Oiled Marine Mammals & Sea Turtles at the Texas City "Y" Spill

April 7, 2014

Two large vessels collided near the coast of Texas last week, spilling 168,000 gallons of thick, sticky oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As of April 4, at least 40 dolphins, 26 sea turtles and 168 birds have been collected as part of the spill effort.

Many states in the Gulf of Mexico, including Texas, do not have a strong emergency response plan for oiled marine mammal/sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation. That’s why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) called upon Mike Ziccardi to come help lead their operation in what is being called the Texas City “Y” spill.

Ziccardi is the Director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) in California and co-Director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis.

The OWCN is a collective of trained wildlife agencies and other organizations that conduct several readiness drills each year. The network is recognized as a world leader in oil spill response, rescue, rehabilitation and research. If there’s a spill on the California coast, the OWCN is ready. 

The same can’t be said for the Gulf of Mexico.

Every Spill is Different

“NOAA has individual marine mammal stranding networks throughout the US, including one in the southeast,” Ziccardi said. “But this spill turned out to be larger than the stranding networks could support, so they asked me to come down and help.”

Ziccardi is heading up the response team’s Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Unit, just as he did at the Deepwater Horizon Spill in 2010, where he spent nearly six months overseeing teams that planned for and worked with dolphins, whales, manatees and sea turtles.

That spill dumped an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the gulf, which dwarfs the 168,000 gallons released in this accident. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“Every spill is very different and has to be treated individually,” said Ziccardi. “Unlike Deepwater Horizon this spill was near shore, so it reached the shoreline more quickly.”

Because of the currents, much of the oil itself is staying off shore and traveling parallel to the shoreline, which means it can come to land anytime. Oil has been found as far away as Padre Island National Seashore, which is hundreds of miles from the spill site.

“The longer it stays in the water, the higher the chance of a marine mammal or sea turtle ingesting it,” said Ziccardi. “It is also a concern as we head into sea turtle nesting time.” 

Integrating Wildlife

Many factors must be weighed in oil spill response, from species affected and time of year to product spilled and the local geography.

Many of the areas heavily affected by the Texas City “Y” spill are fairly remote, so it’s difficult to get large equipment out there. Not to mention many of the clean up activities can have negative consequences on wildlife.

“That’s why wildlife are fully integrated into the planning,” said Ziccardi. “Oil can cause problems for wildlife, but so can a tractor that runs over a sea turtle nest.”

The remoteness of some of the affected areas has also been a challenge. A good example is Matagorda Island, which is an affected area about 100 miles south of Galveston. To get there, you have to take a workboat from Port O’Connor to the island, at which point you’re issued a UTV to cover the area. This all takes time and energy each day, making the allocation of resources an ongoing challenge that must be constantly assessed.  

Importance of Preparation

The local response in the Texas City “Y” spill for marine mammals and sea turtles is being built on the fly, just like it was in Deepwater Horizon. That’s why Ziccardi and the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center have been working with NOAA to develop and implement both a national guidance document for responding to these species during oil spills, as well as regional response plans throughout the country that delve more deeply into local issues and species.

The key, Ziccardi said, is to develop these guidelines so that the various regional stranding networks have a defined plan in place that are understood by and integrated within the overall planning components for oil spill response.

Ziccardi was in Galveston last week responding to the spill, but he had to take a quick flight up to Alaska this week to help direct training and drills at the Alaska marine mammal stranding network’s annual meeting. The goal of that meeting was both the better training of potential responders in the area as well as the sharing of information for the eventual formation of a response plan.  

On Thursday night Ziccardi flew back to Texas to continue his help with the ongoing response.