Mr. Curtiss Clumpner is truly an icon in the oiled wildlife response industry. If you’ve been around long enough you’ve probably heard the phrase “all you need is Curt and a tent”. As a co-member of what I’d lovingly call the “Old Guard” I thought it would be interesting to highlight the history and motivation behind his singular career. This year he vacated his position on the UC Davis OWCN Management Team, so I thought he might finally have time to answer some questions. Neither Curt nor I are saying he’s retired. He’s just entering a new phase of his career. I hope those who read this blog find it interesting to get a fuller picture of what drove Curt to enter the profession, how he kept himself prepared and motivated to continue working in such a challenging field, and what his plans are as he begins Act II.

WM: What and when was your first spill response?

CC: My first “response” was the Whidbey Island Mystery Spill in Washington in 1984. I had started a Wildlife rehab program at PAWS in Lynnwood, WA a few years earlier and I volunteered at the center that was set up at a junior high school in Mukilteo and then we took some of the birds to our center. It was managed by another rehab organization. And I must admit in those days we did not know much about oil spills in Washington.

Whidbey Island Mystery Spill

Whidbey Island Mystery Spill

WM: What about spill response attracted you?

CC: Being a wildlife rehabilitator 365 days a year one of the most attractive things about spill response was that there was a start and an end. But it really came down to being one of the people who could do something when disaster struck. I wanted to be doing something not watching others. I have that reaction even in situations where I don’t have skills or training. I thought I should at least learn to be useful rather than the well intentioned volunteer under foot. Also the first spills were very chaotic and not very successful because of lack of knowledge and preparedness. I thought I could help change that.

WM: What was your favorite spill response and why?

CC: I think Punta Tombo Mystery Spill in 1991. In Argentina, unfunded, and asked to help by Dee Boersma who was working with Magellanic Penguins at a research station there. The initial team was Ken Brewer and me and later included Patty Chen-Valet and Chris Battaglia. Favorite because it was in Argentina, we were working with a new species, we had few resources, (we made a center out of a shipping container on the beach), we worked with some great students of Dee’s, and we had to essentially apply what we knew then which was not very much.

Punta Tombo Mystery Spill 1991

WM: What sacrifices did you make to have a career in emergency response?

CC: I think all wildlife rehabilitators sacrifice a lot to care for sick and injured wildlife. Long hours, little pay, the emotional toll of animals dying in many cases because of humans. With oil spill response you add being ready to go at a moment’s notice, not knowing when you will be back. It makes relationships and other commitments very challenging.

WM: How difficult was it for you to decide to leave your response job with OWCN and retire?

CC: It is always a big decision for me to change my life and retirement is the ultimate CHANGE. In work at least it has always been easier because I have left when I felt confident that the people taking my place have better skills to improve the profession of oiled wildlife response than I do. I was lucky when I left PAWS to have Jeanne Wasserman and Dr Flo Tseng ready to take the wildlife program at PAWS beyond what I ever dreamed. I think the same thing is true at OWCN. I know that all the teaming with the Member Organizations who are dedicated to making the OWCN greater than I could imagine. I will never really feel fully retired and hope to work with all the great people in oiled wildlife response again some time if the skills I can help.

WM: Would you follow this career path again?

CC: I often think about what I might have done different. I often thought about going back to school to learn more and be a better rehabilitator, but the time never seemed right. I feel incredibly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time so many times. I got to work with inspiring dedicated people around the world doing something I believed was important. I got to meet, work with, and learn from the pioneers as well as current leaders of wildlife rehabilitation and oiled response around the world. I can’t think career I would have rather have.

WM: Do you plan to respond now that you are retired and why? 

CC: I hope to. I hope to keep learning about wildlife and use the skill I have to continue to be involved in any way I can to support wildlife. I am lucky to be healthy in mind and body and want to “enjoy every sandwich” as they say.  Working or volunteering in oiled wildlife response, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife field research, whatever I can find that is interesting and worthwhile. I am currently doing some part time planning work for OWCN and helping Deborah Jaques with her non-profit Pelican Science in monitoring brown pelicans along the West Coast, but I still dream (literally) about responses. Only time will tell.

