Around the World with OWCN

I spent some time looking at the stats section of our blog-hosting site (and a little bit of time staring at the wall), in an attempt to procrastinate my workday today.  What I ended up finding (on the website, not the wall) turned out to be an interesting blog idea!

OWCN blog viewers by country

One of the newer blog features allows you to look at a map of the world and see which countries have had people view your blog.  I was actually surprised at how far reaching the OWCN blog has become.  Since the country identification creation for the blog on February 12, 2012, we have had viewers from 124 different countries visit our blog site!  Not bad, considering there are 196 countries in the world.  Of course the number of 196 countries is arguable, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Even more interesting was to see which countries had the most viewers to our blog.  While the U.S. predictably has a commanding lead, it was neat to see that we have a large number of viewers in Canada, the UK, Australia, India, New Zealand, and the Philippines.  I’m embarrassingly bad at world geography, so maybe this isn’t huge news to all of you, but I was quite excited to discover we even had blog viewers in countries I’ve never even heard of, and I had a great time looking them up on the map (Hello to our viewers in Vanuatu, Montenegro, New Caledonia, and Benin!!!).

One thing the OWCN strives for is continued outreach, to not only help spread awareness of oiled wildlife, but to also help prepare other groups for spill response.  So whether these viewers are just casual readers interested in the topic of spill response, or other groups looking to learn more, it is very exciting that we are able to reach so many people.  I would like to encourage our viewers around the world to continue viewing our blog, and to stop by our facebook page ( and like us.  We would love to hear from all of you and find out what you are doing for oiled wildlife response in your area.  And to all our viewers near and far, please share our blog so we can fill in those missing areas on our map!


Happy Anniversary Cosco Busan!

Exactly five years ago today, the OWCN received a call from OSPR about a small spill (approx. 140 gallons) in San Francisco Bay from a container vessel that had an “allision” (yes, I had to look that one up!) with the Bay Bridge. At that point, no oiled wildlife had been seen but, as a precaution due to the more than 1.6 million birds that come to the SF Bay each year, two teams were requested to do some initial reconnaissance. Our teams quickly mobilized to the area and observed what looked like a lot more than the original estimate of oil on the surface of the water, as well as a large number of shorebirds and waterfowl throughout the area. Later that afternoon, OSPR and the US Coast Guard developed their own estimate of the volume spilled – 58,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil – and, as they say, the rest is history; history that has changed the face of oiled wildlife response in California since.

In the ensuing two months, the OWCN mounted its largest oiled wildlife response to date, ultimately collecting 1,083 live oiled birds and 1,854 dead ones before the conclusion of the event. It also mounted the largest field collection effort ever instituted, with more than 300 person-days of search effort and greater than 1200 miles of coastline directly searched (in addition to hundreds and hundreds of miles scanned by recovery and reconnaissance staff and volunteers). At the facility, more than 400 person-days of staff and 1500 person-days of volunteer effort was used, with volunteers giving more than 13,000 hours towards the effort. At the height of the effort, more than 740 live birds were in the never-before-used-for-a-large-spill San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center, fully testing the purpose-built facility to close to its designed capacity with very challenging species such as surf scoters, grebes, waterfowl, and loons. The facility, as well as all personnel involved, responded admirably, ultimately releasing more than 420 clean birds to their natural environment.

