Mary Cummins Animal Advocates Los Angeles California Wildlife Rehabilitation Real Estate

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Refugio Oil Spill Response California Department Fish & Wildlife - Animal Advocates Wildlife Rehabilitation

Animal Advocates, Wildlife Rehabilitation, Refugio Oil Spill, California, Fish, Wildlife, Rescue


May 2016 Summary and Recommendations from the Office of Spill Prevention and Response

Wildlife Branch Report Only
(Prepared/Edited by Animal Advocates)

Marine Mammals

267 live and dead birds collected
162 live and dead marine mammals collected
46/65 live birds captured were released
24/63 live mammals captured were released
19 died in care
39 died in care
202 birds collected dead
99 collected dead
Most birds collected were brown pelicans, murres and pacific loons
Most marine mammals collected were California Sea Lions


The purpose of this report is to summarize the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Office of Spill Prevention and Response’s (OSPR) response efforts to date regarding the Refugio Oil Spill, as well as lessons learned and recommendations for improvement. The information and recommendations provided in this report are based on OSPR’s internal evaluation of performance in those response functions for which OSPR had responsibility. Although winding down, the Refugio Oil Spill response is ongoing, specifically focusing on implementing the Phase III Maintenance and Monitoring Plan. Because OSPR has a primary role in carrying out this plan, Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment activities will not be covered in this version of this report, but will be added as an addendum at a later date following full demobilization and closing of the response. Additionally, this report does not cover any civil or criminal investigations which are outside the scope of managing an incident.

The CDFW has public trustee responsibility for protecting, managing, and restoring the State’s fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats. During response to oil spills in state waters OSPR fulfills the trustee mandate as the designated State On-Scene Coordinator (SOSC) and represents the State in coordinated oil spill response efforts with the Federal government. As such, OSPR is one of the few State agencies in the nation that has both major pollution response authority and public trustee authority for wildlife and habitat.

The facts, information, and recommendations contained in this report are based upon information which is presently available through the response effort. Additional facts may be discovered or known which could otherwise be considered to modify content or recommendations contained in this report. Thus, CDFW/OSPR reserves the right to not be bound to the content of this report if additional information becomes known after the publication of this report.

The Refugio Oil Spill and Response

The Refugio Oil Spill occurred on May 19, 2015, due to the failure of an underground 24-inch pipeline (Line 901) near Highway 101 in Santa Barbara County. The responsible party (RP) was Plains Pipeline, L.P. (a subsidiary of Plains All-American Pipeline). The pipeline failure caused crude oil to be released onto land and then it flowed into the Pacific Ocean. As initial information on the potential spill was gathered, it quickly became apparent that the spill was a significant event and was continuing to grow. The RP initially estimated the amount of crude oil released at about 104,000 gallons, with 21,000 gallons reaching the ocean.

Within hours, based on recommendations from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the CDFW issued a closure of fisheries. The following day, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County.

The pathway of the crude oil caused significant oiling to terrestrial areas before reaching the ocean at Refugio State Beach. A cliff face above the beach and the shoreline at Refugio State Beach was most heavily impacted. Other areas of the Santa Barbara and Ventura coast were also significantly affected. The crude oil that entered the ocean posed a significant risk to and injured marine wildlife, including invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals. In addition to direct natural resource impacts, the closure of beaches and fisheries occurred days before the Memorial Day weekend resulting in losses for local businesses and lost opportunities for the public to visit and enjoy the shore and offshore areas. Some tar balls attributable to the Line 901 release were carried by southerly ocean currents and eventually reached some beaches in Los Angeles County.

Wildlife Branch

Objectives & Responsibilities

Wildlife is put at risk when oil is spilled into aquatic or terrestrial environments. Both federal and state statutes mandate protection, rescue, and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife. In California, OSPR and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN; administered by the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center), work to provide the best achievable capture and care for impacted wildlife during oil spill response. This mission is met through providing reconnaissance for oil-impacted wildlife; assessing the need for and providing hazing of at-risk wildlife; recovering potentially oil-impacted live and dead wildlife; stabilizing, washing and rehabilitating impacted live wildlife; and documenting and managing disposition of dead potentially impacted wildlife.

Refugio Activities & Effort

In response to the Refugio incident, the Wildlife Branch Director (WBD; an OSPR staff scientist) activated the OWCN on May 19, 2015. This initial activation set in motion the activation of OWCN member organization staff, pre-trained volunteers, and facilities. On May 20, OSPR established the Wildlife Branch in the Operations Section at the Incident Command Post (ICP) and, with other Agency and OWCN Member Organization staff and volunteers, began recovering impacted wildlife. Wildlife Branch field operations were demobilized on June 24, based on oil fingerprinting results from samples taken from recovered animals.

