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.


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.


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.


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

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


Good news for marine wildlife

There hasn’t been much good in the news lately, so I thought I would highlight a couple of happy developments that I’ve read about recently. Last month was the World Ocean Summit, in Bali (hey why wasn’t I invited?), and during that event, Myanmar announced a new comprehensive plan to protect marine resources. The plan addresses the needs of fisheries, marine mammals, and sea turtles, and aims to assist stakeholders in making decisions that promote sustainability. Most of Myanmar’s ocean waters are unprotected, despite being home to rare species such as finless porpoises and dugongs. Their plan is a first step in ensuring that marine resources are protected.


At the same event, the host country, Indonesia, announced that it would allocate one billion dollars every year to reducing plastic pollution in the ocean. Their goal, according to Inhabitat website, is to reduce plastic pollution by 70% by 2025. That’s an ambitious goal, but the benefits to ocean life would be immeasurable.

A little closer to home–okay a LOT closer to home–Island Conservation reports that last month Canada extended protection to marine waters surrounding some of Vancouver’s coastal islands. These islands are key homes for many seabird species such as Cassin’s auklets, and this protection will safeguard important feeding areas just offshore.

Thanks Myanmar, Indonesia, and Canada for taking action to protect our oceans and their wildlife. In solidarity, I pledge to use one less piece of plastic this week! Anyone want to join me?


Heart of the Feather River Country

“Heart of the Feather River Country” is the town of Quincy’s motto, and for good reason.  Our OWCN team has had the pleasure of acquainting ourselves with this beautiful area recently and many of us have been captivated by the gorgeous landscape as we wound ourselves up Highway 70 through Plumas National Forest.  But unfortunately, our adventures into the Feather River Canyon have not been visits of leisure, but rather an opportunity for us to study this region with a keen eye in order to enhance our preparations for a potential oil spill.

feather-riverWhile scenic, the Feather River Canyon is also the lowest elevation pass through the Sierras (5,221ft), making it an ideal route for transportation of goods by rail.  As we have discussed in previous posts, a sharp increase in petroleum transport by rail in the US over the last decade (Association of American Railroads) has our team astutely aware of this high risk region.

In fact, due to the region’s high risk status along with being located in our ‘new’ inland response territory, the OWCN will be hosting our Full Deployment Drill there next month.  It is an exciting opportunity to test our preparedness for a remote, inland spill and thanks to our amazing Network, we will be conducting the drill utilizing over 60 responders, including some folks from our local Member Organizations such as North Valley Animal Disaster Group and Shasta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation (our limited number of volunteer responder slots for the drill filled up quickly, but if you are still interested we encourage you to add yourself to the backup list in the event of any cancellations).

img_0307We are looking forward to the drill, and will keep you all posted of any key lessons learned along the way.  And don’t forget to stay safe out there during this wet winter, and as I learned the hard way in our OWCN green truck, beware of the bumpy dirt roads on your way to Quincy!



A Blast From the Past

While most of us have been dodging raindrops the last few weeks, Tim Williamson has been refurbishing the RAT Rig. What may you ask is the RAT Rig? It is the old Recovery And Transportation (RAT) trailer. After the arrival of the spiffy new MASH trailer (Mobile Avian Stabilization Hospital) for Field Stabilization and Sprinter van for Wildlife Recovery, the RAT Rig spent a few years languishing with minimal attention.

Now that the OWCN is moving inland, the RAT Rig has gained a second life…sort of like our rehabilitation animals. With its relatively small footprint, yet room to treat and house a few dozen animals, we think it will be the perfect size for setting up in canyons, along river banks or other tight spots.

So here are a few photos to re-introduce you to the RAT Rig

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While we always hope for “NO SPILLS!”, if one occurs we know that the RAT Rig is ready for action.


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.


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.


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.


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.


We Do It for the Animals, but the People are the Key

I am sure that you all appreciate the irony that the need for us to “rescue” wildlife most often comes from human impact on the planet and our patients. And I think my bias, like many “wildlife” people, may be a bit in favor of animals vs. people in many situations. While I am not one to claim that I have a special relationship with wild animals, I do very much value the opportunities I have had to work closely with them and get to “know” them just a bit. Observing them in rehabilitation to monitor their progress as well as in the wild has helped me better understand their needs and care for them while in our charge. Having said that, there is little I enjoy more than meeting other rehabilitators – especially ones that come from far away places that have different species and different challenges.


Valentina with marine mammal herding board

What I enjoy most about oiled wildlife response and wildlife rehabilitation is that there are always new challenges, new ways to look at old challenges, and opportunities to learn different ways to overcome them. So I was especially pleased and excited to hear from an old friend named Sara Laborde last fall. Sara was the coordinator of the oiled wildlife program in Washington state many years ago, and I had the privilege to work with her in developing parts of that program. Sara was a rising star who moved from there up through the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife over the years until I lost track of her.  Recently, I found she was working for the Wild Salmon Center, an international conservation organization based in Portland, Oregon.

A few months ago I got an email from Sara saying that her program was hosting several Russian partners who were interested in learning about the oiled wildlife system during a brief layover in San Francisco before returning home. Of course, the OWCN team and I were excited to have an opportunity to meet with them and and learn more about oiled wildlife preparedness in Russia, as well as to show them San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center and our mobile equipment in Davis. I was especially enthusiastic when I found out they were from Sakhalin Island, and had been involved in an oiled wildlife response just over a year ago.


Members of the NGO Boomerang collect oiled birds during a spill in Sakhalin Island, Russia

They arranged for a translator to make the most of our time together, and Kyra, Greg Frankfurter, and I (with International Bird Rescue’s Michelle Bellizzi and Isabel Luevano) arranged to meet the Mezentsevas in Cordelia. It turned out that I had actually met them a number years ago when they attended an IBR training that Barbara Callahan and I had done on behalf of Sakhalin Energy in Yuzhno, Sakhalin, a number of years ago. So for the next several hours we all talked about the OWCN; its partnerships with universities, NGOs, and governmental agencies; and the California oiled wildlife response system, and contrasted it to the system on Sakhalin. Their NGO, named Boomerang, is involved in a number conservation initiatives including marine mammal strandings, so Greg did double duty with his experience at The Marine Mammal Center and oiled mammal response.

For me it was particularly nice to hear how some of the plans we had work on had turned out. Both the things that worked as we envisioned as well as those that did not in their recent spill.


Russian visitors observing bird treatments by IBR Staff

By the end of our meeting it was well past dark and we all pledged to keep in touch and help where we could, exchanging information about equipment, supply sources and protocols. Once more I was reminded of what a small but dedicated community you and I can be very proud to be a part of.

Happy New Year