On the Sunday following the November 7 container ship accident that dumped 58,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay, I biked down to the Berkeley Marina to see if there was anything I could do to help out. Even if volunteers were being turned away, I wanted to see conditions along the shore with my own eyes.
As it turned out, the dedicated and somewhat harried folks staffing the impromptu operations center at the Shorebird Nature Center were looking for volunteers, to report oiled birds and help keep people and dogs off the beaches. I received a paper badge deputizing me as a City of Berkeley volunteer and headed over to my assigned station, the cove behind the Sea Breeze Market, where Strawberry Creek enters the Bay.
When I got there, I saw three oiled sea ducks—either scoters or scaups, the oil coating made identification difficult—on the beach, along with quite a few other birds that weren’t visibly oiled. When the only official rescue crew working this stretch of shoreline finally arrived, its two white-suited members were able to capture only one of the oiled ducks; the other two flew away. It’s not easy to net a duck, even an oiled one.
Two other images from that day remain in my mind. One was the death of a scoter on the mudflat a few yards from shore. I watched helplessly as this bird flapped its last feeble wingbeats, lifted up its blackened head, and then laid it back down on its oiled wing. Immobile on the mud, it looked more like a clump of oil than a duck.
The other image was more surreal than tragic. A man came over to the low fence at the edge of the Sea Breeze parking lot holding a takeout food container. As I approached, he threw the container’s worth of French fries over the fence, immediately attracting a flock of gulls. When I asked what he was doing, his somewhat aggressive response was, “We’ve poisoned the water, so they can’t eat there anymore. This is the least we can do.” In the broadest sense, he did have a point, but the gulls weren’t the ones in trouble and his remedy was ineffective, if not counterproductive.
As a region, we have made tremendous progress cleaning up the Bay and returning much of the shoreline to suitable habitat for ducks and shorebirds; the beach where I was standing at the mouth of Strawberry Creek is a fine example of successful habitat restoration, both at the shoreline and along the creek upstream. But what does it mean to create great habitat for the birds, only to have them subjected to poisoning when they show up in large numbers at the height of fall migration? It certainly raises the question of how to be responsible stewards of the natural world while also being a gateway for commerce in a globalized economy. Throwing good fries after bad oil hardly seems the solution.
The Cosco Busan spill was not the first in the Bay, and it won’t be the last. The more restored areas we have, the easier it will be for wildlife in the Bay to recover from the next disaster. We just have to get better at preventing spills and responding quickly when they do occur. Double hulls on ships, updated navigation protocols, and improved agency coordination would all help. As would dedicating some of the funds from the upcoming lawsuits to research on the spill’s long-term impacts.
It is those longer-term impacts and lessons from this human-made disaster that we will cover in a future issue of Bay Nature. In the meantime, my thanks to all of you who got out there to help save birds and clean beaches. The tremendous grassroots response has been the one silver lining in this whole mess, demonstrating conclusively that the people of the region don’t take their Bay, and the wildlife that depends on it, for granted. Having this familiar landmark so palpably threatened proved to be a “teachable moment” about the fragility—and resilience—of our natural ecosystems. Let’s not forget that lesson.
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Veteran environmental activist, writer, editor, publisher, educator, and coastal wetlands scientist Phyllis Faber has made countless contributions to the Bay Area environmental movement.