Wildlife Reconnaissance

Baseline information on the status and distribution of wildlife was important in assessing at risk wildlife and developing appropriate response actions. While this information was available during spill response from the Environmental Unit of the Planning Section (Resources-at-Risk Specialist), variations from historic baseline conditions due to daily and seasonal movements of many animal species necessitated rapid, real-time reconnaissance of wildlife concentrations in the spill area. Real-time data were collected using aircraft and initial on-water/boat and onshore surveys. An OSPRcontracted team of U.C. Santa Cruz experts flew with a CDFW-piloted plane on May 21, 2015, to provide marine bird and mammal locations at-sea in relation to the spill. This data aided in planning where to send recovery teams, and determining whether and where specialized equipment was needed, e.g., specific kennel sizes or capture gear for specific species.

Reconnaissance also included managing over 1,000 phone calls from the public reporting over 300 sightings of oiled wildlife. The OWCN Oiled Wildlife Hotline (hotline) began receiving calls reporting oiled wildlife on day two of the spill. At this time, the hotline was transferred to OSPR phone operators who received information from concerned citizens on the location of oiled wildlife. Operators then transferred this information to Wildlife Branch staff at the ICP via email who then texted it to the Wildlife Recovery Group in the field.

The extent of coastline over which oiled wildlife was found was extensive. In past spills, shoreline reconnaissance has typically been covered by wildlife recovery teams from the shoreline. Post spill evaluation indicated that shoreline and/or boat reconnaissance teams could have been useful throughout the duration of this spill.

Wildlife Hazing

Wildlife hazing is intended to minimize injuries to wildlife by attempting to keep animals away from oil and/or cleanup operations. The need for hazing was assessed initially and throughout the Refugio incident and deemed not advantageous for onshore and nearshore birds and pinnipeds, and not practical far offshore for whales. The Hazing Group Supervisor made the recommendation to not haze via the WBD to the Unified Command. The recommendation was guided by site-specific and species-specific factors present at the time of the spill, and availability of proven hazing techniques.

Wildlife Recovery

Once animals became oiled, habitat-specific and species-specific strategies to recover and remove oiled live animals and all dead wildlife were required. Wildlife recovery teams – under separate bird and mammal operational groups – attempted to complete systematic surveys to collect affected wildlife, including at least one survey as early as safely possible after dawn. Successful captures not only depended on the condition of the target animals, but also on the training and experience of the Recovery teams, and techniques and equipment used. Concerned citizens began recovering oiled wildlife in the afternoon of day one of the spill in part due to lack of knowledge regarding wildlife response protocols (i.e., capture should only be done by qualified response personnel) and oil health and safety practices.

Bird recovery teams recovered 267 live and dead birds. Of the 65 live birds captured, 46 were released and 19 died in care. An additional 202 birds were collected dead. The primary species collected were Brown Pelicans, Common Murres, and Pacific Loons. Several oiled Snowy Plovers were observed at Coal Oil Point, but teams did not attempt capture due to a determination made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in consultation with the Wildlife Branch, that the risks of injury from capture outweighed the negative consequences of light oiling.

Mary Cummins, Animal Advocates, Los Angeles, California

Marine mammal recovery teams (composed primarily of members of the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network acting within the OWCN and in coordination with the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator) responded to reports of live and dead oiled marine mammals. Teams followed national oiled pinniped guidelines, recently updated by NMFS following the Deepwater Horizon, to capture and recover marine mammals. For dead animals, recovery teams deployed to collect the animal, or (if the animal was too large to collect) field processing teams deployed to collect information/evidence from the carcass.

Due to a concurrent and on-going California Sea Lion Unusual Mortality Event (UME) and the use of the new national guidelines, additional staff and resources were needed to recover and process both live and dead marine mammals. Most facilities and local staff were already operating at capacity due to the UME. While the recovery teams that were initially deployed had limited supplies to support early bird operations, the unusual finding of large numbers of affected marine mammals presented a greater challenge for acquiring necessary equipment.

Teams recovered a total of 162 live and dead marine mammals. Of the 63 live mammals captured, 24 were released and 39 died in care. Ninety-nine mammals were recovered dead. The primary species collected was the California Sea Lion.

