It Takes a Village! (or a coordinated, pre-trained Network)

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is still currently activated and responding to the Pipeline P00547 Incident. We are on Day 13 of response, and our Wildlife Recovery, Field Stabilization and Care & Processing Groups continue to provide the absolute best achievable capture and care of all oil-affected wildlife. To view current wildlife numbers, please visit our website here.

While the spotlight often shines on our resilient wildlife patients, there is an army of wildlife champions behind the scenes providing some serious world class effort. To date, we have utilized more than 90 affiliated and pre-trained responders filling Incident Command System (ICS) response roles, ranging from volunteers all the way to Deputy Wildlife Branch Director. These responders are representing over 15 of our 44 OWCN Member Organizations, and making us all very proud! (click here to view all 44 OWCN Member Organizations)

In addition to our Network, we work in close collaboration with numerous federal and state agencies during an oil spill response regarding wildlife. We are in step from the beginning with our partners at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CDFW-OSPR), as we are activated by this state agency from the very beginning and they usually fill the Wildlife Branch Director role as well as lead Wildlife Reconnaissance efforts (including manning the Hotline). We also are in close communications with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA-NMFS) in preparation for any potential oiled marine mammal or sea turtle patients. And we consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) regarding our wildlife response plan for many threatened or endangered species potentially affected by the incident. And a special shout out for this incident to the CDFW Natural Resource Volunteer Program for providing us with personnel and a vehicle for wildlife transport!

As the OWCN Readiness Coordinator for Field Operations, I spend A LOT of my time attempting to prepare the Network for potential incidents just like this one. We recruit talented wildlife professionals, provide ample supplemental oil spill training, and conduct realistic, large scale drills. With all of this done in advance, our ability to respond quickly and efficiently is fine tuned. But even with all the preparation, when a call hits the hotline with the potential for significant wildlife impact, my heart skips a beat. Are the oiled wildlife facilities ready to fire up and begin receiving patients? Are the local 24hr HAZWOPER certified wildlife recovery responders able to head out into the field immediately on such short notice?

While the initial pace was intense, and yes, at some times a bit chaotic, all of my worries were answered with a resounding YES! We were ready to respond and remain ready to help any wildlife in need. So thank you OWCN responders for all your hard work over these past two weeks, and thank you in advance to those who will continue to contribute their time to get us to the finish line.

Each and every Responder should be proud of your own personal readiness, allowing you to quickly jump into action. Your Member Organizations are proud of your tireless efforts. And we, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network’s Management Team (on behalf of the entire Network), are extremely proud and thankful for your dedicated commitment to our wildlife.

Scott Buhl – OWCN

Pipeline P00547 Incident: More Reflections from the ICP

Hi All – A few thoughts on the first week of this response from my view. First off – OWCN is amazing, and the excellence and passion shown by everyone supporting this response has been obvious to all. Thank you! And thank you to all who stayed back and took on all the responsibilities of those who were deployed. The partnership of OSPR and OWCN staff is powerful. The two organizations are different in many ways, but share and embrace the same commitment to best achievable capture and care. We work hand-in-hand. In the ICP, the Wildlife team has candid conversations about strategy and staffing, and we have always been able to efficiently get to agreement. The Reconnaissance, Recovery, Field Stabilization, and Care and Processing Groups have similarly been solutions-focused and totally flexible to do what’s needed. 

I was first notified of an incident Saturday morning. My phone blew up with a flood of conversations by voice, email, and text; then total silence. From experience, that told me that something significant was happening and that everyone was either traveling or head-down focused on work, way too busy to talk anymore. I packed a bag just in case.

On Sunday morning when we arrived at the first ICP, there were about 35 of us crammed in a corner office and a break room. It was chaotic with so much to do and so little space to do it. I relocated a garbage can and recycling bin and secured a small table near the sink for Mike Z and I to get started. Response vessels had been deployed at first light, and our two amazing care facilities were gearing up. One week later, the response team was up to 1200 people. That’s a crazy fast expansion, and it was exactly what was needed. As the oil made its way south over the week, our Recovery Teams were covering 70 miles of shoreline; same for oil cleanup and SCAT; we needed a big team. 10,000 people have signed up to volunteer and a local restaurant, of their own volition, raised funds and cooked and delivered meals to the Field Stabilization facility staff.