This is not to say everything went smoothly – far from it on many fronts. There are many reports and reviews on these issues, so I will just concentrate on a few of those that impacted or related to the OWCN. First, it being a environmental disaster in the backyard of a region that is proud of their strong environmental stewardship, there was a demand from Day 0 from the public and governmental officials to get key information on who was at fault and what they were doing to fix it. Compounding this demand was a sense of distrust from the mis-reporting of the spill volume early in the response, as well as less-than-optimal reporting on response activities. Second, because the SF Bay is a very dynamic waterway, the oil quickly spread throughout the Bay from San Rafael south to Hayward, as well as outside the Bay from Palomarin to Pacifica – making cleanup and recovery challenging. Third, while the OWCN had participated in recovery of oiled wildlife in the past (providing experts to support the effort), it had not been given the mandate to lead such efforts, so training and recruitment of interested personnel was not at the same level as animal care efforts. This led to a sense that not enough field personnel were available and on the beaches. Confounding this was the newly-developed OWCN Hotline for reporting oiled wildlife – a hotline that crashed in the first weekend due to the massive numbers of people calling it to get any available information they could pertaining to the spill. Last (and certainly not least) was the huge number of individuals interested in volunteering to help respond to the spill. Traditionally, the Unified Command sends all of these people to wildlife operations to assist in rehabilitation but, since the OWCN has developed such a robust volunteer corps of more than 2,000 pre-trained individuals, the OWCN needed very few “convergent” or “spontaneous” volunteers. This rejection, coupled with early mis-information, lack of timely messaging, and a large spill area, created a “perfect storm” of public dissatisfaction with the response.

Since the conclusion of the Cosco Busan spill, many audits, reports and inquiries have been done to better understand the problems and flaws of the system to better improve readiness in the future. Several of these included information directly related to the OWCN and its operations. On the whole, the OWCN was highly praised for its animal care systems and capacity to quickly provide “best achievable care to oil affected animals”. However, two key elements in the Department of Finance audit of the response and the US Coast Guard’s Incident Specific Preparedness Review related directly to the OWCN:

  • It was noted that field operations in California needed to be significantly increased to provide a similar level of services to the OWCN’s animal care arm. In working with OSPR and the Legislature, AB 2911 (Wolk) provided additional funds “to officially  make the Oiled Wildlife Care Network responsible for the proactive search for and rescue of oiled wildlife, and improve the number of volunteers and capacity to train volunteers used in rescuing oiled wildlife”. The OWCN has since moved forward aggressively with a Recovery program (and, more recently, with a complementary Field Stabilization program), and now has more than 270 fully trained individuals throughout the state ready and able to respond to oiled wildlife on the beach.
  • It was also identified that volunteers from the public should be incorporated into the response effort if at all possible. Because of the breadth of the OWCN program in California, additional responsibilities for interested individuals needed to be found, as well as working out liability and training issues for such activities. OSPR, in concert with the OWCN and other non-governmental organizations, have since developed a “Non-Oiled Wildlife” Volunteer Plan that identifies a number of other tasks that interested people can take part in, as well as be available to the OWCN should additional volunteers be needed for animal care.

While not directly noted as necessary in the many reviews that occurred after the event, the OWCN has also beefed up other parts to its system post-Cosco, including (but not limited to): 1) a more responsive and robust wildlife reporting hotline that can be rolled to a live attendant or a system like San Francisco’s 211 program during spills; 2) a better communication flow directly from the OWCN, including this blog and other social media outlets; 3) more field stabilization units for deployment nearer to spill locations should the be at a distance from a primary care centers; 4) greater hazing capacities should oiled animals need to be kept from a spill zone; 5) additional recovery equipment such as ATVs, boats and a Mobile Command Post; and 6) increased supply caches at each primary care center.

These are just a few of the many “lessons learned” from the Cosco Busan response, and why it is important to not only do excellent work during the spill, but to critically evaluate the successes and changes needed after each spill to improve systems and capacities. While California is largely considered the most capable and responsive region in the world for oiled wildlife response, events such as these help to remind us that you can never be too prepared should another “allision” occur in the future!

– Mike

The Debate Over 25 Birds

In last night’s Presidential debate, Governor Romney, when making his point that oil production is down on Federal land but up on private land, provided the following quote:

Second Presidential Debate (Image: Getty Images)

“So where’d the increase come from? Well a lot of it came from the Bakken Range in North Dakota. What was (Obama’s) participation there? The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost? 20 or 25 birds were killed and brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis.”

