Friday, November 09, 2007
The black oil spreading for miles from the Golden Gate is staining one of the richest wildlife regions on the Pacific Coast and threatening hundreds of thousands of birds as well as marine mammals and fish that feed around San Francisco Bay.
Fuel oil, lighter than crude but heavier than gasoline, can kill birds, fish and other creatures. The 58,000-gallon spill into the delicate mouth of the bay comes at an unfortunate time for migratory birds, such as the 150,000 ducks that have just flown 2,000 miles from Canada's boreal forest to feed over the winter in the bay ecosystem, bird biologists said Thursday.
Dozens of dead and injured birds already have been found around the region, and hundreds more are likely to be spotted before the oil slick is mopped up, officials said.
By late afternoon Thursday, the oil had hit the Farallon Islands, and researchers spotted 20 oiled common murres. At nesting time, in late winter, the Farallones are home to 200,000 common murres, the largest colony south of Alaska, and the seabirds already are starting to arrive.
"This is going to be a mess. We'll see how big a mess," said Cheryl Strong, a biologist at the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The islands are part of the refuge.
Oil washing up on the beaches in San Francisco, Berkeley, Albany, Novato and along the Pacific coast is covering prime feeding grounds for the dozens of species of shorebirds that forage on the edges of the bay. The disaster will remain a deadly threat for months and perhaps years to come, biologists said.
Fish will die if they eat the oil in the water or it gets in their gills, said biologists with state Fish and Game Department.
Harbor seals that come ashore at Point Bonita near the lighthouse under the bridge also are vulnerable to oil, as are Dahl's porpoises and harbor porpoises swimming off Rodeo Beach on the Marin Headlands. Also in danger are California sea lions that could swim through the oil to get to Pier 39, according to the Marine Mammal Center. Furry mammals are particularly vulnerable to spills because the oil interferes with their ability to keep warm. Ingesting the oil and breathing the fumes also can sicken them, particularly the pups.
"It's horrible," said Dr. Frances Gulland, a veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito who could see the oil washing up Thursday morning on Rodeo Beach. She worries about the immediate and long-term injury to the animals.
"It is shocking that it can happen in the bay under our very eyes," Gulland said.
Off the bay lies an area of almost 6,000 square miles protected as three federal marine sanctuaries - Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones and Monterey Bay. The sanctuaries are home to 36 species of marine mammals, 163 species of birds and five species of sea turtles.
By evening, at least three dozen oiled and dead birds had been picked up at Rodeo, Ocean and Stinson beaches, the Berkeley Marina and other beaches.
Injured birds can die quickly. The oil coats feathers that keep birds warm, causing them to get cold in the chilly bay water. When the birds get out of the water, they stop feeding even though they need a constant supply of food to keep up with their high metabolism. If they preen their feathers, the oil can poison them, said Dr. Mike Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The program, at UC Davis, organizes the wildlife aid response for the state Department of Fish and Game.
At the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fairfield, the birds will be warmed and rehydrated, and workers will try to remove the oil using Dawn dishwashing soap.
Most of the birds found Thursday were surf scoters, a species of diving duck. Around 80,000 of the ducks arrive in the Bay Area every year by November, a majority of those wintering on the Pacific Flyway, an ocean feeding stop. About 80,000 greater and lesser scaups, two other species of diving ducks, also fly here to feed from Canada, arriving at the lowest weight of their life cycle.
"They come here from the pristine boreal forests down to the San Francisco Bay, an incredibly rich marine ecosystem that supports globally important populations of ducks and shorebirds," said Jeff Wells, a biologist with the Boreal Songbird Initiative, a Seattle nonprofit.
"They arrive after a journey of thousands of miles after making it through the Canada frost, passing through British Columbia mountains and then down the entire Pacific Coast from Washington expecting a safe place full of food and spend the winter," he said.
"Then they're fouled by oil and may die on the shores because they can't stay warm and get the oil off their feathers," Wells said.
Hundreds of reports of oiled birds from beaches ringing the bay and coast came into the hot line operated by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. So many residents used the line to offer volunteer assistance that the network was temporarily shut down in midafternoon.
On Thursday morning, Josiah Clark, a consulting ecologist conducting a preliminary shorebird survey, saw two oiled ducks, a greater scaup and a northern shoveler as far north as Novato.
"We will be living with it for a long while," said Clark, a longtime birder with the Golden Gate Audubon Society.
Jay Holcomb, who leads the bird rehabilitation center in Fairfield, said his group went out Wednesday afternoon after it got the first report of a spill.
"When we got between the Golden Gate and the lighthouse at Point Bonita under the north end of the bridge, we saw a lot of oil in the water. We didn't expect that much oil from what had been reported. And then we knew we were going to see a lot of oiled birds," Holcomb said.
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