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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes
FARALLON NWR: Oiled Birds and Hard Decisions
Region 8, November 30, 2007

Joelle Buffa, Manager, Farralons NWR

The rocky islands that comprise the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, 28 miles off the Golden Gate Bridge in northern California, contain the largest nesting seabird colony south of Alaska.  The remote islands also hold the largest colony of western gulls and supports half the world’s populations of Ashy storm petrals.  The islands are difficult to access and maintain. However, through a cooperative agreement with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) Southeast Farallon Island is staffed year-long by PRBO biologists who monitor and protect seabirds and other wildlife on the island.  On November 7, a commercial cargo ship spilled 58,000 gallon of fuel oil inside the San Francisco Bay. While not directly impacting the Farallons,  consequences of the spill forced biologists and managers at the refuge to make some difficult decisions regarding the capture and rehabilitation of oiled birds.

 

The refuge was notified of the spill November 8th by California Dept of Fish and Game (CDFG) and the U.S. Coast Guard. The refuge then implemented its"Heightened Awareness" protocols, procedures which island staff follow whenever there is an oiling event that could affect wildlife on the Farallons. Staff searched areas on-shore and in the waters around the island for evidence of oil or oiled birds on a daily basis. The Coast Guard, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others involved with the response did periodic overflights to look for oil that could be moving out to sea and threatening the islands.

 

Boat surveys were also conducted when the weather permitted to get better looks at the birds, and also to assess whether it would be possible to detect which birds had oil on them when they were swimming, and if they could be captured.

 

Luckily no oil has been confirmed to have reached the refuge. However, oiled birds did appear and a decision had to be made whether or not to capture, de-oil and release them.  The total number of birds present, and the number of birds (if any) that were oiled were communicated on a daily basis to the Refuge, CDFG, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, and others involved with Wildlife Operations on the oil spill, so that it could evaluated whether a collection effort was advisable.

 

On a large seabird colony such as the Farallons, one always has to balance the benefits of taking injured or sick birds into rehab against the risks of causing trauma and other disturbance to the surrounding healthy birds that make up the bulk of the colony, and damaging their nesting habitat. For example, seabirds such as murres choose to nest on secluded islands to avoid human disturbance and predators and the habitats they nest in are easily damaged.  In additon, the capture of these birds can be stressful enough to cause death.

 

Biologisists determined that capturing individual lightly-oiled birds, came with unacceptable risks.  A few heavily oiled live seabirds were picked up around the Farallons and brought to the rehab center.  Though the decision was difficult it was made with the best interests of the entire sea bird colony in mind.

 

 

Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov