As people try to make sense of the Orange County oil spill’s potential long-term marine life impacts, there’s been a years-long debate over whether efforts to clean off animals in wildlife care centers do anything more than make people feel good.

Over the course of several major oil spills in recent history, some in the scientific community have argued oil can have long-lasting effects on wildlife such as birds, and that animals who are rescued, cleaned, and toweled off may still die off due to contamination.

Science writers like Andrew Nikiforuk point to past events like the 26,000-gallon, 1998 oil spill in the North Sea.

Research of cleanup after that spill, Nikiforuk wrote for Smithsonian Magazine in 2016, led one German biologist, Silvia Gaus, to conclude that efforts to clean birds will only prolong their death due to oil’s lasting adverse health effects.

“According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent,” Gaus said to the German news outlet Der Spiegel in 2010. 

Nikiforuk also pointed to a 2002 tanker sinking near Spain which killed around 300,000 seabirds. 

“Although response teams diligently cleaned thousands of animals, most of the birds died within a week. Only a few hundred ever made it back to the wild.”

Andrew Nikiforuk (link)

One study in 1996 by ornithologist Brian Sharp raised questions over the life expectancy of birds cared for following oil spills, stating “the cost and effectiveness of rehabilitation efforts for oiled seabirds need to be reexamined in the light of results showing low post-release survival.”

Experts disagree on whether such efforts are worth it.

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But to suggest that attempts should not be made to save impacted animals is “irresponsible,” says Sarah Zielinski, another science writer, in 2010 for a piece also for Smithsonian Magazine.

“To me, at least, it seems irresponsible to not even try. As we begin to measure the damage from this spill, leaving these innocent victims on their own shouldn’t be an option,” Zielinski wrote.

There are also nuances to a bird’s chances of survival, which depend on the type of animal, the type of oil, how fast the recovery efforts are, weather, and expertise of wildlife care workers, according to one 2019 news story written for the National Audubon Society.

A total of 24 animals have been impacted by the Orange County spill as of the latest update on Wednesday by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California, Davis, which is helping manage wildlife recovery.

[Click here to get the latest wildlife impact counts from the organization]

Of those animals, 19 have been recovered alive, 5 died before being found. One of the birds recovered Saturday, a brown pelican, had to be euthanized due to injuries “unrelated to the incident,” the Response Network tweeted on Oct. 4.

Among the birds recovered dead, three were Double-Crested Cormorants and one was an American Coot, according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

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One thing is certain: 

Local conservationists speaking to reporters this week on the Orange County spill say the effects of crude oil on animals become more noticeable over time.

A bird seen in Newport Beach with oil on its feet, Wednesday, Oct. 6. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“We are seeing some coated birds in our marshes right now, but most of the birds we’ve seen, we haven’t been able to capture,” said John Villa, Executive Director for the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy nonprofit, during a Wednesday news conference at the Talbert Marsh.

Some birds spotted are coated, “but lightly coated, so they’re still flightable,” Villa said to reporters. “They’re flying away, and in the next few days, you’ll start seeing some of those potentially be capturable.”

The reason? Oil can affect birds’ ability for “weatherproofing,” Villa said.

“Their body temperatures will drop. When that happens, they become lethargic and it becomes easier to collect them.”

John Villa, Executive Director for the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy nonprofit

Voice of OC asked Eric Laughlin, a spokesperson for the state Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, about what methods currently go into wildlife recovery efforts responding to the Orange County spill and what the exact monitoring process is for such animals after care.

He referred a reporter to a press information line that has not once responded to a Voice of OC inquiry since spill response efforts began. 

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The tricky business of oil spill recovery goes beyond debates over animal rescue and cleaning.

Conservationists say that some methods used to save environmental habitats after oil spills are not always the ones they want to resort to, and can disrupt the environment in their own ways.

At the Talbert Marsh, on Wednesday, Villa said a 7-foot-high sand berm had been put up at the mouth of the inlet to keep away encroaching oil. 

But you never want to close off a wetlands system’s ocean inlet, Villa said. 

“The reason you don’t want the berm to be there for any length of time, is because the oxygen level in the water starts to go down, so when the oxygen level goes down, that’s when you start seeing dying fish and plants.”

There are only two ways you can oxygenate the water, Villa said: Open up the berm, or throw pumps in the wetlands to aerate the water. 

“I fight every year with OC Public Works to open it (the inlet), because for the last four years in a row we’ve been getting offshore streams — current — and it drags sand across the inlet and closes it off,” Villa said. 

“So, for the last four years, we’ve had to go and dredge it every single year.”

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