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!


Labor of Love

The fish oil pelican event in northern California continues.  Tim and I just returned from Arcata last night, where we were continuing to help our friends at Bird Ally X with a variety of tasks related to caring for the pelicans that have been impacted by fish oil discharge from fish-cleaning stations in Crescent City and Shelter Cove over the past month or so.  Tim helped build a new washing table (see picture below), and I did a variety of jobs, including feeding, washing, and caring for the pelicans.  It was a very positive experience for me and I learned so much during the past few days.


Brand new wash table.

The general feeling that one gets being at the facility is how similar this is to a real oil spill.  Time is of the essence – to capture the birds affected as quickly as possible, because the quicker you capture them, usually the better shape they are in; to set up the facilities and personnel needed to care for such a large number of animals; and lastly, to continue to operate, day after day, on little sleep (and usually lots of sugar and caffeine) without burning out.


Lucinda and Laura washing a pelican – a long process that takes an hour or more.

Animal care is the focus of a response of this nature, but without the humans caring for the animals, the whole operation would fail.  And it is the human aspect, which is at its finest, in times of crisis.  Without the help and support of people, Bird Ally X would not be able to care for these pelicans.  Not only is the financial support essential, but also the support of the countless volunteers that come to help out every day and are willing to go home smelling like fish and pelican vomit.  These people put in long hours doing jobs that are not all that glamorous, such as loads of laundry, thawing thousands of fish, and hosing down pelican enclosures.  There is also Linda, who shows up with a smiling face every day around 5:00 pm with delicious out-of-this-world home cooked meals for all the staff and volunteers.  I very much enjoyed meeting and working with everyone the past few days.


Monte, Laura, January, Kyra, and Tim in front of the washing hut.

Like pieces of a puzzle, every little bit that everyone does contributes to the overall success of a response, whether it is fish oil or crude oil that coats the birds’ feathers.  In the wise words of Aesop, “it is not only fine feathers that make fine birds”.  Even though these pelicans are covered in fish oil and for the moment don’t have “fine” feathers, I feel certain that at least most of them will be just “fine”.  They are receiving excellent care by an amazing group of people that care for them deeply.

Happy weekend, everyone!


Pelicans and fish waste don’t mix

Temporary pelican housing in Arcata

Tim, Becky, and I just returned from Arcata where we were helping our friends at Bird Ally X and Humboldt Wildlife Care Center with a pelican response.  Pelicans all along the north coast have been contaminated with fish waste being discharged into the ocean.  Instead of getting a free meal, they get oily feathers and lose their waterproofing.  Although Bird Ally X is working with local authorities to stop the discharge, in the meantime they have more than 100 contaminated pelicans waiting to be washed.

Tim and Becky spent all day Tuesday working on facilities, finishing up another tent to house dirty pelicans. Tim made some improvements on the other tents, increasing ventilation with strategically placed holes and some fans.  I examined and bled pelicans already in care, did some intake exams, and looked at the medical cases.  Becky helped with pelican exams, cared for sick pelicans, and processed the blood samples.  Tim also built a second wash station, which will help a lot, as many birds are currently ready for wash.

They have some very dedicated interns and volunteers helping out, but because it is summer in this college town, there aren’t as many people around to help.  On the other hand, a steady stream of new volunteers came through the doors, showing that the local community is eager to help with their pelican population.  Volunteers also took care of the staff, bringing by coffee, bagels, snacks, and even home-cooked meals!  Luckily, the pelicans are self-feeding, so that helps simplify things a bit.

If you’ve been looking for an excuse to visit the Humboldt Bay area, now’s the time — volunteers are urgently needed to help with construction as well as washing and animal care.


Here’s Becky showing off her talents at facilities modification!

Pelicans in a tent, with their new ventilation fan visible in back, courtesy of Tim.