 I am very thankful to all of the people I have worked with over the years and those who have supported my endeavors. I have learned so much from every one of them and have enjoyed the adventures we have all had together around the world.

I personally would like to thank Curt for his partnership on so many oil spill responses. We spent many long conversations (a.k.a., arguments) discussing ideas to improve our capabilities and care for wildlife better. We’ve always shared a passion for this field, and I count it a privilege to have so many great memories that include Curt. He’s been a treasured advisor and I’ve learned so much from him through the years.  Thank you Curt!

Why title this post Curt and a Tent? Way back when, while discussing what’s needed to respond to oiled wildlife, an oil spill response organization actually asked why wildlife responses require pre-existing facilities because “all you need is Curt and a tent”. Those of us involved back then have never let him forget it!

Wendy Massey

Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Michelle Bellizzi

Michelle Bellizzi found herself immersed in the oil spill response industry not long after she began volunteering with International Bird Rescue in the winter of 1999. Shortly after she started, she was thrown into the Luckenbach spill incident. The Jacob Luckenbach ship sank in 1953, and over the years that followed began releasing oil that was the cause of many spill responses. This was her first real exposure to the wildlife response aspect of oil spill response, and she dove in headfirst.

Being a part of the response industry has brought both challenges and rewards. She states that “the spill response industry is a very well-established and male-dominated field that prides itself on a job efficiently and effectively done, and some of hardest challenges I have experienced have been trying to explain the patient-driven processes involved in a wildlife response to folks outside of the veterinary/rehabilitation field. When we are able to achieve buy-in and respect from folks who may not have initially been interested is supporting our operations through our professionalism and expertise is a reward that keeps on giving and will help protect wildlife beyond our hands-on response efforts”. 

Despite the challenges, there have been many rewarding experiences. A few of her favorites include “working with the amazing and pointy great crested grebes in south America that survived a month on a gravel substrate, baby pelicans during a spill in Louisiana, and the magic of washing and rinsing every bird”. By her own admission, Michelle states that she became involved with oiled wildlife response, and continues to invest her time, energy, and dedication to the wildlife response industry because the rewards far outweigh the challenges.  At the end of the day, all the sacrifices are worth it because she gets to meet and work with “some of the greatest people and animals, ever, in some of the most beautiful places on earth (the far north, and the far south have been my favorites).  I love what I do because the work always involves an incredible team of people, learning, creating, innovating, and it is truly a  privilege to work with these amazing animals”. 

Michelle’s experience with International Bird Rescue, and other women she met through the spill response industry has been an incredible one. “Most of the professionals I encountered – the directors, workers, and researchers were women.  My own organization, International Bird Rescue, is celebrating our 50th year after being founded by an amazing woman, Alice Berkner, and International Bird Rescue has always attracted lots of women interested in giving back to their communities”. Her advice to others interested in getting involved and making wildlife response a part of their life is “it’s worth getting involved!”.  

Photo Credit: Michelle Bellizzi and Mike Ziccardi


Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Barbara Callahan

Barbara Callahan is the Senior Director of Response and Preparedness Services for International Bird Rescue. She has been a part of oil spill response for the past 25 years and has seen a lot of growth in this industry since she first got started. In the mid 1990’s, there was a lot less acceptance for wildlife response in the broader oil spill response field than there is today, and that is largely due to the time, energy, and dedication of Barbara and others who have worked in this field for years to professionalize wildlife response. These efforts have encouraged the oil industry to be more accepting of the wildlife response component of spill response. 

