Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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AK MARITIME: Oil Spill Reflections: Disasters Don?t Take Holidays
Alaska Region, March 17, 2005
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It was the kind of message we dread; on December 7, 2004, the following message was received at Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge headquarters:

"KODIAK, Alaska - Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley is heading toward Bogoslof Island to intercept a freighter adrift for more than 13-hours. The Selendang Ayu, a 738-foot Malaysian freighter began drifting when the ship's main engine quit operating more than 13-hours ago (U.S. Coast Guard)"

Shipwrecks bring the threat of oil spills and rat spills, both deadly for marine birds, marine mammals, and other species. Fortunately, the Selendang Ayu missed wildlife rich, rat-free Bogoslof, but the next day broke apart on Unalaska Island, part of the Refuge. Refuge staff train for such events and have responded to past shipwrecks but it's always a scramble. This was a particularly bad time?just before Christmas when most staff were on leave. Refuge biologist Art Sowls left Homer on a few hours notice to join Angie Doroff of Marine Mammals and Catherine Berg, Fish and Wildlife Service Oil Spill Response leader in the Incident Command Team, who were managing spill response from Unalaska. Other staff handled press inquiries, began response planning, and called staff back from leave in a prolonged blur of activities that didn?t subside until mid-March.

Initial response included readying the Refuge's 120-foot vessel, M/V Tiglax to support field crews studying oil's impacts on wildlife. Tiglax was winterized and undergoing repairs following a 9 month sailing season when the call came. Within a week, the crew was recalled, supplies purchased, repairs completed, and Tiglax ready to sail. Simultaneously, budgets were drawn, safety plans prepared, study plans drafted (reviewed by peers and attorneys), field crews recruited from virtually all Service offices, outfitted and briefed.

Eventually, assessing oil spill damages to wildlife on this treacherous Bering Sea coast involved more than 30 Service staff from eight Refuges as well as Fisheries, Ecological Services, Law Enforcement, Migratory Birds, Marine Mammals and the US Geological Survey (USGS.) December 27, 2004 through January 31, 2005, Tiglax crews made more than 150 beach landings surveying more than 200 km of coastline while Migratory Birds conducted aerial surveys. Data collected is vital to damage assessment for spill settlements (i.e., dollar value of the injury) and planning restoration projects. At least 23 species of birds and 3 species of mammals were oiled and over 1,600 wildlife carcasses found on beaches. Final injury estimates will be provided after data is further analyzed.

In the end, virtually every Service office joined in this response. Law Enforcement set up a chain of custody; Realty provided land ownership information; Refuges? Division of Natural Resources, USGS, Migratory Birds, and Fisheries provided statistical and biological advice on study design; External Affairs coordinated media; Environmental Contaminants provided Natural Resources Damage Assessment expertise; Ecological Services coordinated field staff and organized training; Contracting and General Services expedited last-minute purchases; Human Resources arranged emergency hires; Budget and Administration completed complex funds transfers; and the Solicitor's Office kept us legal. It was truly a combined effort.

(For more information about the spill response, see ?Oil spill threatens wildlife and acres of habitat? posted December 20, 2004.)

Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, Kristen_Gilbert@fws.gov
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