Speaking of food…in the second ICP it was bad (not sure what the turkey-like substance was on the Thanksgiving plate). Vegetarians have been provided lots of options like taking the meat out of the hamburger and eating the bun and lettuce. However, the form and function of the ICP for spill response rapidly matured. All the branches and units got organized and started communicating with each other and their counterparts in the field. Hand-written signs popped up on all the walls sharing who was where. The Unified Command directed objectives. The Liaison and PIO/JIC spun up to address the overwhelming media, political, and public interest. As the Wildlife Branch Director, at least two hours a day was consumed in media and elected official responses; and with visits by the Governor, Lt. Governor, State and Federal Congressional representatives, and a myriad of local elected officials, sometimes the demand was twice that. I was so grateful to have super-star Mike Ziccardi there to do the heavy lifting with the VIPs.

Sam Christie, Care Strike Team Leader, with Fox 11 News

We’ve been working 14-hour days, generally from 6:30am to 8:30pm. After work, some people meet for a social hour downstairs in the hotel where we can unwind and smile for a while. Sitting with Jordan Stout (NOAA SSC) and Mike Z., we compare and (BS about) overlapping events since 1994 (my first response). At other tables I sit with folks experiencing their first major response. Some parts of the conversation are the same, we talk about compounding stress and exhaustion and how it slowly creeps in the mind and body. For the new and the old-timers, it’s not uncommon for tears to well up at some point. It’s intense work that we do.

Then I’m off to bed, certain that I can’t stay awake a moment longer, but when I close my eyes, my mind races with all the things I could be doing, that need to be done tomorrow, and wondering why am I sleeping when there are animals out there who need help. But ultimately exhaustion wins, on Wednesday morning I woke up with the lights on, fully dressed, on top of the bed; I must have sat down and fallen asleep in the same motion. 

Thank you to all of you in the OWCN family. You’re part of something very special and your efforts are meaningful and appreciated.

Here is a typical Wildlife Branch Organizational Chart from this past week

Greg McGowan – CDFW OSPR

Welcome to FROGTOWN. We hope you enjoy your stay.

Welcome, friend. We’re glad you’re here. You’ve been through quite an ordeal with all of that nasty oil running through your creek. But now that you’re safe at Frogtown, we’ll be guiding you through a process of healing and rehabilitation. My name is Sam. I am the Care Strike Team Leader here at Frogtown and I’ll be coordinating your journey through the Oiled Wildlife Care Network’s world-renowned wildlife rehabilitation program. We have partnered with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, a local wildlife rehabilitation organization, to provide you and your neighbors with a premium rehabilitation experience. I see that you have selected our Platinum Oiled Amphibian Package. This full-service package includes Processing, Intake, Cleaning, Conditioning, and the best part of all—Release! I promise you will leave here feeling like a new frog!

Now let’s get you through Processing. We just need a quick photo of you holding up your case number. No, don’t worry. It’s nothing like a mugshot. Well, huh. Maybe it’s exactly like a mugshot. But it’s just our standard procedure! And if you would please lift your arms for a moment while I collect an oil sample. Well done. Thank you!

Swabbing the skin to collect an oil sample for evidence is part of the Processing procedure.

Wow! You are quite tiny, aren’t you? Just 0.11 grams and about the size of a honey bee. I’ll need to be extra careful with handling you during the Intake exam. In fact, here, have a seat inside this Tupperware so that I can examine you without risking any injuries. Aside from the oiling, are you feeling alright? Any aches, pains? Your eyes look clear, posture is normal. You appear alert and well-hydrated. Excellent! Hmm. It looks like you have a small injury on your toe. I’ll go ahead and schedule one of our veterinarians to stop by for a more thorough exam later this afternoon.

Whenever possible, frogs were examined inside of containers to prevent accidental injury or escape. Handling was kept to an absolute minimum.

Now just relax in your Tupperware while I prepare your bubble bath. I should tell you, we have an adapted de-oiling protocol designed especially for our valued clients here at Frogtown. You see, in Birdapolis and Mammalton we typically don’t offer spa services until clients have completed a mandatory 1-2 days in our supportive care and hydration Pre-Wash Care session. But from experience, we’ve found that our frog clients thrive when their first stop in the program is with our decontamination experts in the Cleaning Session Spa. You frogs have such incredible (and delicate) skin, after all.

Unlike the submersion wash method used in birds, slippery amphibians are irrigated with syringes of soapy and plain water.

We’ll start with a light rinse of our favorite de-oiling shampoo. You’re correct! It IS Dawn dish soap. Compared with the spas in Birdapolis and Mammalton, Frogtown uses a very mild Dawn solution. And don’t worry, we’ve already dechlorinated all of the water so it is safe for you. Let’s follow the suds with a long rinse in plain water. Good. Now go ahead and soak for a moment in the rinse pool. And voila! You are de-oiled! No need to towel-off, your skin looks its best when it is glistening with moisture. On to the Conditioning Session!