When Barbara first set out in her quest for a career, she didn’t set out to be in the oil spill business, but she states that “as a biologist and wildlife rehabilitator, I was certainly drawn to the opportunity to help wildlife. It was clear to me that International Bird Rescue really knew how to care for oiled wildlife, particularly aquatic birds and I knew I could learn so much from being part of their team”.  Her first spill out of the U.S. was the Erika spill in France and it was quickly followed by the Treasure spill, which was the largest and most successful spill response ever, with over 20,000 oiled African penguins. She and her team were on that response for over three months. In reflecting on these incidents, she states that “this was the first time in my career that I realized the massive organization required to successfully respond to a spill and when I first became interested in the emergency management side of response. It’s just not enough to know how to care for the wildlife if you can’t merge that knowledge with being able to get the team on the ground, be able to support them well and provide all the equipment and supplies they need”. 

Treasure Oil Spill, South Africa June 2000 Photo credit: International Bird Rescue

When asked about the highlights of her career so far, and the memories that stick out the most, Barbara believes these two go hand in hand. It’s the people she says, and “getting to know colleagues from all over the world, many of whom have become friends I will cherish for life” is one of her favorite aspects. But it’s also the team dynamics that really stick out.  “I realize what an amazing team I got to work with and I’m not just speaking about the International Bird Rescue Team but the wider team including all those we work with in spills”. Furthermore, in respect to her career goals in wildlife rehabilitation, she states that “I know from experience that planning will help save wildlife impacted by oil and that’s what my entire career has been about, so I take a great deal of satisfaction in seeing those improved wildlife plans”. She also notes that she’s “never more proud of the International Bird Rescue team than when we’re responding to an emergency as the dedication and commitment to wildlife is amazing and shows in everything they do during a response.”

Barbara has had a diverse career thus far, and in the spirit of inspiring other women interested in this industry she encourages women to follow their passion and chase their dreams. “Women are present in all aspects of oiled wildlife response, as well as the wider field of oil spill response, including State On-Scene Coordinators and other IMT roles, wildlife trustees, planners and regulators so follow your interest and do good work if you want to help respond to wildlife in oil spills!”. 

Thank you, Barbara, for being such an incredible influence in this industry, and such a wonderful role model for everyone around you!


Enhancing Conservation and Sustainability in our Own Practices

Guest Blog Author: Adam Ratner, Associate Director of Conservation Education, The Marine Mammal Center

The ocean’s health is at risk. Impacts from human activity—such as overfishing, plastic use and rising ocean temperatures—threaten marine ecosystems vital to our ocean’s health and our health. As a critical first responder to these threats, The Marine Mammal Center is leading the field in ocean conservation through marine mammal rescue, veterinary science and education. With our work and research going back 45 years, it is clear that marine mammal health, ocean health and human health are linked. The work of the Center advances medical knowledge and understanding about these links to inform conservation policy, inspire consumer and corporate behavior change and protect our future. The Center is committed to being an advocate and champion for ocean health—a voice for the patients it cares for—and to inspiring a sea of change to protect the ocean’s future.

In addition to providing critical guidance to partners and communities around how they can take action in their own lives, it is also crucial that the Center do its part to role model positive environmental behaviors and increase accessibility to the sustainable choices for its staff, volunteers and visitors.  As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”, and our dedicated team of 90 staff and over 1,400 volunteers are working to address climate change and ocean trash in our own work and inspire others to join the growing community of stewards around the globe.

Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing marine mammals and people alike.  From rising sea levels shrinking critical breeding beaches for elephant seals and endangered Hawaiian monk seals, to warming water temperatures shifting prey resources for sea lions and fur seals, climate change is an issue impacting marine mammals today. The Center is working to reduce its own carbon footprint and serve as a role model for others to do the same.  From E/V charging stations and carpool parking, the Center is incentivizing the sustainable choices, providing charging at no cost to staff and volunteers, while adding to the growing community of charging ports available to the public and alleviating the range anxiety that exists around electrical vehicles.  Through the use of onsite solar panels, the Center not only drastically reduces its carbon footprint, but reinforces that homes and businesses are switching to solar in growing numbers, establishing a new, sustainable social norm around energy choices.  We are also talking about climate change with our visitors and partners, leading numerous efforts at a regional, national and international level, such as the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) and Bay Area Climate Literacy Impact Collaborative (BayCLIC) to build capacity around the proven communication strategies for engaging communities around climate science and solutions.  For more information, read about the Center’s work as a case study in a new publication through Cornell University Press at: Communicating Climate Change: A Guide for Educators, and see our work and messaging in animation form through a collaboration with the California College of the Arts and a Pixar animator: A Word with Dr. Whizzlepuff: Climate Change.

