Outside In: Renegades to the Rescue

I first saw the news about the Cosco Busan oil spill in the November 8 edition of the Chron. I wanted to believe the lack of disaster its headline—”Crunch!”—implied. Yet a nugget of anxiety began to form. I remembered that the Exxon Valdez disaster had generated concern about how devastating a spill in the bay would be, but I also knew that extensive emergency response plans had been put in place. A friend emailed, telling me not to worry, and that official wildlife rescuers would respond. But the next day, that same friend called with news that help was needed at the Berkeley waterfront. Apparently dogs were chasing oil-covered birds.

On my way, I stopped at the Seabreeze Market to check out the tiny beach just behind. I hoped I wouldn’t see any oiled birds, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I didn’t. But when I picked up a Styrofoam cup at the water’s edge and my hand came away sticky with dark black grease, I began to worry for real.

As I arrived at Shorebird Park, I could smell oil in the air. I didn’t see any dogs chasing birds, but a small circle of officials—from the State Parks Department, East Bay Regional Parks Department, and OSPR (the state’s Fish & Game Office of Spill Prevention and Response)—stood in a circle discussing how to put on and take off a HazMat suit and latex gloves. I sneaked into the circle. There could be serious health risks to anyone touching birds covered in oil, one of them admonished us over and over again. He estimated that there were perhaps a hundred oil-soaked birds between Shorebird Park and Golden Gate Fields.

The man from State Parks asked if everyone in the circle had signed the sign-up sheet. I hadn’t and asked if I could. “Did you attend the four-hour training session this morning?” he asked. I hadn’t known about it, but said that I would like to volunteer anyway, explaining that I had years of experience rehabbing injured birds, including cleaning oiled birds. “Not until you take the class,” he snapped and went back to discussing the suits and gloves. I asked when I could take the class, but no one seemed to know exactly when or where the next one would be held.

As they continued talking, a distraught elderly kayaker ran up from the water carrying a surf scoter dripping with oil. At that moment I understood that the spill was much worse than reported. Both man and bird reeked of bunker fuel. As the leader of the group screamed at the kayaker to wash his hands, a woman in the group blurted out: “Are you guys just going to stand here talking while birds are out there dying?” The officials ignored her to point out how the bare-handed kayaker was a perfect example of why the public should not be involved in rescue operations. I could see why they were concerned, yet after thirty minutes of discussion about how to wear a HazMat suit, I felt I knew enough about suiting up. Meanwhile, Patty Donald from the Shorebird Nature Center (already in her HazMat gear) left to help the kayaker and the bird. As the officials still chatted, I saw the kayaker go back out to rescue another bird.

When two young HazMat-suited guys drifted away from the official group carrying a couple of pole nets, I decided to tag along. Cardboard animal rescue boxes had been delivered from Berkeley Animal Control, and I grabbed a few in case the guys were able to catch birds. One whispered to me, “The four-hour training was worthless.” For several hours, I trailed the two, watching their bird-catching techniques and bringing the birds they caught to the nature center. Catching oiled birds with pole nets isn’t easy, particularly if the birds are close to shore.

By the time I returned to the nature center, the circle of officials had dissipated, and the woman who had asked the question of the day—whose name I learned was Nancy Powell—was trying to coordinate chaos. A volunteer from Albany, she had stepped into a vacuum, taking charge by directing other would-be volunteers to drive birds to Fort Mason, where the initial intake station was set up. (By the next day, the intake trailer was moved to the Berkeley waterfront, but all birds, wherever collected, had to be delivered to the washing facility in Fairfield). Several of us, including a nurse and a former firefighter trained in HazMat response, started talking about what appeared to be an understaffed, inept response—and that volunteers were being turned away, despite the “official” response seeming almost nonexistent. As dusk fell, we decided to reconvene the next day at the same spot. I went to buy some pole nets.

The situation wasn’t much different on Saturday morning, the third day after the spill: a few officials were wandering miles of shoreline with a few pole nets. We found some HazMat suits and gloves and decided to head out on our own. Several of our group had previously been HazMat-trained but would not have been allowed to help because they hadn’t been retrained for this specific spill. Many of us had handled birds before as volunteers at wildlife rehab centers, but that didn’t count either.

On the Albany shoreline, homeless people were catching birds with their bare hands. We gave them some nets, gloves, and boxes and set off for the Richmond shoreline, which we suspected was receiving even less attention. Perhaps the oil had not moved that far north. Unfortunately, we discovered that the Richmond shoreline was taking a huge hit.

On the Richmond Bay Trail, one of our first efforts was using pieces of driftwood to drag a glob of oil the size of a large man out of the water—not an easy feat for three smallish women. Somehow we got it (and the now-contaminated driftwood) into black plastic trash bags and hauled it up to the trail. We were desperate to get rid of whatever oil we found because we knew what it meant for birds that came near, and because there was no one “official” cleaning it up. Later that day, Contra Costa HazMat pulled up and offered us fresh HazMat suits and gloves. They told us that had they been notified sooner—and allowed to buy a boat—they could have installed floating booms off the entire Richmond shoreline and kept it from being contaminated.

