A holiday message from the ghost of oil spills past

 

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In many of our training materials we talk about looking for the silver lining in the aftermath of a spill. Silver linings can be many things. For one spill it might be new methods to care for oiled wildlife, while for another it might be new legislation to increase prevention and preparedness. The Deepwater Horizon was a huge spill with many negative impacts – some of which we are still learning about. At least one of the silver linings from that disaster has been the array of scientific studies that have been done to measure impacts to wildlife, the environment and to the people who responded.

The wildlife response spanned coastal and offshore areas from Louisiana to Florida and included many of us from OWCN Member Organizations as well as from OSPR and CDFW. Eight years after the event, studies continue to be published and two came out recently that I read with interest and I feel are important to share. I share them not to scare anyone, but simply to remind us that the chemical products we work around during spills are hazardous materials, and that oil spills are traumatic events that can impact our mental health as well.  The OWCN and OSPR both work very hard to ensure the safety of our responders, providing required training and annual refreshers, safety officers, safety protocols and provided PPE during response but ultimately it is up to each of us to keep ourselves informed and safe.

Both of these papers are part of the GULF Study (Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study) and a detailed discussion of both are well beyond the scope of an OWCN blog. I hope you will take a look at both of them and read them completely if you are so inclined.

One looks at mental health indicators associated with oil spill response workers including some working with wildlife and can be found here.

The second looks at lung function and association with oil spill response and clean-up work roles and found an impact in those handling oily plants/wildlife or dead animals. A summary can be found here.

As with anything else you read on the internet please do so critically. Neither of these focused on what we consider “professional” oiled wildlife responders like many of you are with the training and experience to identify the hazards and recognize how to mitigate them. I present them simply in an effort to help you stay on the cutting edge of health and safety in oiled wildlife response.

While this may not be a typical “Happy holidays” type of message, the health and safety of all of our responders (and their families) comes into true focus at this time of year. Please enjoy a safe holiday season!

Curt

13th EOW in B’more

The number 13 turned out to be lucky for the 2018 Effects of Oil on Wildlife Conference earlier this month in Baltimore, MD or B’more as the hometown of John Waters, Divine and the Baltimore Orioles is affectionately known. For one thing, no one was called away to respond to an oil spill. This iteration was widely considered to be one the best, going all the way back to the initial Effects of Oil on Birds Symposium which convened in 1982 about 100 miles east as the oiled bird flies.  The conference was presented by Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research and OWCN and hosted by the National Aquarium but the success was the result of the hard work of a big flock of people including all the speakers, moderators, workshop instructors, volunteers, committee members and sponsors.

A few of the highlights for me included Gary Shigenaka of NOAA and his History of Oil Spills, an updating of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research on-going testing of products of the removal of oil from feathers, case studies involving polyisobutylene on birds, and a presentation on managing compassion fatigue and burnout during an oiled wildlife response. Of course, there was also many opportunities between presentations to ask more questions, meet new colleagues and reconnect with old ones at the icebreaker, the beer tasting, the poster session/reception and the banquet which was held at the National Aquarium.

The conference closed with a panel discussion moderated by OWCN’s own Dr. Mike Ziccardi and included 4 representatives with an depth of experience in oiled wildlife response and a breadth of international perspective spanning industry, government agencies and NGO’s.Closing panel before They answered questions on a number of topics regarding the achievements and challenges going forward for oiled wildlife response and those of us who have chosen it as a profession. And then as Steve Jobs would say “one more thing”  as two post-conference activities were available for those who were not quite ready to say goodbye, a birding trip and a sea turtle and pinniped workshop. I can only report on the workshop. I thought it was all great but the photos will let you judge for yourself. I am already looking forward to the yet to be scheduled 14thEffects of Oil on Wildlife

 

Hope to see you there!

 

Curt

What We Don’t Know… Yet

This week is a week of meetings for the OWCN Management Team. Today, I spent the day sitting in on the OWCN’s Scientific Advisory Committee meeting. Tomorrow, I’ll spend the day at our Advisory Board meeting.  Meetings aren’t usually my favorite way to pass the time, but I’m always excited to see these two on the calendar.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with these groups, the Advisory Board provides expertise, leadership, and guidance for the administration of the program overall, while the Scientific Advisory Committee evaluates and makes recommendations regarding the OWCN’s Research and Competitive Grants Program.

feather testingIt’s the Scientific Advisory Committee that is particularly fun to sit in on, because this is where knowledgeable and committed scientists from all sorts of backgrounds gather to review the year’s grant applications. There’s always lively discussion about each proposal, and listening to really smart people passionately discuss complex topics is something I’ve always enjoyed. But more than that, I am fascinated by the glimpse the research proposals give me into the future of oiled wildlife response.

Research is based on questions, and there are an awful lot of questions we don’t have good answers to in wildlife rehabilitation and oiled wildlife response. What does oil actually do to this species, and how can we best help the animal to recover? Is this diet actually the best one for this species and situation? Can we find and help oiled animals faster if we use new technology like drones? Is there a better way of treating or preventing care-related complications, like Aspergillus respiratory infections?

