Friday, December 3

“It’s there practically forever”: Huntington Beach oil spill can permanently affect birds | California

The full scale of ecological damage from the Huntington Beach oil spill will take some time to become clear, with birds and marine mammals hit the hardest in the short term.

That’s the opinion of experts with experience in other incidents, as they consider an alleged underwater pipeline leak that spilled approximately 126,000 gallons of crude oil just miles off the southern California coast.

“The recovery will be very uneven,” said Steve Murawski, a fisheries biologist and marine ecologist at the University of South Florida.

Dead birds and fish reportedly turned up along miles of the black-stained shoreline as rescuers scrambled to retrieve the greased animals. Seven birds were saved from the scene and another, a pelican, had to be euthanized. So far, there are no official reports that count deaths of animals or invertebrates.

Environmental teams work to clean up a major oil spill in Huntington Beach, California, on Tuesday.
Environmental teams work to clean up a major oil spill in Huntington Beach, California, on Tuesday. Photographer: Allen J Schaben / Los Angeles Times / Rex / Shutterstock

Murawski has spent years studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the largest offshore spill in US History, which dumped 134 million gallons in the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days in 2010, polluting 1,300 miles in five states. Thousands of animals died in that spill and the effects can still be seen and felt today, more than a decade later.

The unfolding situation in Huntington Beach is not on the same scale as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but there are still important conclusions and lessons learned, Murawski said.

He said marine birds and mammals will be harmed, especially those that congregate along Southern California’s coastal islands or pass through its coastal wetlands. Smaller creatures like plankton could take a hit, but their fast life cycle will likely ensure they recover quickly. “The slowest growing, liveliest things like abalone and other things that can’t get out of the way,” he said, “that could be more of a problem.”

The effects could be felt long after the sand has been removed from the black mud, especially in affected marshes and wetlands, critical habitats for migratory and shorebirds, and several endangered species.

Researchers have found that oil deposits don’t always float. Tar balls can find their way into underwater sediments or accumulate against sandbars where waves reach the crest near shore, complicating cleanup efforts. Winter storms can continue to accumulate contamination long after the spill has been contained.

“You will have to go through a series of beach clean-up rounds and every time there is a storm, you will see those tar balls on the beach,” Murawski said, noting that British Petroleum, the company responsible for Deepwater Horizon, has been lifting huge networks of tar and sand for years after the disaster. “I imagine that’s going to be a nagging headache for people who are supposed to clean the beach.”

Removing oil from sand and surface waters is a somewhat straightforward process, but it becomes much more complex in delicate swamps and wetlands. These areas, which are home to a wide variety of species, including migratory birds and endangered plants and animals, could be permanently affected by the oil spill.

“Once the oil is in the swamp and it goes below the sediment level,” Murawski said, “it stays there practically forever.”

Oil has already seeped into three marshes operated by the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, a local nonprofit organization that returned them to shelters are now. “It’s heartbreaking,” said John Villa, the CEO, lamenting the efforts he and others have made to keep their 127 acres of reserves unspoiled.

After hearing reports of the spill on Saturday, he jumped into action, trying to stop the spread of the glow off the coast. He and Orange County public works officials created a sand berm to prevent contaminated water from entering the mudflats, but it was too late. “Some oil still got in and it’s still seeping out,” he said, adding that they are working to clean the water as best they can.

The Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, which includes the Talbert, Brookhurst, Magnolia and Newland Marshes, cultivates a rich biodiversity. Between 85 and 90 species of birds call the wetlands home or stop there along their migration routes, 10% of which are on the endangered or threatened species list, according to Villa. The organization also created a space where endangered plant species can thrive.

But over the weekend, the glow could be seen in the shallows. Eelgrass, once it grew in the water, was dead and floating to the sides. Villa is not sure what the impact will be in the future, as more birds enter the area. Thousands of birds migrate or overwinter in the area, including brown pelicans, Pacific loons, ospreys and federally endangered western snow plovers, which breed on beaches, according to Audubon California.

Along with cleanup, there is the concern of how long the entrance may remain blocked before the fish and plants in the swamp begin to run out of oxygen brought in by the salty ocean water flows. “We open the entrance, which means we could have more polluted salt water there?” he said. “That is a careful dance.”

Birds compete to eat a dead fish in the waves after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, California, on Monday.
Birds compete to eat a dead fish in the waves after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, California, on Monday. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon / AFP / Getty Images

Small exposures, deadly impacts

It only takes a small amount of exposure of a seabird to succumb, according to the researchers. In a 2020 report on the effects of the Refugio Beach oil spill, which occurred in 2015 after a pipeline ruptured and spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude near Santa Barbara, researchers found that all that was needed it is an amount the size of a nickel to kill. some species that feed in the water.

“Like a hole in a wetsuit, the oil destroys the feathers’ ability to insulate the bird, thus allowing cold ocean water to spread over the bird’s skin,” the report says. “Birds that come in contact with oil often die of hypothermia and starvation.” Because many birds strut and use their beaks to clean their feathers, they are also at increased risk of ingesting the toxins. Others can become immobile if their feathers are covered with a sticky substance.

Researchers documented about 560 bird deaths as a consequence of the oil spill on the Refugio beach, which covers 28 different species. The actual number of victims is believed to be even higher.

Some bird populations were not affected by deaths but by births. The western snowy plovers, tiny inhabitants of the endangered and round dunes, were exposed on the beach or foraging for food in polluted shallow water or around washed-up seaweed. In the first breeding season after the spill, the scientists noticed that the infertility rate of their eggs quadrupled and about 10% of the eggs were not viable.

Hundreds of invertebrates, from hermit crabs to starfish, perished in that spill as well.

The extent of the ecological damage from the 2015 spill has only recently begun to come into focus, and researchers hope that the impact of this new spill may also take years to understand.

“It’s really impossible to clean up an oil spill effectively,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the oceans program at the advocacy organization Center for Biological Diversity, adding that she was devastated to see the oil reaching sensitive habitats. “The birds migrate there and use it to nest and rest,” he said. “It is going to have lasting impacts on many of the animals; we will see beaches and ecosystems damaging oil for many years.”

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