TMMC animated

Students at the California College of the Arts, under the direction of The Marine Mammal Center and a Pixar Animator, developed an animated video highlighting the science of climate change and how we can take actions to protect the ocean

Another major issue facing our ocean and environment is ocean trash.  Trash can prove deadly in various ways for marine mammals, ranging from entanglement in discarded fishing gear and packing straps to accidentally misidentifying and ingesting of trash like plastic bags and balloons. While our rescue, rehabilitation and release work can provide a second chance at life for many of these unfortunate victims (such as Snaggle the Guadalupe fur seal or a humpback whale in Eureka, CA), we strive to address the issue of ocean trash and plastic pollution before it can get into the ocean environment in the first place.  As a founding member of the Trash Free Seas Alliance, the Center works with industry, science and conservation leaders to identify cross-sector solutions that drive action and foster innovation at a global scale.  Closer to home, at the main hospital in Sausalito, CA and throughout our California response range, volunteers and staff are proud participants in the RightCycle program by Kimberley Clark to use recyclable nitrile gloves for animal care practices.  While hygiene and best practices of personal protective equipment are paramount, we do not need to trade off our health with sustainability. By using these recyclable gloves rather than single use disposables, the Center is able to divert over 975 pounds of glove waste from landfills each year with the recycled gloves being used to create eco-friendly durable goods, like flower pots and patio furniture. For more information and to get involved in the RightCycle Program, visit:

TMMC nitrile

Volunteers at The Marine Mammal Center provide food to a malnourished Guadalupe fur seal at the hospital.  Volunteers use nitrile gloves as personal protective equipment that can be recycled and turned into ecofriendly products through the RightCycle program

The Center is dedicated to taking action to support a network of scientists and concerned citizens around the world to protect our shared environment for future generations.  For more information on our work and to join the growing community of community members and organizations taking action on climate change and ocean trash, visit our website at and connect with us at to learn more.

A Day on Año Nuevo Island

It was 8:30 am on a crisp October morning when our boat reached Año Nuevo Island. Dipping into the frigid waters with my sleeveless 2 mm wetsuit was less than ideal, but it was only for a minute – the time it took to jump from the small zodiac, grab my dry bag, and wade over to the island shore. Stepping over piles of kelp, sending resting flies abuzz, the pungent smell of thousands of nesting birds filled my nostrils. I was on the island as part of a team led by UCLA veterinarian and disease ecologist Katie Prager, studying leptospirosis in California sea lions. Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that can cause kidney and even liver damage and can affect virtually any mammal. It is shed in urine by infected animals and acquired through direct or indirect contact with that urine.

This was the final field season of a 9-year project based out of James Lloyd-Smith’s (project PI) laboratory at UCLA and in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC). The aim of the project is to understand the dynamics of leptospirosis in wild sea lion populations. My job was to assist with anesthesia of these animals, to keep them stable, safe, and asleep, while others on the team went about collecting and processing samples of blood and urine and other data points. Over the years many discoveries have been made, including that leptospirosis is endemic in wild sea lion populations, that large outbreaks of the disease occur on a 3 to 5-year cycle, and that in 2013 this disease seemed to disappear from the population altogether before re-emerging in 2017.


Ausculting a California sea lion under anesthsia

The day progressed quickly and before I knew it, I was back in the cold ocean and climbing into the zodiac on my way to the mainland. Learning about diseases in wild animal populations is extremely valuable as it could heavily impact oil spill response. An oiled sea lion is one thing but an oiled sea lion with leptospirosis is another. Because this disease is both infectious and zoonotic, water quality, water flow, and co-housing of individuals in the rehabilitation facility need to be strategically planned and carefully monitored to reduce transmission risk to other animals (including humans); not to mention the toll the illness can take on the animal and the increased intensity of care it will require. Additionally, it is always valuable to gain hands-on experience with our patients, whether it’s handling and restraint, sample collection, anesthesia, or even just behavioral observation. Every detail provides insight into our patients’ needs and adaptations for living in their natural environment, which is exactly where we want them to be!

