Alaskan helps apply lessons learned from Exxon Valdez spill

Posted: Monday, September 25, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Lessons learned in Alaska were used recently to help save thousands of penguins impacted by an oil spill off the coast of South Africa.

The incident occurred when the freighter Treasure sank in June, six miles from Cape Town. The vessel released approximately 1,300 tons of bunker fuel toward two of the largest penguin breeding colonies in the world.

Within days, Barbara Callahan, the regional representative of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, was on the scene. She was working 10,000 miles from her home in Anchorage.

The magnitude of the job didn't hit all at once. At first, reports came in at 1,500 birds oiled. Then 3,500, then 8,000, then twice that.

''We were just blown away,'' said Callahan, who recently returned from more than two months on the rescue project.

''Let me put this in perspective: In the Exxon Valdez (oil spill), we had 1,500 birds that came in alive over six months. This was 20,000 in a week.''

In all, more than 23,000 birds were oiled in the Treasure spill off South Africa.

The rescue effort, which involved agencies, experts and volunteers from more than a dozen countries, not only was the largest in the world, it also was one of the most successful, Callahan told the Anchorage Daily News.

The project up to now has rehabilitated and released 88 percent of the penguins brought in oiled, with 381 birds still recovering, she said.

A number of lessons were gleaned from the Exxon Valdez spill. That includes knowing how short the window of opportunity is for making a difference.

One experiment, for example, prevented nearly 20,000 penguins from being oiled in the first place.

''It was prime breeding season,'' Callahan said. ''Everybody was on burrows and eggs. Robben Island was hit immediately. And they could see the trajectory of the spill heading toward Dassen Island.''

With oil headed toward Dassen, rescue workers rounded up nearly 20,000 unoiled penguins, boxed them up, ferried them to the mainland, then trucked them eight hours to Port Elizabeth and let them go, knowing it would take at least 10 days to swim back.

The hope was that the oil would be cleaned up by then.

''This was so unprecedented.'' Callahan said. ''And it worked.''

Callahan, who grew up in Anchorage, split her time between the research center and Anchorage's Bird Treatment and Learning Center before going full time with her rescue work last year.

With its headquarters in Berkeley, Calif., the International Bird Rescue Research Center has been coming to the aid of oiled wildlife for almost 30 years.

The nonprofit organization was founded after two tankers collided beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971, spilling 900,000 gallons of crude oil. Very little was known about how to help oiled birds at the time. As a result, only 300 of some 7,000 birds collected survived.

Since then, the center has sunk its research efforts into improving cleaning and rehabilitating techniques.

Every spill has something to teach.

The Treasure response was just the right antidote to an effort Callahan worked on earlier this year when the tanker Erika split in two off the coast of Brittany.

The time lapse between the accident and the French government seeking outside help was too long, she said. By the time she and other experts arrived on the scene, the birds -- mostly common murres -- were dehydrated and malnourished and had been standing on hard surfaces for three weeks.

Seabirds aren't designed for that. Within days of standing, their joints start to deteriorate beyond repair.

Of the 25,000 seabirds picked up, only about 10 percent survived, she said.

''We knew before we got on the plane to France that we were going to euthanize a lot of these birds. But we also knew it would be an incredible opportunity to teach people how to do this right.''

When the Treasure went down, an international effort to save the penguins was launched immediately, with rescue teams from the research center and the International Fund for Animal Welfare leading the charge.

Because of earlier spills, Cape Town had a rescue center in place but it was quickly overwhelmed.

An enormous rehab center was set up in a five-acre railroad warehouse, with six more acres in back. The facility contained holding tanks, pools, feeding areas and evaluation stations.

Rescue workers went through more than 1,800 gallons of detergent and fed the penguins 450 tons of fish.

When seabirds get oiled, they lose their waterproofing and no longer can stay warm. They get out of the cold water, which means they can't eat or drink. When they try to preen, they ingest the oil, which damages their immune systems and causes anemia. That means the birds come into the rehab centers in rough shape.

Before cleaning, they have to be stabilized so they'll survive the stress of washing.

Once they're cleaned, rinsed and dried, they're put in pools and carefully monitored.

''Seeing birds returned to the wild is one of the most joyous occasions for me,'' Callahan said. ''I still don't go to a release without getting tears in my eyes.''

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