Can you spot the frog in this photo? See end of Blog for reveal. Our daily visual checks on each of the 90+ frog enclosures were time consuming. Their camouflage is impressive!

This is where you will be relaxing for the duration of your stay at Frogtown. Your suite includes a plunge pool, a moss bed, and a variety of seating options such as twigs, rocks, and the always-popular cork bark! Some of our guests also find clinging to the walls to be a fun activity. We know that humidity is so important to the comfort of our amphibian guests, so each suite is thoroughly misted with crisp, dechlorinated water several times per day.

Room service is included in your stay and is served daily at 5:00 PM for your nocturnal feasting enjoyment. Our rotating menu of flightless fruit flies, pinhead crickets, and maggots is very well-reviewed. Of course, we only serve the highest quality LIVE insects dusted with our house blend of multi-vitamin and calcium powders. Don’t be concerned if you start to pack on the grams during your stay with us. Gaining weight in Frogtown is a GOOD thing!

A Baja California Tree Frog feasts on fruit flies.

We do have one house rule that is strictly enforced by the management of Frogtown. No visitors! It’s important for your recovery that you do not invite any of your frog neighbors into your suite during your stay with us. As you know, frogs tend to be a touch cannibalistic and the last thing we want is for Big Hoppa in Suite 114 to have Baby Baja from Suite 105 “over for dinner”. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Size comparison between our smallest patient and our largest. Left: Baja California Tree Froglet <0.1 grams. Right: California Treefrog 7.1 grams.

Our goal is to keep you comfortable and well-fed in Frogtown until oil cleanup operations are completed in your beautiful creekside neighborhood. Once it is safe for you and all of your neighbors to return home, we will handle all transportation arrangements to Release you back to the section of creek where our Recovery team found you. In the meantime, I’ll be back daily for a quick visual check-in to make sure you are enjoying your stay with us. Every third day we will have a short session where I’ll record your weight, feeding progress, mentation, and overall health.

This is one room of Frogtown. 90+ frogs take up much less space than 90 birds!

Be sure to let us know if there is anything we can do to make your stay at Frogtown more pleasant.

92 frogs packaged up for transport back to their habitat. They were grouped by collection location in order to release them as close as possible to their territories.
Farewell, little friend. We hope you enjoyed your stay at Frogtown. Don’t come again!
Were you able to spot the frog?

— Sam

Frogtown staff L-R: Sam, Allison, Patrick, and Dr. Avery

The Frogs of Toro Canyon Creek

This past August OWCN was activated for an oil event at Toro Canyon Creek.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the area as I had been, it’s a creek in the hills just north of Carpinteria. A year-round water source was created after an oil-water separator had been built back in the 1990’s to help contain an existing oil well seepage.  This allowed the oil to be diverted to a tank and the separated water to feed the creek.  When clean, I can imagine how incredible this small oasis could be and the wildlife it would support; however, when we were activated, much of it was filled with thick oil sludge.

Toro Canyon Creek

While the initial animals recovered were found deceased in the oiled creek, we soon began recovering live animals, all of which belonged to 2 species of frogs (plus one Western fence lizard who happened to be in the wrong place during cleanup).  These frog species, the Baja California Treefrog (Baja) and the California Treefrog are often found to be sympatric (found in the same geographic area with each other) in southern California.


Baja California Treefrog

The Baja California Treefrog was by far the most recovered at this event (89 out of 94 frogs).  Prior to 2006, it was classified under one species known as the Pacific Treefrog, but was then separated into 3 separate species with the southernmost population becoming the Baja California Treefrog.  

The name “Treefrog” isn’t very accurate as these frogs are more ground-dwellers of low shrubs and grasses, although like treefrogs they have the typical rounded toepads that make them excellent climbers.

Baja California Treefrog variations

It is a small frog up to 2 inches long that has many different color and pattern variations which can change in response to its background environment.  The one distinguishing characteristic that does not change is the dark stripe that runs across the eyes.  It is an ambush predator that feeds mostly on insects at night, waiting for prey to come its way before lunging and capturing with its sticky tongue.  

During the breeding season from November to July, the frogs are found close to water sources, with the males becoming territorial.  The male makes his calls usually at night to attract females, but sometimes during the day as well during peak breeding season.  It is the most commonly heard frog in its range and the call (click to hear) that has been widely used in movies.


California Treefrog

The lower recovered number of the other species, the California Treefrog, could have been attributed to their different preferred habitat.  This species prefers boulder areas of which there was much less of.  I would always be excited when we’d recover one of these because of the small area they inhabited, in hopes that we could help preserve their presence after the cleaning had been completed.

