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!