California Oil Spill Could Affect Migrating Birds

One of the lingering effects of the San Francisco Bay oil spill is the continuing death of wild birds and other sea life. So far, more than 1,500 dead or oily birds have been recovered. Environmentalists say that number could grow tenfold as migrating birds flock to the area.

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Last week's oil spill in San Francisco Bay is taking a big toll on wildlife. Scores of oil-covered seabirds have died since an Asian freighter collided with the bay bridge and dumped 58,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, things could soon take a turn for the worse as thousands of migrating birds head toward the bay.

RICHARD GONZALES: Hundreds of volunteers have been helping wildlife officials with the grim task of recovering goo-soaked birds from the bay's shoreline. One of them is 75-year-old Norton Pearlman(ph).

NORTON PEARLMAN: You got a live one for me? Where is it, in this? Yeah, thanks. I know you'll find more for us.

GONZALES: Pearlman takes a box from a cleanup worker, peers inside to see an eared green saturated with oil. It appears to be in shock.

PEARLMAN: There's a lot of waiting around. But when I get a bird - a living bird - it feels good. And hurry up and get some Pedialyte in this one. It's not moving much.

GONZALES: Pearlman's bird is brought here to the Berkeley Marina where Kirsten Gilardi is local care coordinator.

KIRSTEN GILARDI: When we rescue them, many of them are cold because they've lost the waterproofing with oiling in their feathers, we tube them with warm fluids, we get them - we start feeding them. We get them to a good enough body condition that they can withstand the stress of washing.

GONZALES: But those who will be the lucky ones over 1500 birds have been picked up. About half of them alive, many will die or be euthanized after they are washed. The oil spill could not have come at a worst time says Warner Chabot, vice president of an ocean conservancy.

WARNER CHABOT: The San Francisco Bay is on the Pacific Flyway. It's peak migration season. Ducks, geese, pelicans are coming through. It affects thousands of birds because it coats their feathers and their skin. They lose their ability to stay warm. It's like you've fallen into a stream wearing your down jacket and suddenly it's gone.

GONZALES: Officials estimate that only one quarter of the 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil has been recovered and that most of it will be absorbed into the ecosystem. Alarms are still being raised about how state and federal agencies responded to the spill.

Berkeley Assemblywoman Loni Hancock is still upset that local officials had no access to cleanup resources.

LONI HANCOCK: I was told, for example, that we couldn't put boom across the mount of the Berkeley Marina or Albany Beach because there wasn't enough boom and we weren't high enough on the priority list.

GONZALES: After inspecting the bay, California Congressman George Miller said preventing disasters such as this is even more important than responding to them.

GEORGE MILLER: Once the oil enters the water, you've lost the battle. And certainly in terms of environmental damage, you've lost the battle. That's - it's just that simple.

GONZALES: Investigators are still trying to piece together how the accident happened. The final report from the National Transportation Safety Board is not expected for a year.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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