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We're Getting Better at Saving Seabirds After Oil Spills

A new study of brown pelicans after the Refugio oil spill in California shows how far oil rehabilitation techniques have come in the last few decades.
An oil platform sits in the distance as California brown pelicans fish in oil-contaminated water from an inland oil spill near Refugio State Beach on May 20th, 2015, north of Goleta, California.

An oil platform sits in the distance as California brown pelicans fish in oil-contaminated water from an inland oil spill near Refugio State Beach on May 20th, 2015, north of Goleta, California.

Christine Fiorello characterizes the days after the Refugio oil spill in May of 2015 as "controlled chaos." Fiorello is a veterinarian with California's Oiled Wildlife Care Network and she, along with almost the entire staff, was at a conference in Alaska when they learned through state agencies that an on-shore pipeline north of Santa Barbara, California, had ruptured, spilling crude oil onto the beach and into the ocean.

I lived in Santa Barbara at the time and went to Refugio State Beach that afternoon. I saw the waves filled with hand-size blobs of black oil, the shore rocks spattered with it. Armadas of brown pelicans flew low over the water, but the ones I saw didn't land. Ultimately, trained volunteers would collect 267 oiled birds, including 73 brown pelicans, 26 of them dead, according to government numbers. (The overall number of birds affected, of course, is assumed to be much larger than the bodies people were able to spot.)

Not so long ago, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, some experts despaired of saving the hundreds of thousands of birds thought to have been caught in the muck. But results from the Oiled Wildlife Care Network's Refugio response offer some evidence that people are getting better at caring for birds, post-spill.

That May day, Fiorello and her staff cut their Alaskan visit short and booked flights home. Meanwhile, some trained rehabbers were still at the network's Los Angeles facility, ready to care for the first birds to come streaming in: Field workers picked up oil-matted pelicans, murres, loons, and other birds and transported them more than 100 miles south. "We all arrived later than the birds," Fiorello says. But in part because the Refugio spill was comparatively moderate in size—143,000 gallons, compared to up to 210 million gallons in Deepwater Horizon—the staff was still able to prepare. "The numbers were never overwhelming," she says. "Most of the birds came in from the spill in fairly decent shape. There were a few from the very beginning that were very oiled and very debilitated, but those birds mostly survived."

Among the brown pelicans that did well after being stabilized and cleaned, Fiorello and her team chose 12, at random, to outfit with little backpacks carrying radio transmitters. From those birds, they learned a bit of good news: A year later, 10 of the pelicans' transmitters were still working and indicating they were alive. One's transmitter had stopped functioning, but it was unknown how the bird was faring, while another pelican died and its body was found. In comparison, among eight unaffected pelicans scientists had netted from a nearby harbor as a control group, at least six seemed to have survived.

This was a major departure from the results of the last in-depth study of how brown pelicans fared after oil spills in Southern California in 1990 and 1991. In that study, cleaned and rehabbed birds mostly died within six months. "We conclude that oil and/or rescue and treatment result in long-term injury to brown pelicans," the 1990s study team wrote in a paper published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin. "Our results and a growing number of other studies indicate that current rehabilitation techniques are not effective at returning healthy birds to the wild." As recently as 2010, news organizations ran a spate of articles questioning whether people should even try to rehabilitate oiled birds, or just euthanize them.

"We think that advances in rehabilitation techniques have really improved a lot in the last 20 years," Fiorello says. Daniel Anderson, one of the 1990s paper's authors and a professor emeritus of wildlife biology at the University of California–Davis, agrees. "I remain on the positive side. After about 25 years of experience, one would certainly expect husbandry and treatment techniques to improve," he writes in an email. "The main problem remains, to be sure full recovery to 'normal' (you also have to know what that is) occurs before birds are put back into [the] wild."

Fiorello and her team used a physical exam and a battery of blood tests to check that the pelicans were healthy before they were released. On average, the birds needed 19 days of care before they were ready to fly free. Several weeks later, some of their radio pings indicated they were feeding off the coast of central Oregon, thousands of miles away. "We were very encouraged that the birds were healthy enough to do that," Fiorello says. "It seemed like what they were doing was very normal behavior."

There was one typical behavior they didn't engage in. None of the pelicans, neither oiled-and-rehabilitated nor those from the control group, appeared to breed successfully in 2015. That might be because of the effects of the oil spill, Fiorello says. But it may have been due to other factors as well. "It wasn't a great year for breeding," she says. There was an El Niño weather pattern that year, which made fish less available for pelicans to eat. It's not unusual for brown pelicans to skip a year in breeding when conditions aren't ideal, she says.

Perhaps the biggest advance oil-spill wildlife rescue has made in the last two decades, Fiorello says, is recognizing that when a bird comes in covered in oil, cleaning isn't the first thing it needs. A bird like that hasn't been able to eat. Because seabirds get all of their water from their food—they can't drink seawater—it's dehydrated too. An oiled bird now first gets fluid, food, and heat to counteract the effects of oiling, which mats their feathers and exposes their skin to the cold.

"As a veterinarian, I think of wash as like a surgical procedure," Fiorello says. A gunshot-wound victim who goes to the emergency room isn't shipped off to surgery immediately. They get stabilized first, so their systems can better handle the stress of surgery.

Despite the high stakes, Fiorello described the feel in the room after Refugio as positive. "There's a nice sense of camaraderie," she says, "because everyone's there for the same reason."