This frog is just a tad larger in size than the Baja.  It has less color variation with a lighter brownish grey mottled pattern on top and a rougher skin texture with bumps on its back similar to toads you may be familiar with but having those rounded toepads of treefrogs.  The lack of the eye stripe is the best way to tell them apart from the Baja; however, they sometimes can have a faint stripe, which in juveniles may be more distinct.

California Treefrog

This frog prefers mostly boulder type areas for refuge and tends to move further away from water during fall and winter, becoming less active during the colder months.  During the spring they return to the areas of water to breed but usually take 2 years to reach a reproductive age compared to just 1 for the Baja.


Observations from the Field

One interesting oil-related observation that was made during this event is that regardless of how oiled the frog may have been when captured, this visible oil almost immediately would slough away with its slime layer.  Further investigation hopefully will be done on how much oil remains on them that cannot be seen and the effect on amphibians both short and long term.

Duane

Pop Quiz: What do Renewable Fuels and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network Have in Common?

You may have come across the term “renewable fuel” or “biofuel” recently, as there has been increased chatter in the news about it. But what do these terms really mean and what are they referring to? A better question to begin with is, why are we even blogging about it this week? So, let’s dive into that first…

A bill that was recently passed, AB148, broadened OSPR’s regulatory responsibility to now include response to Renewable Fuels, in addition to the petroleum spill responsibility. Because of the role that the OWCN plays as a partner to Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), this increased mandate extends to the OWCN as well.  So, in order to understand what this means for us, we need to start with the understanding of what a Renewable Fuel is. So, join me on this ride, as we explore this together!

Renewable fuels are fuels produced from renewable resources and include biofuels and fuels mixed with different amounts of ethanol. Biofuels, also known as Biodiesel (and other proprietary names), are made by using plant and animal fats to make fuel hydrocarbons, which are mixed with diesel stock in varying amounts. These fuels are labeled as B100, B20, B6, etc., with the “B” referring to biofuel and the number referring to the volume percentage of the fuel hydrocarbons that are mixed with the diesel stock. It is much more complex than this, but these are the basics, and we will stick with that for now.

In contrast to renewable fuels, non-renewable fuels include the more commonly known fuels such as natural gas, propane, petroleum and other fossil fuels, as well as nuclear energy. As you can imagine, renewable fuels are overall lower in greenhouse gas emissions, and are more of what you would consider “earth-friendly”. Without getting into the politics and complexities of it all, there has been an overall effort to move more toward using a greater amount of renewable fuel sources for supplying our energy demands.

Getting back to the passing of the AB148 bill: what does this mean for our operations at the OWCN? Well, the short answer is that it ensures a funding source for responding to renewable fuel spills that impact wildlife. And that is great news, as the push for more renewable fuels increases the chance of more renewable fuel spills. And as we know from ‘Spills and Wildlife 101’, anything that fouls the feather or fur structure on the outside of an animal, causes skin irritation and burns or leads to the ingestion/absorption/inhalation of these products, has the potential for greatly impacting wildlife, despite its environmentally friendly-sounding name (“bio” and “renewable”).

One of the Mystery Goo spill birds that was cared for by International Bird Rescue in 2015.

Do you guys remember the Mystery Goo spill in San Francisco Bay in January 2015? This “mystery goo” impacted hundreds of birds that were cared for by International Bird Rescue staff and volunteers at the San Francisco Oiled Bird Care and Education Center in Fairfield (one of OWCN’s primary purpose-built facilities).  This “mystery goo” was only months later identified as a polymerized oil, similar to vegetable oil. At that time, no responsible party was found or came forward, and there was no funding system in place that allowed for the rescue and care of wildlife impacted by non-petroleum products, therefore the costs associated with the care of the affected birds for this spill had to come from donations alone. As a direct result of this event, and in an effort to safeguard a funding source if this ever happened again, a bill was introduced by Bay area senators Mark Leno and Loni Hancock and sponsored by San Francisco Baykeeper and Audubon California (Senate Bill 718), but unfortunately, it did not pass. That was a big disappointment but on the flipside it may have contributed to paving the way for the passing of this new bill.

So as we learn more about these fuels, you can rest assured that the OWCN will be fully embracing our mission of “best achievable capture and care” by gathering information and resources that will allow us examine our current protocols and determine if they need modifications, so when we get activated for a renewable fuel spill, we know how best to care for the animals that become impacted.

But for now, the news of the passing of this new bill is reason to celebrate, as it will allow the OWCN and its 44 Member Organization partners to rescue, stabilize, and care for animals that may be impacted by future renewable fuel spills, and that is great news for the wildlife!

