News Brief


Spilling it Forward

Oil-soaked birds being carefully cleaned by human volunteers are just the beginning. The 58,000 gallons of bunker oil dumped into the waters of San Francisco Bay on Nov. 7 when the container ship the Cosco Busan smashed into the Bay Bridge is more than a one-time spill; it’s a long-term traumatic jolt to an already environmentally stressed region, says Mark Holmes of the Bay Institute.

“The [San Francisco] Bay is part of a much larger estuary that is a very fragile coastal ecosystem,” Holmes explains. “This is the worst possible place for an oil spill of this nature to occur.”

The timing’s also poor. Dungeness crabs are migrating. Herring are spawning—or would be if the water weren’t fouled up. The rains will start soon, and all the crud that has built up on local roadways will be washed directly into the Bay.

Fall is also the avian migratory season, when birds of all types trek to the Bay Area, either staying for a few months or simply stopping for a few days to eat and refuel before pressing on to a destination farther south. Those traveling fowl will be eating large quantities of food, which means large amounts of oil toxins.

“It’s the worst time of the year for the birds,” Holmes notes. “The birds would prefer that this happened in July—they wouldn’t be here.”

The oil has spread as far out to sea as the Farallon Islands, is already present in San Pablo Bay and has crept up the coastline to Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon.

Clams, oysters and other mollusks eat by filtering water—which under the current conditions, means absorbing oil toxins. If they survive, birds, fish or even humans will eat them, thereby passing the toxins up the food chain and poisoning the ecosystem.

Holmes says some birds will sicken and die later on. Others will be unable to reproduce or their immune systems will be compromised. And while the oil may be contained to a certain area, the critters aren’t. Mollusks, fish and birds can travel to other regions, bringing the impact of the oil spill with them.

Conventional wisdom predicts that, based on spills of similar magnitude, it will take two to three years for this area to recover.

“That presumes that there are no similar kinds of insults to the system within the three-year period as these toxins work their way through the system,” Holmes says thoughtfully.

“If it’s over in two or three years, we’d be grateful.—Br