do not exit from the course or close your browser window.  Follow the links below, and then click on “Interactive Web Based Course” in the upper right corner of the page.

  1. The Introduction to Incident Command System (ICS-100) introduces the Incident Command System (ICS) and provides the foundation for higher level ICS training. This course describes the history, features and principles, and organizational structure of the Incident Command System. It also explains the relationship between ICS and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/IS100b.asp
  2. ICS-200, or ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents, is designed to enable personnel to operate efficiently during an incident or event within the Incident Command System, and provides training on and resources for personnel who are likely to assume a supervisory position within the ICS. http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/IS200b.asp
  3. Additionally, IS-700, which provides an overview of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), is useful and provides additional information related to how government, private-sector, and nongovernmental organizations work together during domestic incidents. http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/is/is700a.asp

If you find ICS training helpful, the FEMA website provides other opportunities for additional on line trainings. It can never hurt to be more prepared!

- Nancy

MV Rena Update: First Penguin Release!

November 21, 2011

Responders boxing up the penguins before heading to the release site.

Hello Everyone,

My last day in Tauranga has been an exciting one, as today was the first release of little blue penguins back out into the wild.  After a great deal of work by the cleaning crews to get the beaches ready, one location was deemed suitable to release penguins to.  The lucky penguins who originally came from that area (Rabbit Island), spent the week going through a sort of fitness test, to make sure they were healthy enough for release.  After a six hour swim and a waterproof check, they visited with the vets and received a health exam, and then had to jump up on the scale to make sure they had been eating enough fish and maintaining a healthy weight.  Those who passed their test were placed into animal carries and carried off to the beach this morning.

Preparing to release.

The release itself was a large event.  Hundreds of people showed up, including many locals, several school groups and politicians, and many of the people involved with the Rena spill on various levels.  Everyone clapped for the penguins as they entered the release location on the beach, and the boxes were placed in a semi-circle around the waterline to prepare for the release.

Little blue penguins heading home.

A beautiful native prayer ceremony was held, and at its conclusion all of the boxes were opened at the same time.  Most of the penguins took right to the water and began swimming directly for their home on Rabbit Island, and after a few minutes all that was left were small prints in the sand leading to the water.  Truly a great day for the penguins and the folks that have worked so hard to send them back to the wild.

Prints from the penguins heading home at last.

I would like to give a big thank you to the whole crew that I worked with these past few weeks, especially the Massey University team for inviting me to come.  I have learned so much while I was here, and I hope that I helped you all along the way.  Also, thanks to the International Bird Rescue staff that was here, it was wonderful to see friendly, familiar faces in the crowd.

Some of the response crew after the release.

To everyone back in the U.S., have a wonderful and safe holiday weekend, and I will see you all soon!  And to view some videos of the penguins, check out our Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/OiledWildlifeCareNetwork


Rena Spill – Update 11/11/11!!!

November 11, 2011

Hi Everyone,

Because sometime you eat too many fish...

Just a quick spill update for 11/11/11 (well, actually it’s 11/12/11 here, but….).  I’ve been hard at work the past few days.  My life has become wake up, feed penguins, schedule the personnel, feed penguins, sleep, repeat.  Surprisingly, I have yet to grow tired of the little blue penguins, even considering a penguin flung fish juice in my face this morning,I have cuts all over my hands, and I can’t scrub the fish smell off of my skin.  It is amazing the amount of work that goes into caring for these little guys.  Feeding alone takes 6 hours out of the day (not including prepping the fish), and cleaning is a world in it’s own.  Wendy Massey has been leading up the cleaning crews for the aviaries (pronounced “avery” here, like the boys name), which consists of 5 people spending the entire day cleaning.  With the changes being made to ready the penguins for their eventual release, that number will go up to 6.

Wendy Massey and her cleaning crew, helping to herd penguins for their afternoon feeding.

The exciting news is we heard today that they have made a good deal of progress getting oil off of the ship, and they will hopefully finish up soon.  Much planning is now going into how best to prepare the penguins for release and making sure everything is all set for them to go.  Speaking of going, I need to get going to help with the afternoon feeding.  Hoping all is well with the network members back home, and don’t forget, just because I’m gone, doesn’t mean that you guys can skip out on watching recorded webinars!!!


M/V Rena Spill Update

November 7, 2011

Hello Everyone,

Some of the team from the Auckland Zoo. They are responsible for caring for the endangered dotterels.

Day 2 for me working at the wildlife center here in Tauranga. So far everything has been great; the facility is well organized, everyone knows what they’re doing, and the people are fantastic. My first day here, I spent the morning working with the endangered dotterels (see Kyra’s post on November 14th for more info on them). There is a rotating team from the Auckland Zoo that is here to take care of them. The recovering endangered-species-breeder in me really appreciated the amount of work that is going into taking care of these birds to preemptively protect them from oil, and the team is doing a fantastic job. These birds are a very shy species, so additionally, the team has to take extra efforts to keep their stress levels down.

Pauline demonstrating how to feed penguins.

In the afternoon of my first day, I was introduced to everyone’s favorite, the little blue penguin. As I used every ounce of my self control to not scoop up penguins and cuddle them (they really don’t like that, nor is it good for them), Pauline, the personnel manager here at the facility, gave a demonstration in penguin feeding. With several hundred of these birds at the facility, penguin feeding is probably the most time consuming activity each day.