Kyra.

Oh, WRMD!

With most of you being associated with the wildlife rehabilitation community, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Medical Database (WRMD) is probably very familiar.  Its foundation came from Devin Dombrowski and Rachel Avilla while working at Lindsay Wildlife Museum.  During this time, there was no standard database for wildlife rehabilitation.  There were a few that existed but none that met the community’s needs as a whole, prompting some to build their own simple database as something that could get them by, but with no interoperability to other organizations.

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Devin and Rachel

“…it became clear to me, through my rehabilitation work and discussions with other wildlife rehabilitators, that there was a need for a proper database that any wildlife rehabilitator could use.” (Devin Dombrowski)

In 2013 the program went public, providing wildlife rehabilitators a database designed to meet their specific needs.  Since then it has continued to grow, currently being used in 48 states in the US and 19 countries around the world.  I (Duane) was thrilled to find it being used at Belize Bird Rescue (BBR) in Belize when I spent time there!

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Coati (BBR)

Some people (myself included), initially had difficulty moving away from paper-based records, but the advantages were so substantial that I knew it had to be done sooner rather than later.  It not only allowed us to easily input, update and query patient data, but the fact that it automated those end-of-year reports to US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) was reward enough!  Additionally important is that it allowed rehabilitation facilities to permit CDFW to access patient data, permitting identification of disease trends in real-time,  and thus allowing for more timely action to address such trends.

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Western Toad

For several years, Devin and Rachel have been working with OWCN to modify WRMD for use with oil spills, and this year, the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Medical Database (OWRMD) made its big debut. So far, OWRMD has been used for two single-animal spills, and the recent Cuyama River Incident.  The very first spill patient input was a Bell’s Sparrow.  Cuyama was the first “big” test of the system, with patients including a Belted Kingfisher, Western Pond Turtles, Mallard ducks, Baja California Tree Frogs, California Red-legged Frogs and a Western Toad.  This was a relatively small inland spill but 20 patients were a great christening for our new database program.

The basic use of the program is very similar to WRMD, with additional features that allow us to track our patients’ specific oil-treatment care during a spill event.  It will provide us a detailed record of patients all the way from Recovery (communicating with the Wildlife Recovery App), through Field Stabilization, Transport, Processing, Pre-wash, Wash, Post-wash, Conditioning and Release.  In the upcoming months you’ll be hearing and learning more about its use as it becomes an integral part of our patient data collection moving forward.

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For each spill we will maintain an enormous amount of data such as initial exam information, morphometrics, types of treatments, final dispositions, release information and more.  Similar to how WRMD stores valuable information that can be used to help more than just animals at a single facility, the data we can collect electronically through OWRMD will greatly enhance our ability to evaluate our protocols and continue to improve care for oil-affected animals.

The conversion is quite an involved undertaking and like all new programs will take some time to get accustomed to; however, just like the conversion from paper records to WRMD, the advantages are just too substantial to resist!

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Lorraine and Duane

Refugio Beach Oil Spill Recap: 5 Year Status Update

A little over 5 years ago on May 19th, 2015, an underground pipeline running parallel to Highway 101 ruptured near Refugio State Beach (just north of Santa Barbara). As a result, 123,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled, 50,000 of which ran down a ravine under the freeway and entered the ocean.

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The Oiled Wildlife Care Network was activated and our responders sprung into action to rescue oiled wildlife in need of assistance.  As you can see in the summary table below, this was a significant wildlife response, especially considering the high number of marine mammal patients. Over 90 responders joined the effort from 21 different OWCN Member Organizations, logging over 1600+ hours!

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To summarize the large response operation, lessons learned and heroic efforts of many, the OWCN created a Refugio Incident Report, which you can view here. This document summarizes our responder hotwash hosted at UC Davis after the incident in 2015. In reviewing such documents years later, it is always reassuring to see that many of the challenges listed have been addressed operationally. This ensures that we learn and improve from every response, maintaining our ability to provide the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife.

And while the focus of OWCN is to provide top notch oiled wildlife response operations from capture to release, there is another aspect of our efforts that does not come to fruition immediately.  The wildlife data we collect, including the summary of both live and dead oiled wildlife, all factor into the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, led by California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CDFW OSPR). Want to learn more about the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process?  Click here.

We are excited to share that just two weeks ago, the draft restoration and assessment plan for the Refugio Oil Spill was presented to the public. You can view the May 13th presentations and FAQs on the CDFW OSPR website here:

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Thank you to all our OWCN responders, CDFW OSPR and everyone involved in responding to this incident.  While we will never forget, we were able to grow from this response and apply lessons learned toward our new and improved operations of present day.