After the debate, USA Today did fact checking on this information and provided the following info:

The U.S. attorney in North Dakota last year charged seven oil companies with misdemeanor violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which carries a $15,000 fine, in connection with the deaths of 28…birds. The birds reportedly flew into open oil pits that they mistook for ponds, or were poisoned by oil that spilled into nearby wetlands. Charges against three companies were dismissed in January. Three other defendants reached plea agreements, and the charges against the final company were dropped by the government.”

No matter how you feel about the value of wildlife, the definition of what constitutes “take” by industrial operations, or the responsibilities of society to address potential anthropogenic effects on the health of the environment, we as oiled wildlife responders must be conversant with the issues at hand, and provide factual information to combat five-second sound bites designed to promote a visceral response from undecided voters in key swing states (which also happen to be emerging energy producing states).

I encourage you to read this excellent article from PressAction, which clearly (though at length) discusses the details of the Federal case brought on by the US District Attorney to (primarily)  Brigham Oil & Gas LP, a company now owned by Statoil – the 13th largest oil and gas company in the world with gross profits of over $13 billion US in 2011. In contrast, I also direct you to this article from The Foundry addressing what they consider “(o)vercriminalization in environmental law” and quotes the Wall Street Journal as titling the District Attorney in question the “Dodo of the Year”.

Only by being aware of the facts in these situations can we be effective communicators. So when this debate dies down and people forget about the 25 birds in North Dakota, yet an oil spill hits our shores or inland areas and 250 birds are impacted, we can present facts related to the MBTA and its value/application in a rational way so that we can get back to the care to those animals in need. All of this without worrying about developing sound bites.

Off soapbox. Sermon ended.

– Mike

Oiled Penguins in South Africa

This guest blog on oiled African penguins, was provided by volunteer Nancy Neal Yeend.  Thank you Nancy, for providing such an interesting story to our readers!

African Penguins


Nancy Neal Yeend

What started as a research project soon turned into a rescue mission. For two weeks in late August and early September I participated in an EarthWatch[1] project, where volunteers assisted University of Cape Town researchers studying the impact of oil spills on the South African penguin population, and their nesting and chick-rearing habits.

Background: The site, Robben Island, located 13 miles northwest of Cape Town is famous for its prison, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 19 years.  The island is now a UN World Heritage site. The island hosts a fur seal colony and in the 1600s the Dutch named the island: “robben” meaning “seal.”

In 2000 a major oil spill occurred when the Treasure, a Greek-owned iron-ore carrier, sank. The catastrophe prompted the world’s largest animal rescue. Over 40,000 penguins were oiled, and approximately 19,000 were saved through the Herculean efforts of SANCCOB, South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, and 12,500 volunteers.[2]

South African penguins are now an endangered species and are found primarily along the western islands and edge of the South African coast to Namibia. They stand about two feet tall, weigh about 8 to 10 pounds, and are distinguished by pink coloration above their eye.[3]

It is estimated that in the 1700s there were over 3.5 million breeding pairs of South African penguins. Because of egg collecting by sailors and early settlers, the population dropped to about 1.5 million pairs by 1900. Since that time overfishing and oil spills have dramatically reduced the population to approximately 40,000 pairs. Although sharks and fur seals remain the natural predators, man has had the most significant impact on the population decline.

Research: There are several research projects addressing a variety of issues faced by South African penguins. Dr. Richard Shirley headed the EarthWatch program and other researchers joined our group of three volunteers. Our tasks included weighing and measuring chicks, identifying abandoned nests, population counts, and related monitoring activities. There appears to be a connection between oil spills and a decline in penguin egg viability and an increase in nest abandonment.

Some nests are difficult to find in the wild, chest-high, canola that flourishes during the breeding season. Because much of this rocky island is capped with sand, artificial nests were constructed to decrease nest collapse. The old wooden A-frame style nests are being replaced by fiberglass “igloos.” Although most penguins still nest under the native brush, many of these plants have thorns, and penguins seem to like nesting in or near nettles, so access is a challenge.  There are a few abandoned World War II gun emplacements on the island, and some penguins have managed to nest amidst the debris.