COMU eye examsExperience and adaptive husbandry have their place, but there’s nothing like a well-designed study to help us understand what we do and don’t really know about a topic – which is why OWCN strives to not only base our protocols and procedures on the best science available, but also to seek out and fund projects that will deepen our collective understanding of the issues around oiled wildlife response. Constant development and improvement is core to our mission and organizational identity, and the scientific advancement of the oiled wildlife response field is a fundamental component of that process.

Tomorrow, the Advisory Board will review the Scientific Advisory Committee’s recommendations and will vote on whether or not to fund this year’s grant proposals. I’m excited to see what the final decisions are, but even more excited to see what grows out of the grant and research program – this year, and in the future.

Take care,

Steph

Please Do Not Disturb!

Last week Kyra blogged about our trip to Ventura to try to recapture Pelican N-12, one of the control birds from the Refugio pelican post-release study. While the satellite telemetry aspects of the project have provided a huge amount of information on these birds, the companion efforts by OWCN and International Bird Rescue to get the public to report sightings of pelicans with green or blue leg bands has also been quite successful.

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Green Banded Pelican. Photo Deborah Jaques

In some areas like Half Moon Bay it has almost become a sport, with individuals and bird- and whale- watching boats constantly on the lookout and trying to get close for a clear photo of the band number. We greatly appreciate everyone who has reported birds and made their contribution to our study, but we also want to remind everyone that getting too close can be harmful not just to the animal you are focusing on but also others nearby. In some cases, like nesting plovers or terns, there are obvious signs to help you avoid disturbing birds.

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It may seem like pelicans have an easy life, just sitting on the pier or breakwater all day sunning themselves. Some might even think that getting them to fly a bit is good exercise. But like many wild animals, a pelican’s ability to find food versus their energy expenditures are often very finely balanced. As you can imagine, with a bird as large as a pelican, getting up into the air can take a fair bit of effort. If that effort results in a new fish in the belly or avoiding being injured or killed, I think we would all agree it was worth it. But each time there is an energy cost to each bird. When people, dogs, boats, or anything unfamiliar gets too close, birds will try to move farther away, just like we do when someone we don’t know or don’t like gets right up in our face. And when they are resting and hanging out together in large groups like on a beach or a breakwater, they may fly without a direct threat but just because other birds do.

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Even if they don’t fly, their heightened vigilance may keep them from normal rest or preening activities.

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Photo: Bart Selby

A 1997 study “Buffer zone distances to protect foraging and loafing waterbirds from human disturbance in Florida” found that brown pelicans disturbed by a walking human flushed at just under 30 meters, and recommended a buffer of 100 meters for approach on foot. The recommendation for motor boats was 120 meters.

While in some situations it is possible to get closer to wild birds without disturbing them, especially with special techniques or equipment, in most situations it is best to give them plenty of space. Use binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses to record and report band numbers. As Hippocrates wrote “First Do No Harm”.

And thanks again for keeping an eye out for colored bands.

Curt

The Value of Science

keep-calm-and-love-science-287Science (noun): the state of knowing; knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.

Over the past week or so, I have started (and restarted) this blog post numerous times as the news cycle has ebbed and flowed. Potential changes to regulations, laws, and personnel at key Federal agencies associated with the new US Administration have created great uncertainty regarding the future of environmental efforts.  No matter what your political leanings, I think everyone can agree that we are living in particularly tumultuous times.

One significant issue that has struck me deeply in the past several months, however, is the great scrutiny/debate over the value and role of science and scientific findings. These efforts (if valued and used correctly) can help to foster legislative and/or societal change for the better; if not, decisions can be made without factual support and are thereby more prone to being swayed by public opinion or conjecture. Stephanie blogged last week on how citizens can help in this effort but, more broadly, it seems as if scientists are embattled on a number of fronts – particularly on environmental issues.

IMG_4207For wildlife conservation (and specifically oiled wildlife response and welfare), much of what we do and know is based on best available information and not hard data, as it can be exceedingly difficult to design studies that can collect and interpret information necessary to answer our key questions. During oil spill responses, the emergent nature of the work necessitates rapid decisions as well as huge allocations of resources. The animals we receive also often have life-threatening health issues that require immediate intervention. Taking the time needed to thoroughly consider appropriate projects, as well as finding the resources (people, time, funding) to conduct the work, is challenging at best.

One of the aspects I am most proud of within our California program (in addition to our wonderful partners!) is the explicit mandate to provide “best achievable” capture and care to those animals in our charge. This legislatively-stated goal further requires us to support a research and technology development program that demands we explore better ways of responding to animals in crisis, as well as having a greater understanding of how oil can affect wildlife species. Since 1996, the OWCN has been proud to fund more than 130 scientific projects with external collaborators, as well as conduct numerous studies led by OWCN Management Team staff. The information gleaned from this work has helped us to better develop treatment protocols, design modular and permanent equipment/facilities, and help to support understanding of long-term ecosystem-level effects that spills can cause.

sea turtle 3While we collectively have a long way to go to understand the complexity of petroleum impacts on environmental systems, recent findings from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 have significantly helped to increase this knowledge pool. As part of the Damage Assessment phase of the spill, an extremely in-depth look at the multitude of direct and indirect effects on all parts of the food chain has been published and is available at NOAA’s Gulf Spill Restoration site, with more detailed information found on the DoI’s Administrative Record site. Additionally, publications are now starting to make their way into the scientific literature detailing the impacts specifically to higher vertebrates, specifically birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Specifically, a special edition of Endangered Species Research was released just this week containing 20 publications detailing the impacts to mammals and turtles, with a special issue of a prominent toxicology journal to soon detail work on birds.

