Changing Planet

Santa Barbara Oil Spill: What Will We Learn?

Two gray whales moving close to shore off the coast of California. Photograph courtesy Ocean Conservation Society

A month ago, KPPC journalist Sanden Totten joined me on the Ocean Conservation Society boat during one of our regular marine mammal surveys that my research team and I conduct off Southern California. He wanted to discuss and observe first hand the increasing presence of skin lesions and physical deformities that are plaguing common bottlenose dolphins moving along the coastline. He was also curious about some of the reasons causing these lesions and the effects on the animals.

The piece recently aired with the rightfully-disturbing title “Researchers studying dolphins in the Santa Monica Bay have noticed an alarming trend: More and more are showing signs of skin lesions and even tumors.” In the interview, Sanden mentioned one of our studies, published in 2009 where we discovered that nearly 80 percent of bottlenose dolphins along the Los Angeles coastline show at least one type of lesion. The likely culprit? Pollution.

This past Wednesday, I was driving home when I heard the news about an onshore oil spill near Santa Barbara, in California, not far from my research study area. An underground pipeline ruptured and spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude on coastal land and at sea.

As I write this post, the slick of crude oil has already stretched more than nine miles along the coastline and ten of thousands of gallons have reached the ocean. To what extent this spill will affect ocean wildlife is still unclear but it will affect it. As I heard the news, I thought of the marine mammals that I study. Coastal bottlenose dolphins, for instance, moving back and forth from Baja California to Oregon in search of prey, are one of the prominent species that frequent and forage in this now polluted area.

As I wrote in a recent post for this blog:

Dolphins are top predators, meaning they feed at the top of the food chain. When chemical pollutants settle into seafloor sediments, they are absorbed by a variety of small organisms. Some of these creatures end up in the stomachs of bottom feeders, which, in turn, accumulate higher concentrations of the same contaminants in their body tissues. Every time the contaminants move up the food chain into a new predator, the concentration intensifies in a process called bio-magnification. By the time the contaminants reach the adult dolphin population at the top of the food chain, the concentrations are severe — so much so that stranded dead dolphins are regularly handled and disposed of as hazardous waste. Pollutants also pass from one generation to the next. Through their milk, dolphin mothers transfer sub-lethal doses of harmful chemicals to newborns during a lactation period that may last up to two years.

Sea lions and harbor seals are also top predators living in these now contaminated waters. As I write, migratory gray whales are traveling along this coastline, often very close to shore, on their way back to the cold and nutrient-rich waters of Alaska. Endangered humpbacks and blue whales are spotted regularly in this region. All of these species, and many others, will be affected by this spill.

As Governor Jerry Brown is declaring a State of Emergency and the Santa Barbara oil spill is worsening dramatically. The cause of the oil spill is still under investigation. The underground oil pipeline was working, according to Plains All American Pipeline below its maximum capacity of 2,000 barrel an hour. This company has been fined before for safety violations and is one of the worst violators listed by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration.

Today this is news, bad news, but the news will be replaced by other news soon and, as many disasters of this type before, this one will be… just another oil spill. It seems to me that soon we will forget about the crude, about the animals affected by it, about the consequences of our actions, and we will continue to make the same mistakes.

I hope I am wrong.

In memory of: Santa Barbara, 1969. Alaska, 1989. Gulf of Mexico, 2010.

Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. She is president and co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins. She also works as a photo-journalist and blogger for several publications. Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist.

  • Steve

    Did you know that 21,000 gallons, maximum, went into the water, and much of that has already been cleaned up? Did you also know that the ocean bed (Mother Nature) seeps (leaks/spills) 10,000 gallons per day in the Santa Barbara area? Every day.

  • James Thompson

    It is understandable that oil is being emitted due to the pressures of the hot volcanos and steam from the salt water pumped into caveties made by extracting the oil.
    The weakest immune sea life will die off and a more resistant sea life will evolve gradually however pumping additional thousands of gallons immediately causes the deaths and lesions due to lack of immunitt to the cancer causing chemicals(200) as part of the crude oil.

  • James Thompson

    The additional shock of toxic crude oil is too much to prevent the lesions and deaths of the sea life however new species with stronger immune systems will evolve. (200 cancer causing chemicals in crude oil)

  • James Thompson

    Stop burning fossil fuels. They cause cancer.

  • James Thompson

    Stop burning fossil fuels.

  • Patricia Schaefer

    1. Make lists of everyone and everything that has been hurt especially financially! Later compile the lists into files to create big fat reports for the litagators.
    2. Establizh communications with Alaska regarding the Valdez Spill. What advive do they have?

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