Animal Advocates, Mary Cummins, Los Angeles, California


Transport of oiled wildlife from the field to the recovery/field stabilization area(s), and/or to the primary care facility was done as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, because most marine mammal facilities were above operational capacities due to the UME, the closest large-scale facility that could accept oiled pinnipeds was SeaWorld San Diego. Similarly, the closest large-scale primary care center for birds was the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care & Education Center, located in San Pedro. The extensive shoreline area over which impacted wildlife were recovered, coupled with the long distance to primary care facilities and significant traffic congestion, presented transportation challenges throughout the response. When possible, animals were checked on periodically during transport, and if needed, provided hydration and nutrition.

Field Stabilization

The Field Stabilization Group provided initial care prior to transportation to the primary care facilities to increase survival. The OWCN mobile veterinary laboratory/animal care trailer (aka, MASH unit) was dispatched to the field for this purpose. In addition, smaller wildlife rehabilitation centers (Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute and the Marine Mammal Care Center in Fort MacArthur for pinnipeds, and Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network for birds) provided additional stabilization support.

Wildlife Care & Processing

The Wildlife Care & Processing Group utilized two Strike Teams – Wildlife Care and Wildlife Processing. The Wildlife Care Strike Team ensured that wildlife exposed to petroleum products received the best achievable care through veterinary services at 29 rehabilitation centers. The Wildlife Processing Strike Team ensured oiled animals were fully evaluated and that data were captured, so the UC could obtain oiled wildlife statistics used for a variety of purposes, such as response strategy development and media updates. Separate care and processing groups were formed for birds and mammals within the two separate primary care centers.


Both OSPR and OWCN hosted multiple “Refugio Incident Wildlife Hotwash” discussions to identify lessons learned among lead and key staff. The following describes significant lessons learned and recommended changes to improve spill response for oiled wildlife.

Wildlife Reconnaissance

· While the hotline was effective in receiving and transferring information for hundreds of calls, tracking the status of each animal was time consuming for responders in the field. In the future, data should be input to a “live spreadsheet” document that can be shared among key wildlife staff (e.g., operators, WBD, responders in the field). This system will provide data more efficiently to responders, and will aid operators in providing status updates to concerned citizens on animals they report.
· To address increased calls to the hotline as a result of public concern during spills and ready access via cell phones, as well as a request from OWCN for shoreline and/or on-water reconnaissance teams throughout the duration a large oil spill, OSPR should prepare to fill the role of Reconnaissance Group Supervisor in future wildlife responses and as appropriate in drills.

Wildlife Recovery

· The OWCN will develop more comprehensive plans to ensure an on scene core staff Wildlife Recovery Group Supervisor and complete supply caches (either within the OWCN’s Sprinter van or pre-staged caches) are available on day one of a spill. Additionally, the OWCN will establish standards to cascade resources to a spill over defined time periods.
· The Refugio Incident was the first spill in recent California history to involve significant numbers of oiled and possibly impacted marine mammals. For example, during the Cosco Busan oil spill, one live oiled marine mammal was encountered, and five dead. As such, activated Recovery personnel had greater-than-normal operational taskings for the incident size. In the future, additional staff should be activated to ensure coverage is attained both for responding to public/responder sightings as well as systematic regional searches.

Wildlife Field Stabilization and Field Processing

· OWCN leads should ensure all OWCN personnel receive additional training on the National Oiled Marine Mammal Guidelines, and develop California-specific guidelines that help enact these Guidelines. 
· For spills with anticipated wildlife impacts, a core staff Group Supervisor and the MASH unit (with equipment and supplies needed to support field stabilization and (if necessary) field processing) should be on scene within 24 hrs.

Wildlife Transportation

· Use of staff from OSRO’s as drivers for transportation of oiled wildlife was effective for providing dedicated personnel for this important task as well as trucks of sufficient size. In the future the WBD should consider the use of OSRO or other contract personnel/vehicles for transport, in particular when marine mammals are impacted. All transporters should be accompanied by a trained OWCN volunteer or staff who can ensure animals remain stable and can also direct communications with the facility and transportation coordinators to provide updates on estimated arrival times.

This report was prepared, edited by Animal Advocates wildlife rehabilitators located in Los Angeles, California. It is only the wildlife portion of the full report which is linked below. 

Animal Advocates
645 W 9th St #110-140
Los Angeles, CA 90015

Mary Cummins of Animal Advocates is a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by the California Department of Fish and Game and the USDA. Mary Cummins is also a licensed real estate appraiser in Los Angeles, California.

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