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.

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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.

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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.

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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 http://www.rzss.org.uk/conservation/our-projects/project-search/field-work/project-pinnamin-conserving-northern-rockhopper-penguins-on-tristan-da-cunha/

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

 

The Miracle of OWRMD

Unlike my six-year-old, whose list to Santa is comprised mostly of toy weapons, my wishes for the New Year are less tangible. Less war, less poverty, less hunger, less deforestation, fewer emerging diseases, fewer extinctions, lower carbon emissions, no oil spills . . . . you get the idea. Given the current state of the world, it would probably take a miracle for any of those wishes to come true. But one miracle I am counting on is the promise of OWRMD!

Many, many years ago, Mike realized that an electronic medical record keeping system would be a huge boost to animal care during a spill response. After a LOT of work, angst, pain, blood, sweat, tears, and electronic device purchases, we are close to having a truly game-changing system in OWRMD, thanks to Devin Dombrowski and the Wild Neighbors Database Project (a non-profit that is already doing great work providing a free online medical records option for wildlife rehabilitators – follow the link to learn more or to donate).

OWRMD is a medical records database system that is purpose-built for the care of animals during an oil spill response, and it has been worth waiting for.  OWRMD is not exactly the same as the WRMD that is currently used in dozens of rehabilitation centers, but it is closely related. Many operations will be the same, and if you are comfortable with WRMD, getting comfortable with OWRMD will be a snap. It’s intuitive and has a lovely interface design, so even those who are not used to electronic medical records will become accustomed to it in no time.

It’s not quite finished yet, but for those of you who already use WRMD, you can understand how great a tool OWRMD will be. In the coming months, look out for opportunities to learn more about OWRMD, such as participating in drills or specific training sessions. At first, OWRMD will be for birds only, but we will be integrating other species into it as we move forward.

This holiday season, be safe, be healthy, be happy  . . . . and be thankful for whatever miracles come your way!

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Christine

Reducing Wildlife Impacts

For my initial blog post (yes I admit being in absentia on this score), I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about a component of oil spill response that to some degree hangs out in the background of OWCN, but can be especially important in certain types of spills.  It is the part of potential response involving “hazing and deterrents”, or as I like to call it – “Preventive Medicine” for wildlife in oil spills.
TWV_HazingAs the Hazing Coordinator, I lead the hazing and deterrence effort within OWCN.  Because of our expansion to include inland spills, the types of wildlife that we are now tasked with trying to prevent becoming affected includes everything from birds to pinnipeds, amphibians to bears.  In order to assure readiness to accomplish this task, we have expanded our core hazing team in both numbers and locations in the state, and have expanded the range and amount of equipment that is prepositioned for this task. We have incorporated a number of wildlife biologists working for The Institute for Wildlife Studies into this core team due to their extensive experience with a wide variety of species, both birds and terrestrial mammals.  I am also working within the Field Operations group with Scott and Kyra to more closely integrate hazing and recovery activities to better utilize personnel in the areas most needed during a spill. We are regularly consulting other individuals who do hazing and deterrence to get ideas, and are working to widen the group of tools available to us.

Over the past several years we have conducted a number of trainings of volunteers, contractors, and staff in hazing techniques and tools, resulting in a dozen core hazing team members that are trained to lead field teams, and many volunteers that are trained to assist in a hazing effort.  Besides teaching how to properly utilize the tools we have available, we also test or research the wide array of behavioral responses to hazing that various species might have.
TWV_TrainingIn association with keeping up with the latest techniques in wildlife hazing and deterrence, last month I attended the Vertebrate Pest Conference in Newport Beach to learn what techniques people doing non-lethal human-wildlife conflict management are using that could apply to oil spills.  Some of the techniques described in talks at the conference could be especially important for deterring terrestrial mammal entrance into spill zones, so they were of great interest.  I also presented a talk about OWCN’s mission and work, not only hazing but also recovery and treatment.  This was done with the goal of letting some of the other professionals there know that we could be resource for them in the area of research and collaboration, and to improve overall awareness of the important work that OWCN-affiliated organizations do throughout the state.

Finally, we are expanding our interactions with the UC Research and Extension Station network, whose personnel such as Terry Salmon and Paul Gorenzel really started the initial hazing team work with OSPR, and developed key protocols and references we use today (the manual they created can be downloaded here).

TWV_ZonEspecially on the terrestrial mammal side, personnel from the Extension service often have a lot of expertise with deterrence and hazing, and they have allowed us to utilize several of their facilities for equipment storage.  We are quite appreciative of their cooperation and intend to continue to develop the relationship to allow us to give “best achievable hazing and deterrence” so that ideally, care can be a less necessary part of the equation.

– Winston

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.

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Prestige oil spill 2002 – kirikou.com

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

Gratefulness Comes in Many Colors – Big Lagoon Oil Spill

Greetings from Arcata!

IMG_0090[1]As many of you know, several of us from the OWCN management team arrived here late yesterday to help ensure that we were doing everything possible to find, capture, and treat potentially impacted wildlife resulting from the truck that overturned late Saturday night on Highway 101. The truck that overturned was carrying diesel, which spilled into the nearby Big Lagoon, just north of Arcata. With thousands of waterfowl that consider Big Lagoon a good “hangout”, the fear was that many of these birds would become oiled.