Collecting a blood sample from a California sea lion under anesthesia
Note: These activities were performed under NMFS Permit No. 21422 and with funding from NSF (BIO-OCE 1335657) and DoD (SERDP RC-2635).



Learning From the Past

Recently we had the opportunity to necropsy birds that were released from evidence from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. You may be thinking; “Wait! He can’t mean Deepwater Horizon! That spill was 9 years ago!”  You’d be right to think that. However, it’s true. A little comparative pathology policy for you:

With marine mammals, all animals that are found dead or that die during an oiled wildlife event are necropsied. Pathologists are brought on early in the spill, samples are collected, and assessments are made regarding cause of death, impacts from disease, and effects of oil.  This is to provide evidence and guide treatment of animals impacted by the spill.

In the past, oiled birds during declared spills were not necropsied without specific dispensation from the Unified Command (UC) to do so. Instead any carcass was considered dead from oil, and immediately became evidence. By legal standards, an oiled bird is considered a dead bird. Those of us that work in the field, and anyone who’s read the research (see the references below) know that isn’t necessarily the case. The upside of this policy is a reduction in the up-front costs and logistics of hiring staff and setting up necropsy areas. The downside impacts however are much greater; there is a lot we can learn from carcasses. This information can guide rehabilitation and help us to understand and reduce impacts on animals in the wild. How much and what depends a lot on the condition of the animals when we get them.

If we are able to examine animals after they first die, we can find out the most about them. Fresh tissues give us the best chance to look for signs of disease exposure and infection, understand the physiological impacts of oil, assess injuries, and see the impacts of oil. If tissues are stored for a long time or frozen, they become harder to evaluate. Subsequent changes in microscopic structure of tissues introduces artifacts and reduces our ability to determine what changes are associated with disease or injury versus storage and post-mortem breakdown. Over time freezing and drying will cause the breakdown of bacteria, viruses, parasites, proteins, and other complex molecules. This decreases our ability to detect these important players in health and disease.

The goal of this recent work was to try and evaluate what we can learn from carcasses collected or stored under less than ideal conditions. The OWCN and OSPR along with a great group of dedicated volunteers necropsied over 100 animals including clapper rails, least terns, sanderling, Northern gannets, and other species impacted by the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill. We collected tissues and samples to start to answer the question of what we can learn from these animals, and how we can use that information to help the animals we care for in the future.

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Thankfully, our access to carcasses and our ability to evaluate them may be changing. During a meeting last week between the OSPR and the OWCN, we started to look into the possibilities of getting earlier access to carcasses, and even to do necropsies immediately once animals die. Generally, the opinion was that we have valuable information for research and animal care. Changing this paradigm would be a boon for rehabilitators and researchers alike, leading to a better understanding of the impacts of oil, the health of wild birds, and our ability to care for these animals.

I also wanted to take a moment to thank a lot of people who helped with this effort. There are a lot of logistics, equipment, and time required for a project like this. Thank you to Mike Ziccardi and Laird Henkel for moving this project along and providing the resources to make it happen. Thanks to all the fantastic prosectors from SPCA for Monterey County, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the MWVCRC for their assistance. Melissa Miller, OSPR Pathologist was (as always) a tremendous resource and a wealth of information. And extra thanks to Corrine Gibble for sorting samples, helping organize data, and generally keeping the project moving and on track.

– Greg Frankfurter


In Search of Giant Gelatinovores

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to have the opportunity to join an awesome team from NOAA/SWFSC/Upwell for four days of leatherback sea turtle surveys and tagging in the Half Moon Bay area. This work is being conducted in order to gain a better understanding of the abundance and distribution of this federally endangered species as well as to obtain some general health parameters.