I was also able to squeeze in a quick tour of the facility, and had a chance to see how Pauline manages the volunteers here. I’ve already learned a few things that I think will help with managing volunteers, should we have a spill in California, and am eager to learn more.

Day 2 here has me spending day feeding penguins again, and I have to say, I’m already getting really good at picking fish scales out of my hair. I’m hoping this afternoon to also spend some time stopping in at each area of the facility, just to learn about the flow, and to talk more with Pauline about how she keeps the communication flowing about personnel needs in each section.

More to come soon….


M/V Rena Spill: Day 19 (MZ Day 10)

October 25, 2011

Kia ora everyone!

Things here in Tauranga are going very well since I posted last, though there is never enough hours in the day to get everything done. I never realized how much not having internet access in my hotel room cuts back on my capacity to blog, but it’s hard to do with filleted salmon smolts in one hand and a ravenous oiled little blue penguin in the other…

Courtesy Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

On to news. Probably the most notable activity here in the past five days (aside from the ongoing cleanup and wildlife effort) has been our host country’s rabid following of the Rugby World Cup finals (held in Auckland), where the All Blacks of NZ met and defeated France. Curt Clumpner of Bird Rescue has a great descriptor of the evenings activities his blog (posted here), but the lead up to the final has been almost as amazing. Everywhere you went were banners on vehicles, supporting ads in storefronts (yes, they made me take a day off on Saturday so I was able to do a bit of a walkabout), and full-page newspaper photos. Cheers to the All Blacks and all the kiwis for their victory!

M/V Rena Command Centre

Since I have written last, I have been back and forth a bit both at the facility as well as the ICC (Command Centre), filling in where needed and trying to remain useful. For background (and to add local color, or colour here), the ICC is being housed in a large, unused supermarket in downtown Tauranga – odd to be walking about with “fresh chicken” signs still on the walls and pylons set up to keep responders from walking into parts of the floor where freezers used to be kept. All the different sections are sitting in different groups just like all ICCs I have been involved with, however people are much more polite and there isn’t the same level of frantic tension that I have come to expect. In fact, last night I had drinks, and this evening dinner, with the NOSC (National Oil Spill Coordinator) for Maritime New Zealand – a great person who also spent a month at Deepwater Horizon and we were able to compare our experiences there with this unfolding response. The biggest downside I can see is the definite lack of coffee availability onsite – just Nescafe inside and a small espresso cart outside (and in writing this maybe the lower caffeine availability leads to a calmer response….hmmmm).

At the ICC, our Wildlife table is the largest one in the facility, with between 14-16 people all working on the field and facility planning and management for the response. We also have additional staff at the facility doing logistics and operational deployments for field teams, as well as the HR, logistics and media issues at for the facility. The wildlife team are a great group of people – a combination of Massey University, Department of Conservation, and responder staff working together to manage the more than 140 people currently responding for wildlife in field and facility ops. I’ve been fortunate to work side-by-side with Kerri Morgan and Helen McConnell of Massey and Barbara of Bird Rescue, and have been involved with developing plans for long-term housing for penguins (so they can be kept until the risk of re-oiling is past), capture criteria for fur seals, helping to find and acquire appropriate fish for post-wash care (fish that is small enough to allow individual feeding yet has a low enough oil content to not cause fouling of the pools), updating the Incident Action Plan detailing the field operational plan for the Bay of Plenty, and a host of other planning activities. Good learning experience and good work being done.

Intake at the M/V Rena Wildlife Centre

Alternately, I have also been busy working into the animal care side at the facility, working in concert with the Massey and Bird Rescue staff as well as the local responders and “vollies” – primarily in oiled bird holding. As I said previously, the facility is composed primarily of marquees which hold birds that are not being left in pools. Most of these marquees have had ducted heating added to manage heat through masterful engineering from Bill Dwyer and his staff, allowing oiled birds to be kept at adequate temperatures. Much of our activities in this area revolve around getting the birds strong enough to withstand wash and making sure they are approved in a rapid manner to move on to cleaning. This has been somewhat of a challenge due to initial weight loss causing us to move from the typical activity of feeding slurry mixtures via stomach tube to force-feeding fish – a more time-intensive and messy proposition due to larger salmon smolts needing to be cut prior to feeding. However, the evidence of success is the birds themselves, and their weights have been coming up well and birds are definitely more fit entering wash, making it worth the results of salmon guts being flung into your face regularly.

As the numbers of oiled birds coming into the facility declines (which we hope is an ongoing trend, but are watching the daily report from the salvers on the ship carefully), we are seeing more and more birds who have been washed and are needing time being reintroduced into pools to regain waterproofing. Since I last wrote, that now encompasses a tremendous effort – seven pools, four tents and many people zipping back and forth from pool to pen to pool to allow the more than 200 clean little blue penguins time to return to normal condition. Julie, Michelle and Dee of Bird Rescue and Bridey of Massey have done a heroic job getting them back into shape in less-than-ideal conditions. The plan is now to begin to move them into one of several 7 x 9 m penguin enclosures (each of which has a pool and appropriate haul out areas) that will allow long-term holding in relatively low maintenance environments until the fate of the M/V Rena becomes more clear. Stay tuned on this effort…

Again, the ghost of volunteer coordinators past is reminding me that I am far too wordy for my own good so I will sign off for now. I’ll touch on other areas, including the field ops and dotterel holding/capture, in my next treatise.

- Mike


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