Refugio oil spill fouls NRS reserve

Refugio oil spill
Leaked petroleum formed tar balls on the beach that stuck to wildlife and clumped kelp together in piles. Image courtesy Coal Oil Point Reserve

A burst oil pipeline along the Santa Barbara coast spilled an estimated 105,000 gallons of crude into the wildlife-rich waters of the Santa Barbara Channel May 19. The leak originated onshore at Refugio State Beach, then poured into the ocean via a storm drain. In the water, it formed an oil slick that came ashore at the UC Natural Reserve System’s Coal Oil Point Reserve in Isla Vista four days later.

Administered by UC Santa Barbara and one of 39 reserves in the NRS, 170-acre Coal Oil Point Reserve is protected for environmental research and teaching.

Snowy plovers at risk

Coal Oil Point Reserve is known for its breeding population of federally threatened Western snowy plovers. Reserve staff have long roped off upland sand dunes to protect the birds’ nests from trampling by beachgoers and their dogs. Docents stationed along the beach educate visitors about the birds and encourage them to give the small shorebirds a wide berth.

Refugio oil spill
Reserve staff and others who helped with beach cleanup improvised to make protective gear out of duct tape and garbage bags. Image courtesy Coal Oil Point Reserve

Last Tuesday’s Refugio oil spill occurred in the midst of plover breeding season. At least one chick was spotted picking its way through globs of oil that had collected on the beach, while a black blob of oil added an abnormal spot to an adult male’s plumage.

Upon learning of the spill, reserve staff immediately began conducting pre-spill surveys of plover nests, and bought mealworms to feed captive-incubated chicks in case their typical diet of beach hoppers got too contaminated for consumption. Already reserve staff have taken on the responsibility of capturing and washing oiled plovers at the reserve.

Windy conditions and choppy waters have hindered  attempts to mop up oil floating on the ocean. Within days of the initial spill, the slick had spread across more than 10 square miles of coastal waters, nearly as far west as Point Conception and as far east as Goleta.

Refugio oil spill
All oil spill cleanup work on the reserve was done by hand do avoid disturbing snowy plovers nesting on the beach. Image courtesy Coal Oil Point Reserve

Wildlife harmed

Drifting petroleum has taken a toll on the region’s abundant marine life. Species ranging from sea lions to cormorants to crabs found themselves coated in heavy petroleum from the worst oil spill in the region since 1969. Oil impairs the ability of fur and feathers to retain heat in chilly Pacific waters. At least five sick sea lions came ashore and were captured by rescue volunteers. The animals are being nursed back to health by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. To date, the bodies of at least two dolphins, five brown pelicans, and far more fish and birds have also been found. Fishing areas from Canada de Alegria to Coal Oil Point have been closed.

Refugio oil spill
Snowy plovers were in the midst of their breeding season at Coal Oil Point when the oil spill struck. Image courtesy Coal Oil Point Reserve

To avoid disturbing plovers at Coal Oil Point, Reserve Director Cristina Sandoval declined offers of machinery to clean the reserve beach. “You have to remember what we are here for, to protect the wildlife,” she said. Instead, she and other reserve staff as well as oil spill cleanup crews are hand-shoveling tar balls and oiled kelp into plastic bags and carrying the refuse off the beach.

Continuing cleanup efforts

“We’ve made great progress in the clean-up,” Sandoval says. “People are working from 6 to 6, away from their families, every day. They are my heroes.”

Refugio oil spill
Snowy plovers were in the midst of breeding at Coal Oil Point when the oil spill struck. Image courtesy Coal Oil Point Reserve

Despite the flurry of human beach activity, most of the plovers seem relatively undisturbed. “The females that were incubating got up from the nest a few times from our disturbance but quickly returned to the nest. We will continue the cleanup until it is all done,” says Sandoval. And the male plover with an oil spot was observed mating with a female who accepted his odd plumage markings.

The reserve’s cleanup work is likely to go on for the foreseeable future. Much of the oil from the spill sank, and will probably continue to wash ashore for some time.

“We also need more information about the impact of the oil on the ocean floor,” Sandoval says. “What does the oil spill look like under water? How are the ocean habitats being affected?

Those questions may be answered by the many UC Santa Barbara students and faculty who scrambled to sample beach and water conditions in the region before the spill landed. Researchers plan to continue their monitoring over many years to document environmental changes and study oil spill recovery.

Refugio oil spill
Helpers scooped sand and kelp fouled by oil into plastic bags to transport off the beach. Image courtesy Coal Oil Point Reserve

Coping with the aftermath

The spill cleanup is being coordinated by a Unified Command made up of federal, local, and state agencies plus the owner of the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline of Houston, Texas. Volunteers have been recruited and are being trained this week.

Wildlife officials caution the public against attempting to aid injured and oiled animals found on the beach for fear of mutual injury or scaring the animal back into the water. Instead, they recommend calling wildlife experts who can safely capture and transport it to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which is overseeing the cleaning and care of animals injured by the spill.

More information

Spill map, Ecological Society of America

To volunteer and get trained to help with the cleanup, contact Cal Spill Watch

To report oiled wildlife, call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at 877-823-6926

Protecting the plover, UC Santa Barbara Communications