They say that to be a truly happy person, you should be grateful for and recognize the little (and big) things in your life that happen every day. Not sure who “they” are, but I am told they are very wise people who know what they are talking about.  And in the spirit of the holidays, when most people are practicing, or at least thinking about being grateful, I want to share with you some things that I am grateful for these past couple of days:

  1. I am grateful that there are great OSPR folks up here, that reacted quickly and truly care for the amazing wildlife in this area.
  2. I am grateful that after a day and a half of field operations we have yet to see or capture confirmed oiled animals.
  3. I am grateful that this happened in the winter, right before the lagoon breached, which I am told happens each year with the winter rains.  If this spill had happened in the summer, a lot of the spilled diesel would have stayed in the lagoon, and more animals would have likely been oiled.
  4. I am grateful that today was the only sunny day they have had in this area in like 10 years. The forecast is for rain tomorrow (seriously – look it up if you don’t believe me).
  5. I am grateful that the gas stations around here are wide enough and not so crowded that I can drive the Sprinter and the boat trailer up to the gas pump without crazy maneuvering in a small space (it’s not pretty – take my word for it).
  6. I am grateful that we have a wonderful team of responders up here that can be counted on to make sure the wildlife are safe – either by going out in the field (and freezing their buns off – can I say that in a blog?), or getting the facilities ready (at the Marine Wildlife Care Center at HSU, which would be the primary care center for a spill in this area, and Humboldt Wildlife Care Center/Bird AllyX.
  7. I am especially grateful for hot coffee in the morning and cold beer at night (not sure if I can say the beer thing either, but there you have it).

There are many things to be grateful for tonight.  The plan for tomorrow is to have two Wildlife Recovery teams searching the Big Lagoon area at first light.  We would be grateful for no sightings of oiled wildlife, but if there are, we are certain that they will be captured quickly and well-cared for by our amazing team of responders.

– Kyra

Oil Spill Over, But Animal Care Continues

The following is a guest blog by Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue.  Even though the majority of animals that we had in care from the spill have been released, our colleagues at International Bird Rescue and SeaWorld have been hard at work caring for the remaining animals.  Thank you for all the effort you have put into caring for the special cases that need a little more time before release! -Becky

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

When an oil spill occurs, the media rush in to meet the public’s desire to know what the environmental effects will be, putting forth iconic images of struggling wildlife and crude-covered habitats. They then go on to capture inspiring moments of cleanup efforts and successfully washed and saved animals. Unfortunately (and understandably), public interest wanes as the cleanup process draws down. The beaches are reopened for public use, and the majority of what the public sees has been neutralized. However, this is not the story’s end for wildlife rehabilitators and the affected wildlife that remain in care.

Hundreds of wildlife specialists across California are trained to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife affected by oil spills. Contaminated animals are rescued and transported to a wildlife hospital, where they are stabilized, washed to remove the oil, and treated for injuries. Sometimes removing the contaminant is not enough though; in fact, the crude very often masks secondary injuries and health problems. For example, the contaminant can render the animal’s primary defense against injury and harm—its hair, fur, or feathers—ineffective, leading to starvation, hypothermia, burns, and other wounds. The upshot is that animals impacted by oil spills often must remain in care longer than expected.

The recent oil spill near Refugio State Beach impacted hundreds of native animals, primarily sea birds and marine mammals, with the California Brown Pelican being the most affected bird. Wildlife hospitals, such as International Bird Rescue, were tasked to treat the contaminated sea birds. Trained technicians, volunteers, and veterinary staff at Bird Rescue spent countless hours washing and restoring the patients to full health. By the time the oil spill cleanup was over, all but three of the rescued birds had been given a clean bill of health and released.

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

One of the three, a Ring-Billed Gull (number R56), was emaciated and dehydrated upon admission into care; in addition, its feathers were in such poor condition that it could not sustain flight. This gull, which took several days of supportive care just to recover its willingness to eat, is currently molting and doing laps in the Bird Rescue aviary as it grows strong enough to fly. The second bird, Brown Pelican W19, came into care completely coated in oil. After W19 was washed, staff found a chest abscess that required antibiotics and surgery. The abscess was surgically removed, and the bird completed a full course of antibiotics. Now fully healed and flying beautifully, W19 was released on August 18. And the final patient, Brown Pelican W1005, was covered in oil and had a foot infection from an unknown source. This bird has been washed, has undergone two surgeries, and remains on antibiotics. W1005’s prognosis is guarded, but Bird Rescue staff are working hard to ensure it gets all the care it needs.

For each individual wild animal, the traumatic physical effects of an oil spill end when it is returned home. International Bird Rescue, along with every diligent wildlife organization that makes up the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, holds one basic conviction for dealing with affected animals: Every individual matters. The collective goal in our community is to restore every animal to full health and release it back into the wild.

-Kelly Berry

Refugio Incident Update 8/19/2015

Photos and updates on animals affected by the Refugio Incident, provided by the Joint Information Center:

Three California sea lions returned to the wild off the California coast near San Diego on August 16, after wildlife care experts determined they were ready for release.  They were wearing satellite tags so scientists can track their activities following their rehabilitation after the oil spill. Wildlife experts captured the sea lions during the Refugio Oil Spill Response that started on May 19, when Pipeline 901 leaked oil into the Pacific Ocean in northern Santa Barbara County.

-Becky