Each morning I boarded a small research vessel, the Shiela B, with five other project team members, and set off in search of turtles. Good “turtle habitat” consists of dark brown water with abundant jellies (a leatherback’s main food source, hence the term gelatinovore), and boy did we find some!

Sheila and JelliesResearch vessel, Sheila B, surrounded by brown sea nettles

Once we spotted a turtle, something that typically ensued only with help from the aerial support team, we waited until we were confident that it would spend an adequate amount of time at the water’s surface. We then positioned our boat alongside it and deployed a specialized net. From there, it took a considerable amount of muscle and maneuvering to get the large turtle safely on deck (these turtles can weight up to 1500lbs!).

My job was to perform a physical exam and monitor the turtle from the start of capture until release. I kept track of heart rate via doppler, respiratory rate, temperature, and general behavior while others bustled about recording morphometrics, obtaining photo documentation, and attaching a satellite-linked transmitter, while ensuring the safety of the turtle and everyone on board.

Scott checking out turtle faceMarine ecologist Scott Benson, examining the face of a leatherback sea turtle

At the end of the procedure, the turtle was coaxed back into the water, where its satellite tag would soon afford us insight into its next whereabouts.

Spikey about to be releasedThe sea turtle affectionately known as “Spikey” being released from the research vessel with satellite tag in place

I felt so lucky to be able to learn about these magnificent creatures, to gain valuable skills that can be applied to an oil spill situation if needed, and to be part of such an amazing turtle team!

Note: All activities were carried out under NMFS research permit No. 21111.



Tristan da Cunha Oil Spill – Six Years After

Today marks the 6th anniversary of one of the world’s most remote wildlife rescue operation on Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic.

Tucked away in the South Atlantic Ocean, mid-way between South Africa and South America, and a little east of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, lies the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and nearby Gough Island, home to 85% of the global Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi population.

The archipelago comprises three main islands: Inaccessible, Nightingale and Tristan da Cunha itself, with Tristan being the only island with a permanent settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Nestled at the base of the volcano on the island’s north-west coast, the village is home to about 270 inhabitants – the Tristanians. Gough Island, 380 km south-southeast of the Tristan group, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (together with Inaccessible Island) and the only breeding site for this penguin south of the Subtropical front.


Northern Rockhopper Penguin – photo by Antje Steinfurth

The penguin’s bobbing yellow hairdo and braying call is a familiar sight and sound for the Tristanians. Since people settled on Tristan in the early 19th century, the pinnamins, as the locals endearingly call their penguins, have played a key role in the island’s traditions. However, a 90% decline in the population since the 19th century, combined with the penguin’s small breeding range and vulnerability to land- and sea-based threats, meant that when the Northern Rockhopper was recognised as a full species in 2008, it was immediately listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Just three years later, the species’ precarious conservation status was driven home when the cargo ship MS Oliva ran aground off the north-western coast of Nightingale Island on 16 March 2011. Approximately 1500 tons of fuel and heavy crude oil escaped from the ship, encircling Nightingale and nearby Middle (locally called Alex) islands, breeding sites to almost half the world’s Northern Rockhopper population. Devastating reports of oiled wildlife and coastlines quickly made the international news. What followed, however, was one of the most remarkable wildlife rescue operations ever undertaken.


MS Oliva aground off Nightingale Island on March 17, 2011 – photo by Kristine Hannon

Mission Pinnamin

Within hours of the spill, a small army of Tristanian volunteers orchestrated an ambitious rescue operation to try to save their penguins. Nightingale Island, where most of the penguins were caught in the oil, has no fresh water or facilities for cleaning penguins, posing a serious challenge to treating the oiled penguins on site. Penguins had to be transported to Tristan da Cunha, across 30 km of often tumultuous seas, for washing and rehabilitation. Hundreds of clean Rockhoppers were carefully corralled on Nightingale, Middle and Inaccessible to decrease the risk of them becoming exposed to the oil while oiled birds were captured and transferred by dinghy to the MV Edinburgh, a lobster fishing vessel operating in the archipelago that, overnight, was transformed into a penguin rescue hub. On 23 March the first fragile cargo of 473 penguins was brought to Tristan and taken to a makeshift rehabilitation centre set up by island’s Public Works Department.