The OWCN Management Team

 

 

Cuyama River Incident: Notes from the Field

“Hey, wait…listen”. I whispered. “Did you hear that?” Wendy and Danene were on the opposite bank, directly across from me. Dressed in Tyvek, a safety vest, lifejacket, a raincoat and a hard hat on, an N-95 mask and safety glasses covering their face, a spotlight and net in hand, the two of them looked like something out of a cartoon.

cuyama team

Our Field Team: Wendy, Danene, Jennie

They stopped walking and listened. The rain was still coming down, but the birds were just beginning to chatter, and the first rays of sunlight could be seen on the horizon. And then there it was again, that throaty vocalization (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4xTYkG8fM0). “What in the world is that?” I asked. “Is that a red-legged frog?” We knew there was a possibility that this threatened species could be in the area and had listened to their calls online, but none of us had ever heard them in the wild before. I turned on my spotlight and scanned the bank near where they were standing. “I don’t see any eyeshine, but it sounds like it’s coming from behind you guys, up near the trees”. I crossed the river and joined Wendy and Danene on the other side. The three of us started heading back toward the newly created dam that had been erected to contain the oil, but also acted as a nice path across the river where we could easily get back to the truck.

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A Western Toad

We each took a different path through the trees in hopes of catching sight of this odd sounding species. Just before reaching the dam, I shined my flashlight into a little cave in the rock face we were passing. “Guys!” I shouted in excitement “I found something!”. I placed my net over the entrance, shined my light into the cave to make sure there were no other occupants, and then with Wendy’s help, slowly coaxed the Western Toad out of the cave and into the net. Realizing we needed to get going if we were going to make the morning safety tailgate briefing, we placed our new friend in a container we had brought, entered the data into the Wildlife Recovery App, and boogied back to the truck.

 

cuyama pic1

Searching for Wildlife

This spill response was very different than any others I have been involved with. California was (and still is) under quarantine due to COVID-19, so this spill response was limited as far as staffing numbers to make sure people were kept as safe as possible. In addition, everyone was required to wear an N-95 mask at all times. No exceptions. There were numerous port-a-potties and hand-washing stations set up at each staging site, including several pink “women only” ones. There were people stationed at the river access points that would wipe down your vehicle door handles for you. Lunch was individually bagged and delivered to reduce the potential for germ spread. A six-foot separation was required when working in the field, unless it was absolutely necessary to be in closer contact. All of this made the response slightly more difficult, but the hardest part was with everyone wearing a mask it was a lot harder to hear what they were saying! Despite all the challenges that we were facing during our first COVID-19 spill response, keeping people safe was always our top priority.

Because we suspected we had red-legged frogs in this specific area, challenges or no challenges, the search was on! With the energy level spiked, onto the riverbank we went, determined to capture any affected wildlife. After much searching, I grabbed onto some old wood debris that was pushed up against the bank.  As I did, I heard a plop and saw a frog jump into the water. I scooped it up with my net and, with Wendy’s help, we examined it to see how oiled it was. Based on how much oil was in the water where we captured it, we expected it to be very visibly oiled. However, while it didn’t appear visibly oiled, substantial product came off onto our gloves, so we carefully boxed it up and transported it back to our staging area.

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A CA Red-Legged Frog

Upon getting it back to our Mobile Animal Stabilization Hospital (MASH), we did a more thorough examination. While its hind legs were more yellow than the tell-tale red that is common, it turned out to in fact be a red-legged frog (but probably a young one). We provided it food, water, and some rest, and the next day gave it a Dawn(r) bath, a new home to recover in, and lots of earthworms. It turns out they really like earthworms! We continued to house and feed our threatened patient until it was able to be released back into the wild.

Overall, this response was a great experience for all of us. There were so many nuances (and some significant challenges), but we further refined our response procedures during unique circumstances, continued to develop more inland-specific techniques, and found ways to improve our field data collection tools. In total, we collected 21 animals (9 Western Pond Turtles, 3 Mallards, 1 Belted kingfisher, 1 fish, 4 Baja California Tree Frogs, 1 Western Toad and 2 California Red-legged Frogs) and successfully released almost 90% of the live ones collected. It just goes to show that pre-planning, adaptability, resilience in the face of uncertainty, and having and working with a great team leads to great success!!

-Jennie

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Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A 10-Year Personal Reflection

Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning on 21 April 2010 / AP

As OWCN responders, I am sure everyone is aware by now that today, 20 April, marks the 10-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and the start of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) that went uncontrolled for more than 80 days. There are a number of excellent pieces on the history and sheer scale of the operation (several of which I will link below), but I wanted to give a personal story to try and give a bit more color to at least my little corner of the incident.