Our ragtag team of volunteers—now joined by a few others—split into groups of two and three and spread out along the Bay Trail between Point Isabel and Barbara and Jay Vincent Park. In the Richmond marshes and riprap, we found oiled grebes, surf scoters, loons, cormorants, ruddy ducks, coots, even a Canada goose. We weren’t great at catching them, but we got better as we went along. We avoided going after large groups near the water’s edge, because they would immediately flush into the bay and we didn’t want to stress them more than they already were. We caught the low-hanging fruit: birds huddled away from the others, hauled up high on the marshes, or hiding in the riprap—birds already in big trouble. For every one we caught, we saw at least ten similarly covered in oil.

An oil-soaked western grebe screamed in outrage as I slowly and gently untangled it from the former firefighter’s net. A loon let out a mournful wail as we put it in a box, a sound that will haunt us forever. Most birds were silent and didn’t struggle much. Some were so coated with oil they were not recognizable. Sometimes, the shape and size of the bird—and its tiny red eye—gave it away as an eared grebe, or the distinctive “Donald Duck” shape of its bill let us know we’d found a ruddy duck.

Although I’ve spent plenty of time birding and rehabbing various species of birds, I never appreciated just how gorgeous seabirds are. I wished I was seeing them in such detail through binoculars, not while holding their soiled bodies in my hands.

For two weeks, we walked the trail from morning ’til dusk, and the entire time, we saw at most two or three authorized rescuers. At various times, we found ourselves in tears—for the innocence of the birds, for the senseless loss of life that could probably have been prevented had the Cosco Busan had a double hull. But our tears were quickly brushed away. As sad as we felt, the birds were worse off.

Desperate for help, we recruited joggers and bicyclists to transport the birds we caught and to collect more boxes and towels for us. No one turned us down. Jim McKissock, a longtime environmental activist from El Cerrito, drove several birds to Cordelia. Dismayed, he commented, “This is like Katrina for the birds.” A few days into the spill, we set up our own “command central” at Shimada Friendship Park, and bicyclists ferried messages from one of our groups to another. Passersby on the trail begged us to help this bird or that bird, and we did all we could. Sometimes it was impossible: the birds were too far from shore to catch without a boat, or they were in flocks that could not be flushed. Of course, we had no cannon nets—nor, as it turns out, did the official rescuers.

One authorized rescuer (who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job) told me, “I’d rather work a spill anywhere other than California because the response here is so slow and bureaucratic.” Rebecca Dmytryk, an authorized responder with International Bird Rescue, part of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, asked for equipment, including cannon nets and boats, and was simply ignored. Says Dmytryk, “On November 9, after surveying Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands, I advised my supervisor, Kirsten Gilardi, that I observed twenty heavily oiled ducks on a sand spit in the lagoon and told her that the only feasible way to capture them would be with a net cannon, a boat, or night operations. I was never given use of a boat, night operations for this area were never discussed, and the net cannon and its operator came too late, seven days after I had requested its use. I watched these birds die off, fewer and fewer each day until there were maybe three or four dispersed within the lagoon.”

Continues Dmytryk, “If you count most of the interior of the bay, the curvature of the Pacific coastline, inlets, and marinas from Half Moon Bay to Salmon Creek, that’s close to 400 miles of shoreline that needed coverage by experienced rescue teams. If we had had sixty trained personnel, I have no doubt we could have saved many more birds—I’m guessing thousands.”

Instead, says Dmytryk, there were only eleven search and collection people dispatched during the first three days, and three of those were pulled off to help run rehab efforts. These authorized responders had little more than a few pole nets, a few ATVs, and a couple of boats that “didn’t touch the water until the eighth day after the spill,” says Dymtryk. At the height of the response, Dmytryk says, fewer than twenty experienced personnel—those who could correctly identify oiled birds and had the expertise to successfully capture them—were deployed.

In the meantime, word was sent to our team via our volunteer drivers that we were engaging in “unauthorized bird collection” and that we should stop immediately. Nancy was ordered to report to the collection trailer. She didn’t. She replied that we would be more than happy to stop as soon as officials showed up to do the job. Every day we expected the cavalry to come racing over the hills, but finally we stopped hoping for official help. A fellow rescuer from Marin dubbed our group “the Richmond Renegades” in jest, but after a monk was arrested in Marin for cleaning a beach, we kept our operations mobile, communicating by cell phone and parking in less visible locations. We remained frustrated that we couldn’t do a better job or save more birds. Despite the warnings being sent our way, the few authorized rescuers who crossed our path seemed grateful anytime they saw us with a bird in a box.