One For All and All for One

Just about everyone on the island got involved in this operation. While the islanders’ heroic actions however were successful at averting the worst-case scenario of the spill, the price of living in splendid isolation is that help is a long way away. Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island are accessible only by ship, with the closest harbour being in Cape Town, South Africa. And when I say “closest”, it means 7 to 11 sailing days away. While the first salvage vessel left Cape Town one day after the MS Oliva ran aground with one seabird rehabilitation expert and enough stabilization supplies on board for the preliminary treatment of 500 penguins, the much-needed equipment to set up a full cleaning and rehabilitation centre only arrived 18 days after the catastrophe.


Oiled Rockhopper Penguins on Nightingale Island – photo by Trevor Glass

Luckily, the oil spill happened at a time when most of the penguins had already moulted and left the colony for their winter-feeding areas, so the worst-case scenario was fortunately averted. Nonetheless, of the approximately 3700 oiled birds that were collected for rehabilitation, only 10% survived to be released. Probably many more penguins got trapped in the oil slick at sea and hence, these numbers underestimate the actual impact of the pollution.

Lessons Learnt?

Six years after the oil spill, the long-term effects of the oil spill on the population are still unknown. Given that the islands are the strongholds for the Northern Rockhopper this disaster, however raised serious concern as any changes in the islands’ population would have a substantial impact on the global status of this species.

This devastating event taught us once again that disasters can and do strike the most remote places and Tristan da Cunha, renowned as the most isolated human community on Earth, is remote by any standard. The 2011 MS Oliva oil spill highlighted the challenge of getting equipment and medication to the islands when it was critically needed.

The increasing number of ships passing close to the archipelago each year creates a growing risk of chronic oiling as well as further catastrophic spills. Having learnt the lesson, Estelle van der Merwe, a specialist in rehabilitating oiled wildlife, was appointed in 2014 by the Tristan da Cunha government to write an Oiled Wildlife Preparedness and Response Plan for the islands that will enable the Tristanians to be prepared if a disaster should strike once again.

Next Steps

Even though the oil spill had nothing to do with past population declines nor might it be responsible for the fluctuations that followed, what the catastrophe did reveal and highlight in a most striking manner was how little is known about this Endangered species, and that basic but vital information on the species’ general ecology has been almost totally lacking.

It goes without saying that regular surveys carried out by the Tristan Conservation Department have been providing an important and valuable tool to estimate annual population sizes, but are of little help identifying and understanding factors that are driving population trends and dynamics, which is crucial for any decision-making and design of an adequate conservation programme. Hence, there has been a growing need for baseline data and long-term monitoring datasets.

As part of an effort to fill the gap, in 2015, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) partnered up with the Tristan Conservation Department, the British Antarctic Survey, the Zoological Society of Scotland and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to propose a comprehensive Rockhopper monitoring scheme to the UK Government’s “Darwin Plus” Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund. In March 2016, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the oil spill, funding was awarded and Project Pinnamin was born.

For more information see

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWritten by guest blog by Antje Steinfurth, Conservation Scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Cambridge, UK


Deja Vous all over again? Non merci


It was with great relief when I read on Monday that the cargo ship Modern Express was back under tow and headed away from land and imminent danger. The 538-foot car carrier with 300 tonnes of fuel and listing at 45 degrees as it drifted ever closer to the southern coast of France last weekend after it’s crew had been evacuated.iu

I learned of the Modern Express’s plight last week shortly after I read about Spain’s Supreme Court sentencing of the captain of the oil tanker Prestige to two years in prison for “recklessness” that resulting in catastrophic environmental damage” and the new threat could not help but bring back memories of my experience capturing and caring for oiled birds in Spain and later France in the days and weeks and following the disaster.