I was one of the many who watched in horror at the early phase of the accident – the rig up in flames, the workers who lost their lives – and then watched as the released oil rose to the surface and made its way toward the Louisiana coastline. As one of the writers of the 2007 Oiled Marine Mammal Guidelines for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), I was quickly brought into the loop on marine mammal and sea turtle issues – in an environment where 30 different species of mammals and 4 of 5 species of turtles were at significant risk. I also reached out directly to BP and International Bird Rescue, as key partners for us in California, and offered the assistance of the OWCN if needed. Rhonda Murgatroyd, acting Wildlife Branch Director for the BP operations and Dr. Teri Rowles, program coordinator for NMFS’ stranding program, both asked me to fly to Louisiana on 27 April to lend assistance for the mammal and turtle effort (as Tri-State Bird Rescue had been mobilized to lead the bird effort). Thus started a 5-month, 9-round-trip, 1300-work-hour operational response for me, but little did I know it would also end up occupying much of the following 10 years in broader preparedness activities!

Mike Ziccardi at DWH

Mike Ziccardi at the DWH Incident Command Post

After arriving at the Houma, LA incident command post (or ICP), one of the first things I was asked to focus on was working with NMFS staff to identify existing personnel and facilities in the region, make recommendations to what might be needed if the spill required a large-scale rehabilitation effort (recall that the oil stayed off shore for more than two weeks), and to implement the existing protocols to address the effort. Each of those tasks ended up being enormous undertakings. First, no one could predict how large the spill could end up being, so the entire GoM was considered at risk (later that was expanded to Cuba and the Atlantic seaboard, but that’s another story…) and plans had to be developed from Texas to Florida. Next, while excellent facilities and personnel exist in key areas around the Gulf, facilities had not been developed specifically with oil containment in mind. Third, amazing responders and rehabilitators operated from these facilities, but none had the required 24-hour OSHA training necessary to enter a “hot zone” before the event, and volunteers had been expressly forbidden to work in the effort. Last, but certainly not least, the protocols that Dr. Shawn Johnson and I had worked hard on in the mid-2000’s had been based on the current state of knowledge for oiled wildlife care – namely impacts and protocols related to pinnipeds and sea otters, with little detailing cetaceans (and none involving sea turtles). So just a few challenges…

Exam on juvenile sea turtle

As the spill evolved, the Marine Mammal/Sea Turtle (MM/ST) Unit tried to stay one (or more) steps ahead of the “curveballs” that were thrown at us daily. Amazing collaborators and scientists from NOAA (such as Teri Rowles, Sarah Wilkin, Trevor Spradlin, and many others on the mammal side; Barbara Schroeder, Sara McNulty, Alexis Gutierrez, and many more on the turtle side; and Lavonne Hull and a tremendous support team from UCD) took turns rotating into the ICP to work with me to support the management effort, while the key stranding coordinators and scientific staff solved the problems in real time in the field. When very few oiled turtles arrived on the beach in the first two weeks, plans were quickly made to travel more than 100 miles offshore to start combing the oiled sargassum for juvenile animals at risk (complete with aerial assistance to allow for efficient searches). When dead bottlenose dolphins began stranding in large numbers in remote locations, large-scale recovery efforts were mounted to be able to bring the carcasses back so that full post-mortem examinations could be undertaken. When it became clear the scope and breadth of the impacted region, key facilities from the Texas-Louisiana border through to the panhandle of Florida were revamped to accommodate oiled dolphins and turtles (and later expanded appreciably once animals arrived). Additionally, stand-by facilities for oiled cetaceans and turtles were identified in areas outside of that geographical limit, additional sites were found to accommodate oiled manatees should they be captured, and secondary facilities were found that could take de-oiled animals if needed to free up space at the primary sites. When large-scale controlled burns were initiated, an outcry from the general public regarding the potential of animals to be caught in the “burn box” ended up in a rapid, comprehensive, and collaborative approach to survey each and every potential burn site before igniting it. These, and the daily sourcing of caffeine (the subject of which became one of my favorite blog posts during this response) were just a few of the daily challenges that we met and conquered during the response.

