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Oil Spill Response and Marine Mammals

The Marine Mammal Center is a member of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which coordinates all oil spill response in the state of California. Our hospital is a primary facility for oiled seals and sea lions, and our staff and volunteers are specially trained to assist if called upon during an oil spill event.


An aerial view of the Refugio oil spill near Santa Barbara.
© Oiled Wildlife Care Network

How Oil Spills Affect Marine Mammals

Oil in or on the water is extremely dangerous to wildlife. For instance, when an animal lands in an area affected by oil, it will try to preen or clean itself and ingest the toxic petroleum product, causing severe damage to internal organs. Ingesting oil will greatly disrupt the reproductive process, and animals that have survived oil spills may suffer the long term effects of breeding problems and may produce deformed offspring.

From the Oiled Wildlife Care Network: There are different effects on different classes of marine mammals. Heavily furred animals, such as sea otters and fur seals, are more severely affected by oiling because these species rely on their thick haircoat to maintain warmth and buoyancy. The fur traps a thin layer of air adjacent to the animal's skin (in a similar fashion to birds), and this air layer prevents the skin of the animal from coming into contact with the cold ocean water. When exposed to oil, the alignment of the hair is altered; the air layer is destroyed; and mammals rapidly become hypothermic.

For marine mammals without heavy haircoats (such as other species of seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales), problems associated with hypothermia are less of a concern because their thick blubber protects them from the cold, with the exception of juveniles that have not yet developed this protective layer. However, problems associated with fume inhalation, skin exposure, and ingestion are still concerns for these species, as they are in birds and fur-bearing marine mammals.

When a bird becomes coated with oil, the oil will clog the bird's feathers making it impossible for the bird to fly. Oil can also make the feathers so heavy that the bird will be unable to float, and may end up sinking and drowning.

Fish and shellfish larvae — and other micro-organisms, like plankton — are extremely sensitive to even small amounts of oil and other petroleum products. One gallon of used oil spilled in one million gallons of water will kill half of all exposed Dungeness crab larvae. (Washington State Dept. of Ecology)

There are cumulative impacts to sensitive shoreline organisms (such as clams, crabs, macro invertebrates) which die or bio-accumulate the toxic components of petroleum products. This toxicity moves up the food chain, negatively impacting reproduction, shortening life span and leading to mortality of larger animals (birds and mammals) that may prey on these organisms.

What to do if you spot oiled wildlife
If you find oiled wildlife in your area, please call 1-877-UCD-OWCN (1-877-823-6926) and report it immediately. Do not attempt to rescue the wildlife yourself and keep pets away from the area. Untrained individuals who attempt to rescue wildlife may cause more harm than good and may injure themselves in the process. If oiled animals are scared back into the water by pets or people, their chances of survival decrease dramatically.

Past response efforts
The Marine Mammal Center has, in the past, assisted agencies by rescuing marine mammals and birds caught in the toxic goo. The Center is a member of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which was established in 1994, and is part of the California Department of Fish & Game's Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program.

Previous response efforts include the Cosco Busan incident in 2007, when an outbound container ship struck the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, spilling approximately 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay. Staff and volunteers from the Center also assisted in response efforts to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.

Partnering with Dawn to help save wildlife
We’re proud to partner with Dawn dish soap as part of their Dawn Saves Wildlife campaign. For more than 30 years, Dawn dishwashing liquid has been an important part of rescuing and releasing more than 75,000 birds and marine mammals affected by oil pollution. Learn more about how Dawn saves wildlife.


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