by Jessie Faulkner
It was one homecoming Daniel Welsh would have preferred to miss. The 37-year-old fish and wildlife biologist, raised in Fieldbrook, wasn't in town to visit his folks.
As the branch chief of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' oil spill response team in Sacramento, Welsh spent a week on the North Coast as part of a multiagency response to the Humboldt Bay oil spill that blackened shores and killed scores of birds last month.
It began early the morning of Nov. 5 when a crew member's maneuvering error at the Louisiana-Pacific dock in Samoa punctured the tank of the Panamanian-based cargo ship Kure and sent 4,540 gallons of bunker oil into the bay.
By 11 a.m. Welsh was in his car on his way north. The results at the end of the road weren't encouraging.
"We've worked on larger spills in terms of volume but we have not worked on spills where this many birds were oiled," he said.
"This spill has very large impacts on birds relative to the volume of oil spilled. It's the most significant one I've worked on and I've been working here since 1994. We typically respond to three to five spills a year where there are bird impacts."
The McKinleyville High School graduate, son of retired McKinleyville High School biology teacher Jim Welsh, kept his emotions at bay. This was a disheartening encounter with bay birds, but certainly not his first exposure to North Coast fowl.
As teenagers, he and his brother, Chris, also a wildlife biologist who works with oil spills for a private company, became avid birdwatchers, regularly participating in annual bird counts and launching their own friendly rivalry over who could spot the most species. It's a contest that continues today. And last month that familiarity with the area and the birds helped Welsh direct the federal government's response to the waterborne disaster.
The extent of the spill's impact can only be estimated at this point. As of Nov. 21, 506 dead birds were brought to the center and 483 were rescued alive. Of the 483, another 126 later died, 94 were euthanized, 99 were released healthy and 164 were still at the center. The totals only hint at the numbers affected yet uncounted.
"It's only the tip of the iceberg of birds that are actually oiled because you can't find all of them," Welsh said. "You typically recover a relatively small percentage of those that were actually oiled. That's also true for the birds that are impacted on the ocean. Oiled birds can sink after a few days, so they don't even wash up."
Many of those will never be actually counted because they will seek refuge in marsh vegetation or nearby brush. Their carcasses are an open invitation to scavenging seagulls or ravens.
"Many of the carcasses I found on beaches and along the Bay were scavenged. Had we been a few hours later getting there, they would have been gone," he said.
The devastating effects on birds is twofold. In attempting to preen or clean off the sticky substance, the birds ingest the poisonous oil and succumb to its toxic effects. The situation is further complicated as the coated birds fight to stay warm, the oil blocks their feathers' natural insulating properties. They retreat on land, hidden from human rescuers and left out of official counts. If not found quickly, the dead birds spread their toxicity to other winged species when scavenger birds feed on the carcasses.
The spill-related damages have not been limited to the bay. As outgoing tides rush soiled water into the ocean, seagoing fowl fell into the mix. And for at least one species, perhaps the best known of the sea birds, the consequences may be devastating.
"There have been about 10 dead marbled murrelets brought in with oil. They're coming from locations as far north as Patrick's Point," Welsh said.
"They've been brought in from out at sea by some of the boat crews. They're not very big. The odds of finding one are low, so if you find 10 you know that more than that are affected. With species that are already threatened or endangered, the loss of even one individual is a problem."
The marbled murrelet, a tiny seabird known to nest in inland old-growth forests, is listed by the state as "endangered" and as "threatened" by the federal Endangered Species Act. In the environmental wars it's been considered by many as a successor to the Great Northern Spotted Owl, a bird with the potential to block timber harvests.
For the California Brown Pelican, listed as an endangered species at the federal level, the visible damage has been less.
"We've had a least two that were oiled -- one alive and one dead that were brought in," Welsh said. "There were others observed that were flying around with oil or roosting with oil."
The jury's also out on the spill's impact to shellfish, primarily oysters, clams and mussels.
"There are a number of ways of looking at the effects. One is through trying to estimate what the toxicity of the oil may have been to them by collecting water samples and analyzing them or by analyzing tissues from some of these types of organisms," he said.
"The mollusks are filter feeders and they're filtering the water across their gills and taking up the particulate matter, " Walsh said. "The water and particulates can have oil in it, so they could be exposed to oil in that manner. It depends upon on what their level of activity was at the time when the oil was in the water. If they were closed and not actively filtering, the effects would be much less than if they weren't."
Studying the long-term ramifications of the spill began with the response.
"The pre-assessment phase takes place while you're doing the response," he said. That first look includes tracking the number of birds affected and collecting water samples from different locations and at different times. That early data will be compiled with later monitoring results for a view of the bigger picture.
"We'll monitor them (the birds) for at least a 12-month period trying to determine what the effects may have been," he said. "It may require more than a single year of monitoring."
Welsh credits practice oil drill response drills for making response to Humboldt Bay's calamity quick and comprehensive. It's not a spill that caught him unaware.
"I've participated in spill drills here on Humboldt Bay. In those drills you think a lot about the types of scenarios that could result in a spill and Humboldt Bay is an area with some pretty difficult conditions: weather, tides, currents.
"Crossing the bar is a challenge for vessels, so I am not surprised that we're responding to a spill here. I think any harbor with a significant vessel traffic combined with difficult conditions is inevitably going to have spills."
The hope among those in the know is that such an inevitability would have happened at another time of the year.
"A spill in November or December on this bay is the absolute worst time of the year for a spill to occur," Welsh said. "This is the time of year when you have your peak numbers of shorebirds and waterfowl -- tens of thousands of birds. Just the shorebirds alone during November in peak years can be as many as 50,000 to 75,000 birds and that's just one type -- sandpipers that forage along the shores."
What prevented even more damage to birds and their habitat was quick response.
"What you've been hearing about the quality of the spill response is true. It was a very good effort," he said. "Between the drills and the development of plans -- called area contingency plans -- the responders know what to do and they can get on it right away. I think the notification of the various agencies was particularly good, at least in my case. On Wednesday, when the spill occurred, I was out running at 6:30 in the morning. I got back into the house and my wife said the state Office of Emergency Services had called and there was a large oil spill in Humboldt Bay. This was only a couple of hours after the incident."
The work didn't come cheap. A week after the cleanup had begun, the bill totalled $5 million. Part of the expense was the more than 400 people, a mixture of volunteers and paid workers, who gathered to clean up miles of beaches and estuaries.
After a week of 12-to-16-hour days, Welsh was preparing to leave. A meeting in Reno demanded his attention. Other Fish and Wildlife Service staff were packing for home as well.
"We try to rotate people after they've been in five or six days," Welsh said. "You get tired, particularly the people working out on the boats and in rainy weather. That's physically difficult. We don't want anyone to get hurt or sick. We want the quality of work to stay at a high level."
Three days later the first of the rescued and un-oiled birds were freed at Big Lagoon.
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