In November 2002, I was on the staff of International Bird Rescue (then IBRRC) and part of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Oiled Wildlife Team that worked under representatives of Xunta de Galicia managing the oiled bird center on a hill overlooking the city of Pontevedre. The wildlife response at that center, as well as other centers to the north as far as France and south into Portugal was truly an international effort. It included wildlife responders from organizations around Europe and around the world. Unsurprisingly one of those was my now boss, Dr. Mike Ziccardi, the Director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. At the time I was amazed at the rugged beauty of the coast of Galicia and the fishing villages all along it and at the devastation that the spill caused to animals and people.


Prestige oil spill 2002 –

This week I could too easily imagine it all over again if the Modern Express hit the rocks and wondered how a wildlife response would place out if that nightmare should occur.

Regular readers of our blog will remember Mike’s December post about the international group the OWCN is part of which is currently working to develop a system the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS) to ensure capacity to rapidly respond to oiled wildlife anywhere in the world. There is still considerable work to be done to accomplish that goal but just the fact that those groups are working on a plan means that if once again the “unthinkable” happens and another Prestige or Erika or Treasure or Deepwater Horizon occurs, we can respond at least a little bit quicker or a little bit better. As you all know when it comes to oiled wildlife, especially in early February in the northern Atlantic, every minute and every trained person counts. Hopefully by the time the next big spill occurs, a global oiled wildlife system, whatever it looks like, will be operational and ready to roll. I am sure if Mike and OWCN have anything to say about it, it will.

  • Curt

International Efforts Paying Off!

I apologize in advance for a lengthy blog post, but it has been awhile since I have written last, and I have some great and exciting news to share on international efforts that the OWCN has been helping to move forward!

Over the past decade or so, as you might or might not know, the OWCN has been collaborating with most of the other larger wildlife response organizations in the world to develop a framework for a shared/mutually supportive international oiled wildlife readiness program. This effort has finally borne fruit this Fall, with the funding (by industry) of what is being called the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (or GOWRS), and I am happy to share the basis of this program with our local OWCN partners!

JIP copyAfter the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo spill of 2010, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) identified 19 areas that they felt required industry efforts to improve overall readiness and response (these recommendations can be found here). Initially, wildlife response was seen as a need, but could not be included in the initial efforts undertaken by a Joint Industry Project (or JIP) due to funding. Fortunately, a second round of funding was able to be found, and the GOWRS was officially launched as JIP20 in April of 2015.

The GOWRS is designed to be a two-year project which aims to involve leading oiled wildlife response organizations in a collaborative effort to:

  • Address the gap between oil spill response preparedness and wildlife response preparedness on a global scale and;
  • Develop the infrastructure for a future Tier 3 (or global) system for wildlife response, including:
    • Commonly agreed animal care principles for oiled wildlife response;
    • A standard operating procedure (SOP) for the collective mobilization of oiled wildlife response organizations;
    • A roadmap for the development of readiness systems (trainings, equipment and exercises) for the oil industry to ensure operational readiness for a Tier 3 wildlife response system; and
    • A governance structure that defines how the system is developed, operated, maintained and governed.

GOWRS_PeopleThe organizations that are helping move this project forward include: Aiuká (Brazil), Focus Wildlife (U.S.), International Bird Rescue (U.S.), UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) (U.S.), PRO Bird (Germany), Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) (UK), SANCCOB (South Africa), Sea Alarm Foundation (Belgium), Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. (U.S.), Wildbase, Massey University (New Zealand), and Wildlife Rescue Centre Ostend (Belgium).

Currently, all of the partners are working hard (via Skype and e-mail methods) to generate the documents and procedures necessary to allow such an ambitious and far-reaching program to operate. As we move these methods forward, I hope to keep our OWCN Member Organizations better informed about our progress in this exciting effort!

There are other exciting National and International efforts that the UC Davis/OWCN staff are embarking upon to better help animals in need, but I will hold those for another blog, so stay tuned!