Wildlife officials are scrambling to save animals caught up in a massive oil spill that’s now drifting along Orange County’s coast. 

The efforts come after a series of brutal pelican killings along local beaches, which captured widespread attention and anger this year. 

OC Oil Spill

Latest Figures
  • Authorities now estimate a spill size range between 25,000 gallons to a maximum of 131,000 gallons
  • 5,544 gallons of oily water retrieved
  • Approximately 172,500 pounds of oily debris has been recovered from shorelines
  • 14,060 feet of boom laid to try to curb oil spread
  • More than 900 people on the ground in cleanup effort
  • General questions: 714-374-1702
  • Do not approach affected wildlife, call in a report: 877-823-6926
  • Assist with animals: 714-374-5587
  • Help with cleanups: 714-374-1702
  • File a claim: 866-985-8366

On Monday, officials said the spill killed at least one more pelican.

Three other birds are currently under the care of rescue workers, said officials at a Monday news conference.

Yet the impacts of this week’s disaster go beyond oil-slicked animals, note local experts and conservationists.

Eduardo Misael Choreño Parra came to the U.S. from Mexico in September this year, starting his pursuit of a PhD in microbial ecology at the University of California, Irvine.

Three weeks ago, Choreño said he met up with another student in Newport Beach to take in the scenery of his new country’s coastline.

Now, he’s been sent to study how one of Orange County’s worst man-made disasters in recent history will affect this same area in unseen ways, namely, impacts to the area’s microorganisms: 

“A lot of people focus on what happens with animals and plants and, for sure, it’s important. But it’s also important to know what is happening with microorganisms because they regulate a lot of processes in the land and marine environments,” Choreño said.

The southbound oil slick carries a potential to wipe out local ocean water microbes, which help remove air pollution, says Choreño’s biology professor, Dr. Kathleen Treseder, who also sits on the City of Irvine’s Green Ribbon Environmental Committee. 

“One of the things I worry most about actually is, wetlands are very important for removing nitrogen pollution, and nitrogen is what causes algal blooms, if those are wiped out … nitrogen that was being converted to gas in benign forms might head out into the ocean and that might make the situation worse.”

Garry Brown, executive director of Orange County Coastkeeper, is concerned about kelp forests between the south jetty in Newport Beach and Dana Point: “That absolutely concerns us.”

Kelp forests, Brown said, are “basically a habitat to over 800 species of fish which live, thrive on, or find protection in a kelp forest. The seaweed you see washing up on a beach.”

For a time, he said kelp forests provided a boon to local fishing, but “over a number of years we lost it” in Orange County. 

So, groups like OC Coastkeeper have embarked on kelp forest restoration projects along the coast.  

“We spent 11 years trying to grow it back. The biggest asset is that it’s a habitat,” he said. “Also, Abalone. There’s probably more natural Abalone than people realize is out there, and we worry about what impacts this will have on that.”

Meanwhile, the man-made disaster has amounted to an estimated 126,000 gallons of crude oil circulating in local waters as of Sunday. 

No other size update has come since then.

The oil has breached at least one of Orange County’s sensitive wetlands — some of the last remaining saltwater marshes in California, a vast majority of which have declined over the last 200 years. 

Such wetlands in Orange County provide crucial habitats for rare and endangered species, as well as way-points for shorebirds and other species along the Pacific Flyway Migration route.

State Dept. of Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Eric Laughlin told Voice of OC on Monday that an oil sheen — a rainbow-colored layer of petroleum — had been spotted on the Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, but it’s “just a light sheen, the other sensitive sites have strategies (like booms) deployed to protect them.”

He said Fish and Wildlife has “crews assessing” whether the oil could still breach the oil booms set up to protect the other nearby marshes, such as the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, also in Huntington Beach, but didn’t provide any more information. 

Conservationists have for years struggled to dig up funding to restore and preserve Bolsa Chica, endangered by the years-long accumulation of sand in the wetlands’ tidal inlet. 

The inlet needs the consistent removal of sand accumulation to ensure water flow in and out of the marsh. Funding for such work has remained uncertain since the 2008 Great Recession and a struggle to secure needed grants and appropriations from the state budget. 

And for years, conservationists have worked to ensure the health of Bolsa Chica to maintain its crucial habitat for rare species. 

Conservationists like Kim Kolpin of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust are now extremely worried.

“Hell yes, we are,” Kolpin said in a Monday phone interview. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

The oil slick was, as of Monday, headed further south along the coastline, “but tides change, and the oil will be there for days, weeks, months — we don’t know how long the threat will persist and until it’s gone, Bolsa Chica lies in threat,” Kolpin said. 

“We came extremely close to having that oil enter the tidal inlet — 990 acres of restored wetlands — and our hearts go out to marshes south of us that have been affected,” Kolpin said. “We consider Bolsa Chica to be still in the crosshairs of this disaster, and although we have not got any notification of oil coming into our system, we’re very much concerned that at some point it will.”

Kolpin says Bolsa Chica is home to 23 species listed as either endangered or at-risk, and that the oil-breached wetlands further south constitutes “a disaster.”

“They all share the same wildlife habitats we do. We have 23 species of animals listed as endangered or of special concern here — many of those same species transverse all these wetland systems,” Kolpin said.

She painted a picture of what could happen if the oil hits Bolsa Chica: 

“You’re looking at fish that are going to be toxic if they survive, having ingested it (the oil). When a bird eats that fish or feeds it to their young, they carry toxicity through. Shorelines will be covered in oil, any bird that forages in that shoreline, if they’re not eating fish they’re eating crabs, mollusks, they’re all now contaminated with oil. They’re no longer a viable food source.” 

On the positive side, Kolpin said, “Our summer shorebirds have left, they were not impacted. Our winter migratory species for the most part have not yet arrived. The timing of this is not horrible, but it could have been a lot worse.”

“Right now we’re in a sweet spot of not having a lot of migratory birds, but year-round birds will be affected. You’re going to lose food sources. You’re going to lose habitats. We never want to see birds resting on oil,” she added.

Brown of OC Coastkeeper said “we haven’t begun to understand the devastating impacts of this spill.” 

‘We look at any oil spill as devastating to what we’re trying to accomplish,” he added.

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