Thus, while the value of science and scientific inquiry may be debated on a broader level, the efforts of the OWCN and others directed at a more complete understanding of mitigating the impacts of oil should accidents occur cannot be minimized. We, as a program of UC Davis, are committed to continue to do the best investigative work possible to minimize animal suffering as well as more fully understand both the direct as well as indirect effects that spills can create. Due to the forethought of California legislators and voters, the support of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the indefatigable efforts of our partners within the OWCN Member Organizations, we collectively can continue to drive this profession forward for the betterment of our wildlife.

Mike

Counting Penguins for Science

I discovered a love for citizen science projects a few years ago, when a friend got me hooked on Snapshot Serengeti. After creating an account on their website, I had the chance to click through trail cam photos from a national park and conservation area in Tanzania. My goal was to find, identify, and count the animals captured in those photos to help with a population survey and create the dataset that would support many studies–from how and where animals move and cluster in the park, to how that changes over time.

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Snapshot Serengeti features many amazing captures, like this one, on their blog.

As bored grad students know, many trail cam captures are duds, when the camera is triggered by swaying grass or other non-animal movement. But every few photos I’d catch a glimpse of Tanzanian wildlife in their natural environment: elephants, antelope, lions, and so many more. Oh, and wildebeests. So many, many wildebeests.   I don’t remember much of that weekend, it is lost in a fog of wildebeests and concentration, but I do know I was on a mission to find and identify my very own aardwolf capture.

Since that weekend, I’ve come to love and support many crowd-sourced science projects (many of which I discovered through Zooniverse, a platform for participants and researchers interested in crowd-sourced data collection projects. Scientific American also keeps a running list of projects). You can spy on penguins, characterize bat calls, and map the hills of Mars. You can measure hurricanes, track snow cover, and transcribe nautical logs to advance our understanding of our weather and climate. You can participate in amazing and important things.

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Penguin Watch is a currently running project similar to Snapshot Serengeti.

In this age when science is so often viewed as opaque, dated, scary, or irrelevant, citizen science gives me great hope. We need skilled science communicators, and there are many people out there doing great work–including organizations and individuals right here in the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. But citizen science goes one step further. In addition to providing another way to learn about how science is conducted, it actually asks people to participate and invest in real, current research projects. Making science so accessible and allowing volunteers to have such an important role in data collection lets people from all walks of life experience what scientists already know: how great science is, and how exciting it can be to contribute to humanity’s collective knowledge.

So check it out! And then get everyone you know to check it out too.

You won’t be sorry you did.

Steph

Refugio Pelican Update

We wanted to give everyone an update on the post-release pelican study from the Refugio spill, now almost one year ago. You may recall that 12 oiled pelicans and 8 control pelicans were outfitted with satellite tags so we could compare their movements and survival. In addition, all oiled pelicans that were released (not just the satellite tagged pelicans) got a green color band.  Please report all pelicans with green bands to us here if you see them. While you are out looking for pelicans, if you do happen to see any with blue bands, please report those birds to International Bird Rescue.  Even though we have a few control birds from this study that are sporting blue bands, most of the pelicans out there that have blue bands were rehabilitated by International Bird Rescue, and getting reports on where these birds are is extremely valuable.

Currently we have about 6 or 7 birds still transmitting. Two birds, one control and one oiled bird, have made some trips to Anacapa Island as if they were thinking about breeding, but they haven’t been there lately, so it’s unlikely that they are breeding.

A couple of control birds are hanging out in San Diego, and one of the rehabilitated birds is at a large lake in Baja California. Two other rehabilitated birds are in Baja; one is traveling north in the Gulf of California, and the other is in the central part of the Gulf of California. This last bird is a challenge . . . his satellite tag has stopped transmitting for extended periods of time, and then suddenly starts transmitting again right about the time we’ve decided the bird (or the tag) is dead. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible!

This May 7th, Audubon California sponsored a Brown Pelican Birding Blitz, where members of the public were encouraged to go find and report pelicans (AND maybe see some color-banded birds!). We are waiting to hear if anyone saw our green-banded birds! More information about the Blitz can be found here.

Here’s a map of the pelicans from the past month. If you look carefully around Los Angeles, you can see a bit of yellow peeking through — those dots all got covered by the bird in red. And near San Diego, you can see some blue dots . . . . that’s our bird with the satellite tag that seems lazy.

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Current locations of Brown Pelicans that are part of the post-release study from the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill.

– Christine