Oiled Dolphin During DWH / NOAA

Oiled dolphin collected during DWH / NOAA

One of the most memorable things for me personally, aside from trying hard to do what we could for all of the animals at risk, was the public thirst for information on the spill. Because of the sheer scale of the event (with more than 47,000 people working on it at its largest effort), getting key information into the public sphere on the wildlife effort was difficult. With operations spread between four different Sectors (each of which had an ICP that reported to a Unified Area Command), enumerating the impacts to animals accurately was critical – especially in the face of images of heavily-oiled pelicans in the daily press. There were even reports of “black van” and “black boat” operations that prowled at night to collect oiled marine mammals and dispose of them to hide evidence! While we were delivering information to the Unified Command daily related to mammals and turtles, early in the response those data were held close – which ended up translating into little information being released on the overall wildlife effort. To try and do a small part to alleviate this dearth of info, I turned to the OWCN Blog (yes, this blog site) to try and get at least a bit of information out there on the MM/ST planning and response efforts; no numbers, mind you, but some information pertaining to what was being done to benefit those animals at risk. The LAST thing I wanted to do each night was to head back to the La Quinta Inn after a 14-hr shift and wax philosophic, but I felt it my responsibility to try and get SOME info into the public arena to answer the questions of what was being done, and by whom. Aside from some particular literary embellishments (such as comparing the spill at one point to the Sword of Damocles), the blog landed well – and in fact led to additional media interest that then led to the ability to get good messaging out on the wildlife effort. Which leads me to the key point of this section: sharing correct information on excellent work is a critical part of emergency response. While I abhor being in the spotlight, either you control your message, or someone else will control it for you.

NOAA National Guidelines

NOAA National Guidelines

Ultimately, the well was killed after 87 days of uncontrolled release (and several unsuccessful attempts of stemming the flow). However, the work was far from over at that point. Some absolutely amazing work was started or continued: Lori Schwacke’s work investigating the chronic effects of oil exposure on coastal bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay, LA and Brian Stacy’s continued efforts to fully document the effects in sea turtles and dolphins collected dead during the response to name just two. The response also resulted in an increased effort at an international level by the oil industry to better prepare for, and mitigate the effects of, oil spills, leading to the formation of the IPIECA – International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) Joint Industry Project. The IPIECA-IOGP JIP have focused on 24 key areas of recognized preparedness need for industry – one of which is oiled wildlife preparedness (and has led to the funding and support for the Global Oiled Wildlife Response Service, or GOWRS, Project, of which the OWCN is a proud member). Closer to home, the conclusion of the Deepwater Horizon incident has led to an increased effort by NOAA to better prepare for oil spill responses that may impact either marine mammals or sea turtles. The OWCN (primarily myself and Dr. Greg Frankfurter, with oversight Dr. Rowles and Sarah Wilkin) have helped formulate revised National Guidelines for marine mammal response, inclusive of “lessons-learned” from cetaceans and response actions during this incident. We have also focused on more regional-specific details through Regional Plans and Operational Annexes in each of the NMFS stranding response regions to identify key risk areas/species and available resources. Last, we have been conducting trainings (both operational and OSHA-mandated activities) in most of the regions to ensure the lack of trained and knowledgeable personnel will not hamper responses moving forward. So some tangible “silver linings” have definitely emerged from this disaster.

Washing an adult turtle during DWH

In looking back at this event, it makes me realize that all long-time oil spill responders tell stories of “the big one” – whether that is Exxon Valdez 30 years ago, Treasure 20 years ago, or even Deepwater Horizon 10 years ago. Each and every incident have pearls of knowledge buried within, and it is the responsibility of dedicated responders to unearth them to make things better for the animals (and people) who are involved in the future. While I have been personally disappointed in the lack of legislative motion following this event (as compared to that following the Exxon Valdez incident 30 years ago), I am pleased that we as a community dedicated to the welfare of wildlife have done so much in these 10 years to improve our processes to truly embrace the “best achievable capture and care” mandate that is the OWCN mission.

Mike Ziccardi in the One Day out of the ICP!

Mike Ziccardi in his one day out of the ICP!

And, as our previous Volunteer Coordinator Kaiti used to say, you are at 1688 words, so enough already! And if you read to this point, you CLEARLY are either really bored or appreciate my particular bent as to writing, so please feel free to relive 2010 with me in the archives of my blogs linked below.

Take care, and please stay safe in these uncertain times.

-Mike

 

Additional links to Deepwater Horizon response stories:

OWCN Blog – My personnel reflections beginning from Day 1, and continuing…

NOAA Fisheries – Restoring the Gulf: 10 Years After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

National Audubon Society – Ten Years Later: Reflections on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

IPIECA – Macondo 10 Years On (Macondo being another name for the Deepwater Horizon incident)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration – A Decade Later: Advances in Oil Spill Science Since Deepwater Horizon

 

 

 

 

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

GregFrankfurter