M/V Rena Spill: Day 14 (MZ Day 5)

Hello all and Kia Ora-

Sorry to be so delayed in writing, but it has been a busy five days. That and Internet access is limited to the facility and not my hotel – good for dealing with emails but poor for sitting down and updating everyone.

Just some background – I am in Tauranga (which I am just now learning how to say, much less spell) helping to support Massey University and Maritime New Zealand’s National Oiled Wildlife Response Team. In the early days of the spill, Kerri Morgan, Oiled Wildlife Response Coordinator of the NOWRT (and yes, those of you who know me knew an acronym was coming from that) contacted many of the international oiled wildlife response organizations, including the OWCN and International Bird Rescue, to determine interest and capacity to assist. In the following days, Massey asked OWCN and Bird Rescue for three people to assist – one to help at the ICC (the command center for the response), one to help establish the facility, and one to deal with marine mammal issues if (and when) they should arise. I was tapped for the latter role, and was able to catch a plane soon after. At the same time, more oil was released and an additional five Bird Rescue staff were put on standby and eventually deployed.

Wash Trailer and Marquee at Rehabilitation Centre

On arrival here, I was expecting what is normally found in the early days of a large spill in many regions – far too much to do, far too little key equipment on the ground, and a beehive of activity that often isn’t entirely in a forward direction. What I found at the facility was an extremely organized (or as I am learning to spell it, organised), well planned and calm layout, with excellent equipment, trained personnel and a positive overall feel. Dr. Brett Gartrell, the academic lead for Massey’s Wildlife Health Centre (yes, I mention that they just HAVE to be different from UC Davis through their spelling), in cooperation with Curt Clumpner of Bird Rescue on the management side and Bill Dwyer of DwyerTech on the facility development side, had the facility, staff and responders working cohesively on the animals coming in, as well as planning for the further development of the facility to take in up to 500 oiled birds and 10 oiled fur seals.

Joining Curt and me at the center from the states was Michelle Bellizzi, Julie Skoglund, Susan Kaveggia and Dee Goodfriend of Bird Rescue, as well as Barbara Callahan of Bird Rescue at the ICC. Absolutely every single person here has been a joy to work with – the five veterinarians from Massey at the facility, the additional folks at the Command Centre, all of the paid field and facility staff , and the numerous “vollies” being slotted into the system. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (or DOC ) is leading the field collection efforts similar to how USFWS led bird collection efforts on Deepwater Horizon.

The facility itself is a bit different from what most folks in California are used to.  Massey, as part of their planning process, has pre-identified sites throughout New Zealand that can be set up for animal care facilities. the site in this region is on the grounds of a water treatment plant, providing a large source of fresh water in addition to available space. As to the specific components of the facility, wash and rinse capabilities are built into one of two sea container that DwyerTech had previously developed (gorgeous by the way), and they were dropped on-site, providing appropriate volumes of warm, soft water needed to wash the birds and seals.  Most of the rest of the facility is comprised of a series of tents (or marquees here) which are joined in series, with external heating units vented into them. Equipment was pre-staged in the Massey containers and trailers, and was quickly mobilized throughout the facility.

Birds are being housed initially in 1 meter square plastic heavy-duty fruit crates with net bottoms built within. Effective but heavy. The OWCN, on request, shipped over 20 soft-sided pens to help in the effort, and those are currently being assembled to help at the pools. The pools are standard 4.5 m round above-ground pools similar to the KD pools we use there. A dry run for seals was built in a quiet part of the facility, providing good haul-out space plus away from most of the traffic on site. The last part of the facility that has been being built is a series of individual aviaries to house NZ Dotterels, a highly endangered shorebird that Kyra blogged on previously. The trick on these birds is that, as it is the breeding season, each must be kept separate and, as they are endangered plus highly stress-prone, minimal staff have been involved in their care.

The protocols and practices here are fairly similar to what is used by most large professional oiled wildlife rehabilitation programs, with an initial intake and blood sampling, a period of rest with nutritive and fluid tubings, followed by cleaning then gradual movements into pools to regain waterproofing. Again, the folks here are top-notch, providing excellent care to the animals collected.

On to those animals. When I arrived, five New Zealand fur seals had been collected alive during response efforts, however one oiled juvenile unfortunately died in care. Of the four remaining, none appeared to be oiled and had other medical issues that had to be addressed.  Fortunately, two days ago, we were able to successfully release three of these seals on the Western side of the North Island, thereby successfully keeping them away from the slick.

Restraining an Unoiled Fur Seal

In working the seal issues here, I have again been working with great people – Dr. Laura Boren of DOC as the local seal lead, several wonderful husbandry folks from both the Aukland Zoo and Marineland of NZ, and DOC field personnel that are acting as “fast action teams” should seals be reported as oiled. Laura and I quickly worked together to provide better guidance on what to look for to determine whether a seal was oiled or not, compiled information from reconnaissance (or recce here – I feel so multilingual!) tours to determine high risk areas, developed a decision matrix to assess when (and if) seals were to be collected if observed in the oiled area, and compiled a roster of available personnel.

As those who know me know, sitting still is not my strong suit.  Therefore, I jumped into the general bird care where I was needed – rinsing, tubing, med checks, etc.  I have to admit, little blue penguins are rapidly climbing up my list of favorite species. However, as this blog post is now over 1,100 words, I have a little voice vaguely similar to Kaiti’s ringing in my ear saying “Wrap it up!”. So I will hold more discussions on the bird care to my next post.

I will try and post every other day if I can find Internet. Take care, try not to spill oil California, and E noho rā.

– Mike

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