So where was the official response? The Richmond shoreline seems to have been a microcosm of what was happening—or not—elsewhere around the bay. According to OSPR’s Area Contingency Plan, the Richmond shoreline is a “Category A, priority resource area of concern”—habitat for endangered species, thus deserving of special protection, as are other areas along the bay’s shoreline. Said the anonymous official rescuer, “Based on the number of birds I saw early on, I thought they needed to call in as many trained people as possible from throughout the world. But that didn’t happen.”

Other areas were ignored as well. According to birder Glen Tepke, the response at Alameda was “pretty anemic,” and the Environmental Water Caucus’ David Nesmith says the Oakland response was dismal. Ingrid Taylar, one of many would-be volunteers relegated to spotting and reporting oiled birds, says, “We had to witness bird after bird dying because no rescue efforts were deployed to areas like Middle Harbor or even Lake Merritt.”

Weeks later, still puzzled, I talked to former Deputy Director of Fish & Game Diana Jacobs. Jacobs says she was shocked at OSPR’s poor response; Jacobs knew there was a problem when the OSPR administrator said she had “stopped watching news reports” about the spill after the second day. Part of the problem is understaffing: the administrator’s second-in-command position is unoccupied, and the agency has other vacancies. “Fish & Game should be the biggest and best agency in the state,” Jacobs says. “We have more biodiversity and resources here than almost anywhere else. But instead, we have the dinkiest little agency.” On top of that, the agency culture is not one of open communication with the public, says Jacobs: its once “open-door” policy has turned to biologists behind closed doors. From budget cuts (see “Overwhelmed and Outgunned,” Terrain, Fall/Winter 2007) to plummeting morale, Jacobs says Fish & Game is on a downward spiral.

She suggests that citizens demand to be part of the next spill response, and that spill containment and wildlife rescue equipment be stockpiled at locations around the bay. A network of area activists, nonprofits, and agencies could be put into motion in conjunction with the official response. Jacobs also suggests that OSPR conduct wildlife response drills as part of their regular oil spill drills. Still, more than that is needed, such as a consciousness change on the part of Fish & Game. “As biologists, we’re taught to care about habitat—the big picture—that impacts from an oil spill probably won’t have a population-level impact,” says Jacobs. “If citizens feel that every bird should count, they need to send that message to Fish & Game and OSPR.”

Perhaps the mindset at Fish & Game explains the response to the Cosco Busan spill. Says the anonymous official responder: “This is what happens when you let paper-pushers make an emergency response. They’re not used to being action-oriented kind of people. We’d say, ‘Now, we need help right away.’ And they’d say, ‘Calm down, relax, don’t rock the boat, we’ll get this handled.’ The people in the field were new at it—they didn’t feel the urgency to catch birds immediately. Maybe they don’t have the same level of compassion for each individual bird. Or they didn’t understand what happens if you don’t catch them. We know you have to do everything in that first week.”

With habitat disappearing, plastic and other poisons contaminating the ocean and bay, and populations of some water birds plummeting, an oil spill that kills thousands of birds could have a population impact, especially if it’s followed by a second spill. Global populations of greater and lesser scaups, some of the birds most commonly found covered in oil from the Cosco Busan spill, have decreased by 75 percent over the past 40 years; greater scaups are now on the Audubon Society’s list of common birds in decline. Clark’s grebes, another one of the ten most common species of birds found oiled, are on Audubon’s watch list of species that are declining or rare.

For every bird rescued, an estimated ten more will die on the water: one estimate runs as high as 22,000 mortalities. At the WildCare wildlife rehabilitation center in San Rafael, emaciated diving ducks are being brought in, possibly as a result of impacts on their food supply. Another bad sign: scaups, scoters, and Brandt’s cormorants were low in the annual Christmas count, according to Golden Gate Audubon’s Noreen Weeden. If there is another spill—a distinct possibility due to the ever-increasing container ship and tanker traffic in the bay—what will happen to shoreline habitats now being restored with millions of public dollars and thousands of volunteer hours?

In addition to the big picture of habitat restoration, the “little picture” of a bird covered in oil, huddled in the riprap waiting to die, has to matter. I’m angry that OSPR officials told the public that they had the situation “covered” and to stay away when volunteers could have helped rescue more birds. Bird lovers were told to call in reports of oiled birds to a number that stopped working a few days into the spill. Based on the response we saw in Richmond, I doubt that many of those birds were picked up. As Glen Tepke put it, “I was surveying for oiled birds and taking photos and reporting to OWCN under the assumption that rescues would be attempted quickly. I don’t know what I would have done if I had known that the birds were not going to be rescued any time soon.”

Since the spill, our group, now renamed East Bay Bird Advocates, has prepared and disseminated a report about what we saw in the field, available at www.eastbaybirdadvocates.org. One of our goals is to let people know what we witnessed, especially since the party line continues to be that the response was a great success. We’ve met with legislators to make wildlife rescue a priority in the spill response bills now being drafted, and we’re passing on the message that every bird counts. Yet the question remains: if better plans and legislation are written, will they be carried out by officials, or will disaster response again be left in the hands of renegades?

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