Oiled Penguins: As I arrived in Cape Town on August 24th a storm rolled through the region, and the attendant wave action, coupled with the power of the Antarctic Current that runs along the coast, caused a 2009 sunken ship to break up. On September 1st, an oil slick, approximately 8 miles long and 30 yards wide, appeared in the channel between Cape Town and Robben Island. Oiled penguins began appearing the following day.

Over the course of the week, our team caught over 200 oiled penguins and took them to the SANCCOB facility for cleaning.  In addition to catching oiled birds, we had to check all known nests and rescue chicks whose parents had been oiled. Over 70 chicks were also sent to SANCCOB for hand rearing, and will ultimately be released after they fledge.

At the end of the week only three dead penguins were found. Although these numbers pale in comparison to the 2000 Treasure spill, this situation is replicated each July and August as winter rages in the southern hemisphere. The Robben Island penguin population has declined from 6000 breeding pairs in 2007 to fewer than 2300 now, and the numbers continue to decline.

[1] For detailed information go to

[2] For a fascinating, first-hand account, read The Great Penguin Rescue by Dyan deNapoli, published in 2010 by Free Press.

[3] The pink comes from blood flowing to a gland, located above the eye socket, that helps regulate the penguin’s body temperature.

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.

OWCN goes on the road to Santa Cruz for drill

On Wednesday the entire OWCN crew headed down to Santa Cruz for a tabletop drill held with the MWVCRC (Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center) and OSPR (The Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, California Department of Fish and Game). The main goal of the 1-day drill was to test out existing and newly drafted response protocols for oiled sea otters.

The initial DRILL scenario (NOT a real spill) was a collision between a cruise ship (1.5 million gallons of fuel oil) and a 58’ sardine boat (3000 gallons of diesel) that occurred just off the breakwater in Monterey Harbor at 6 AM. The sardine boat was sinking and most of the diesel was presumed to be in the water. No fuel was observed leaking from the cruise ship. Since this drill was modeled to occur right in the heart of sea otter country, where otter densities are highest, the drill achieved its goal to test our protocols for any weaknesses during worst-case scenarios.

After an initial organizational meeting, Drill Attendees split out into Groups & Units as described by the Incident Command System (ICS) that is used by OPSR to organize oil spill responses. We limited our drill assignments to the Wildlife Branch of the ICS structure. The following positions were filled: Wildlife Branch Director and her support staff, Recovery & Transportation Group Supervisor, Care & Processing Group Supervisor and her support staff (Administration, Facility Volunteer Coordinator, Facility Coordinator, Facility Manager), Field Stabilization Unit Leader, & Care Unit Leader who supervised the Intake & Processing Team, Pre-wash Care Team, Wash Team, Post-wash Care Team, & Support Staff. It takes a lot of people to respond to an oil spill, even if its only a drill!

The drill was a great opportunity for the staff of OWCN and the sea otter experts at MWVCRC and DFG to collaborate. The teams worked together to fine-tune current oil spill response protocols. OSPR sent down a contingent of staff and their knowledge and familiarity with ICS and large spill protocols was greatly appreciated. Working closely with such dedicated and experienced professionals was a great experience. Plus the people that routinely work with wildlife are just fun!

My only complaint was that while we were just a few hundred yards away from the ocean, we worked so hard that none of us got outside to watch any waves or seabirds, much less sea otters!

Care & Processing Group Members discuss readiness during an oils spill drill at MWVCRC: from left to right: Barbara VanGilder (UC Davis Senior Veterinary Student Extern), Hannah Nevins (MWVCRC), Chris Fiorello (OWCN) & Melissa Miller (MWVCRC)

Recovery & Transportation Group discusses plans for capturing oiled otters during drill at MWVCRC: from left to right: Colleen Young (MWVCRC), Mike Ziccardi (OWCN), Kyra Parker (OWCN)