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An Oil Spill Perspective

Change

Ellie M. Cohen


"Nothing endures but change," as the Greek philosopher Hericlitus is credited with saying over two millennia ago. Indeed, "change" is in the air these days. Maybe you are an "agent of change" or you support a "candidate of change." As conservationists we work to "change the world," yet recent experience tells us that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
November 2007: The damaged ship in San Francisco Bay. Photo U.S. Coast Guard

On November 7th, the Cosco Busan container ship reportedly experienced faulty radar readings in heavy fog and slammed into a San Francisco Bay Bridge tower. Poor communications between the Coast Guard and ship's crew led to a misinterpretation of the severity of the accident and a delayed initial response. Precious hours slipped by, as the tide rolled in and out. Tidal wetlands, coastal strands, and miles of beaches were oiled, and many thousands of birds may have been killed.

On November 11th, stormy waters and 65-mile-per-hour winds split apart a small river oil tanker in Russia's Black Sea after severe weather warnings were apparently ignored. Over a half-million gallons of oil were spilled, killing an estimated 30,000 birds within the first couple of days and spoiling huge swaths of coastline.

Only three weeks later, 2.7 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into the waters off South Korea. A crane barge being towed by a tug boat broke loose and collided with an anchored crude oil tanker having ignored reported warnings about ominous weather and being too close to the parked ship. Twenty miles of prime coastal habitat, favored by tourists and wildlife alike, were fouled; one threatened bay was host to an estimated 400,000 overwintering shorebirds and waterfowl at the time.
Ellie M. Cohen. PRBO photo

Scientists, policy makers, and the public have learned a great deal from a long history of repeated disasters. Prevention and response measures have been implemented in varying degrees around the world. Yet each of these recent spills could have and should have been prevented.

Unprecedented economic growth, driven by "technological change" and ever-growing consumer demand worldwide, is keeping the pressure on, increasing the probability of more human error. Before alternative, Earth-friendly approaches to fueling this vast economic engine can be instituted on the scale needed, we will likely experience more oil spill disasters. These will, in turn, exacerbate the "global change" we are already experiencing, including climate change, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, and diminishing ecosystem services that sustain life on Earth.

Wise words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu provide some guidance: "If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." Literally and figuratively, we need to repair our radar, heed warnings of stormy seas ahead, and change direction—now.

At PRBO, we are helping conservation practitioners, private interests, policy makers, and the public to do just that—by expanding the horizons of our cutting-edge research, developing new web-based tools for wide use, and working with numerous partners to translate our scientific findings into conservation action.

With the wonderful addition of Dr. John Wiens to our staff this year as our first Chief Conservation Science Officer (see article in this Observer), and with your continued and generous support, this oft-touted "year of change" holds enormous possibilities for success towards achieving our urgently needed conservation goals.

With Great Appreciation

As this Observer highlights, PRBO's active engagement in oil spill response spans more than 35 years. In the recent Cosco Busan response efforts, over 20 PRBO-trained scientists participated. Many of our biologists and volunteers scoured the beaches for days on end. At the wildlife center in Cordelia, others handled oiled birds, working 15-hour days to keep up with the influx of animals. Our marine and shorebird experts helped survey the impacts on wildlife.

Please join me in offering our deep appreciation and kudos to them all for an outstanding effort, especially Christine Abraham and Diana Humple, PRBO's oil spill response team co-leaders. We are also very grateful to everyone who provided generous financial support to augment our emergency response efforts, especially The San Francisco Foundation and Arlene Rodriguez, the Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, and the Marin Community Foundation.