News: Oil Spill Spells Disaster for Coast-Dwelling Animals

Written by Mike Mcpherson
Published: October 5, 2021
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An oil spill originating from a ruptured pipeline Saturday continues to haunt coastal California cities. With over 126,000 gallons of oil leaked into the ocean, reports suggest the pipeline has emptied. However, the impact of one of the state’s worst oil spills in its history is only just registering. The pipeline, owned by Amplify Energy, stretches a little more than five miles from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore rig. With a span of 8,320 acres, the oil slick continues to migrate south. Chunks of oil washed ashore in Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach, prompting officials to close their popular beaches to visitors.

Reports of dead fish washing up with the oil signal an ecological disaster for marine life. In an interview with KTLA, the CEO of Heal the Bay Shelley Luce said, “We already have reports of dolphins being seen swimming through the oil slick. They can’t get away from it quickly.” Luce also stressed the impact of the oil spill on the whole of the food chain, from plankton on up to humans. Additionally, the oil spill poses a threat to the diversity of bird life in the region, such as long-billed fletcher and the reddish egret, less commonly found in the area.

Dead birds have also already been spotted along the contaminated coastline.

Rush to Save Wildlife From Catastrophic Oil Spill

In response to the devastating impact, crews dispatched from the Oiled Wildlife Care Network have already begun rescue efforts. They tweeted an image of the first bird treated in their care. Veterinarians stabilized the sanderling before transporting it to a long care facility. It was one of four birds so far retrieved by the organization. While it appears the sanderling’s story will be a success, a brown pelican was too severely injured. As a result, the OWCN decided to euthanize.

Teams scour the area in search of injured land and sea creatures, donning hazmat suits to wade through the toxic environment. A hotline established to field calls for sightings of affected animals received over 300 calls, the director of the organization, Dr. Michael Ziccardi, told Newsweek. He also touted a success rate of between 50 and 75 percent in reintegrating rescued wildlife back into a healthy environment.

Among the environments contaminated by the toxic spill is the 25 acre reserve Talbert Marsh, located near Huntington State Beach. Home to dozens of bird species, the reserve provides undeveloped wetlands for them to nest. In order to minimize the contamination, officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife continue to deploy a variety of prevention tools to stop the spread of oil. They hope to protect nearby Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, as well, another protected home for vulnerable wildlife species.

The Environmental Cost of Oil Leaks

As oil diffuses in ocean waters, it spreads rapids across a vast swath of territory. The nature of ocean spills is inherently difficult to predict, dependent upon oceans currents and weather. Officials hoped these factors might carry this most recent spill further out to sea, but an unforeseen change in currents swept the spill inland, depositing globules the size of quarters across the sand, imbedding microscopic particles across long stretches of beach. As a result, the entirety becomes toxic, harmful to all life that encounters it. Officials predict beach closures for months to clean up the mess created by the pipeline rupture.

The majority of the leaked oil floats, forming a sheen across the top of the water where it affects seabirds and ocean dwelling animals that breathe air, like sea turtles and dolphins. Sea otters often ingest toxic chemicals as their coats become dirty and they engage in routine cleaning. When the oil washes ashore, birds congregating along the sealine and on beaches contaminate themselves, as well as creatures dwelling in the sand, such as snails and clams.

While not as toxic as gasoline, oil found in leaks such as these present the greatest harm by coating the animals coming in contact with it. The toxicity presents a greater threat when the creature carries the substance around on their body for a prolonged period of time. Some even die of hypothermia as a result of the inability to warm themselves. Birds, for example, become weighed down and incapable of fluttering to warm their bodies.
As specialists deploy to contaminated beaches, they provide water and warmth to the animals they manage to wrangle. After providing this first aid on site, they transport the animals to a center for treatment. While early estimates of impacted birds seem to be greater than what crews on the ground are witnessing, time will tell the full extent of this oil spill. Impacted fish are still being discovered from the Deepwater Horizon spill that happened ten years ago.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Millie Bond - Copyright A-Z Animals

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

How severe was the Deepwater Horizon spill?

The Deepwater Horizon leak in 2010 was the worst oil spill in the history of the United States. When a natural gas explosion tore a seal, it began a consistent flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. It took multiple attempts to reseal the leak, during which time over 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean. 11 workers perished in the initial explosion. Estimates number in the tens of thousands for how many birds were injured or killed, likewise for marine mammals, and over 6,000 sea turtles. Even a decade on, scientists continue exploring the full extent of the damage on the ocean habitat. Toxic particles drifted to the seafloor over the following year, decimating coral and fish populations, whose successive generations show alteration as a result.

Do oil spills happen naturally?

Oil seepage occurs naturally in the ocean. Oil leaks from cracks in the seafloor in steady streams, which permit wildlife in the vicinity to adapt. This differs from human spills, in which massive quantities of oil pour into an environment, resulting in devastating effects.

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