OSPR crew responds to sunken monument ship in Dana Point

In the twilight hours of Sunday, March 29, the Orange County Sheriff answered a 911 call about a sunken vessel at Dana Point Harbor. They immediately contacted Dana Point deputies who responded to assess the situation. Upon arrival, deputies saw the 98-foot Pilgrim’s wooden hull completely submerged, with its mast leaning to one side in its slip. A large oil sheen surrounded the ship on the water.

Shortly thereafter, local authorities showed up with the county’s OSPR-granted boom trailer to contain and recover the released red dye diesel fuel and oil from the iconic, replica tall ship.

The Office of Spill Prevention and Response awarded a boom trailer to the Orange County Sheriff Department. They received the equipment trailer in November 2019 to help protect their natural and economic resources from oil spills.

“It was never a matter of if we have a petroleum incident at the harbor, but when,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Baugh.

The Orange County community is familiar with oil spills, having experienced one of the largest crude spills in California from the American Trader in 1990. Since that time, the county has looked for funding to purchase containment equipment.

OSPR’s grant program offers up to $35,000 for an oil spill equipment mobile trailer to local government, Native American tribal organizations, and special districts so they have response equipment staged locally for a fast response.

Environmental Scientist David Lyons remembers getting a phone call from the wildlife officer on call about the Pilgrim with instructions for him to deploy as soon as possible. Lyons was the first to arrive on scene from OSPR’s southern field response team, made up of a wildlife officer, an environmental scientist and an oil spill prevention specialist.

“Lots of people from the community were at the scene wondering about the Pilgrim’s fate,” said Lyons. “Everyone who knows the Dana Point area knows about this ship.”

The nearby Ocean Institute owned and operated the Pilgrim, a 1945 replica of a historic ship that sailed in the 19th Century, known for fur trading in North America. One of its sailors, Henry Dana Jr., the areas namesake and writer of the book, Two Years Before the Mast, is about a two-year sailing expedition on the Pilgrim from Boston to California. Hollywood made a movie based on the book with the Pilgrim as its backdrop in 1946.

Unlike the original ship, the replica had a diesel motor, fuel tanks and oil on board. The Ocean Institute used the replica tall ship to offer thousands of school-age children overnight expeditions to teach them about life as a sailor working and living on the high seas.

Lyons said Dana Point Harbor where the ship sank is near environmentally-sensitive, rocky intertidal and tidal areas, a break wall (a wall that breaks the surf to create the harbor) where many birds and wildlife haul out and forage. Wildlife refuges, the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area and offshore kelp forests are also among the environmentally-sensitive areas near the harbor.

OSPR Oil Spill Prevention Specialist Jim Kiatos, also responded. He identifies contaminants and quantifies petroleum released into the environment during responses.

“The fast response of the Orange County Sheriff deploying their newly-awarded containment boom played a key role in preventing a major spread of the oil,” said Kiatos. “If we had to wait for an oil spill response organization to arrive, the petroleum might have done more damage.”

Wildlife Officer Anastasia Norris as the state on-scene coordinator oversaw the work of cleanup contractors and the handling of the contaminants and salvage operations. All members of OSPR response team work with federal, local agencies and owners of the petroleum released during oil spill cleanups.

This response occurred during the Covid-19 stay-at-home order as many bystanders and responders kept their distance. Clean up responders maneuvered as best they could to maintain six feet social distance from each other made especially challenging on the narrow dock that surrounded the sunken vessel.

After the cleanup contractor performed oil skimming operations at the slip where the Pilgrim moored, the responders began work to refloat and remove fuel from the tank and seal the sunken vessel. Responders used high capacity pumps to float the vessel and a crane barge to lift her. Divers observed how unstable the old, heavy wooden hull had become. After several lift attempts, Wildlife Officer Norris along with the US Coast Guard representatives, local authorities and the Ocean Institute decided to demolish the Pilgrim out of safety concerns.

The outpouring of emotion from onlookers and others on social media about the demolition of the Pilgrim rang.

“I saw a woman crying in the parking lot near the Pilgrim’s slip once news spread about the demolition,” Kiatos said.

Responders were able to retrieve various key parts of the tall ship to remember her by, including a bell, one of the masts and a cannon.

Members of the southern response team also reminisced:

“When I arrived on scene, it was a very sad site because as a kid, I participated in one of the overnights on the ship doing night watch, rowing in synchronization with my classmates and eating hard tack and stew,” said Norris. “It was actually a really cool experience.”

Lyons recalled touring the Pilgrim while visiting the Ocean Institute during a marine biology class.

“It was a sad thing to happen to the Pilgrim, and it was just one more bad thing to happen in 2020.”

“When I came to California 30 years ago, I noticed the Pilgrim right away and always associated the boat with Dana Point,” Kiatos said.

To learn more about the Ocean Institute’s Pilgrim, go to https://www.ocean-institute.org/general-information/about-pilgrim

To learn more about OSPR’s response grants, go to https://wildlife.ca.gov/OSPR/Local-Government-Outreach

Banded pelican linked to OSPR restoration project in Mexico

A photograph of a brown pelican with a red leg band signified an interesting connection to OSPR executive Steve Hampton. Hampton, an avid birder and 20-year veteran of oil spill restoration, captured the image in Half Moon Bay and knew the band meant it was born and tagged in Mexico.

After searching the internet and exchanging a few emails regarding this bird that was marked “X567,” Hampton discovered something he did not expect – the pelican he saw came from one of the restoration projects that he helped plan!

The bird originated from a pelican colony on San Martín Island, one of the project sites that helped restore seabirds after the Luckenbach oil spills.

“My research led me to the Mexican conservation organization Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, a sub-contractor for the Luckenbach restoration project,” Hampton said. “They told me they banded this bird as a juvenile on July 7, 2017 on San Martín Island.”

Grupo de Ecología y Conservación in Baja California focuses on restoring seabirds and mainland birds in Mexico. The majority of the pelicans seen in California come from breeding colonies in Baja California.

The SS Jacob Luckenbach collided with its sister ship SS Hawaiian Pilot in 1953 and sank to the ocean floor approximately 17 miles out from the Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco. The vessel periodically released bunker fuel into the ocean for decades.

State and federal agencies discovered the source of the oil spills in 2002 and OSPR partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to remove oil from S.S. Jacob Luckenbach. The federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund paid for the response in addition to $22.7 million for the estimated 50,000 seabirds that died over the years.

Restoration trustees selected twelve projects to restore impacted seabirds, including the project in Baja California implemented by Grupo de Ecología y Conservación. International coordination and collaboration between U.S. and Mexican conservation organizations makes sense for migratory birds such as the brown pelican that do not know country boundaries.

Hampton worked as an economist for OSPR’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) before becoming a deputy director. NRDA studies environmental injuries from oil spills or other pollution damages and compensates the public for those losses through restoration projects. Since CDFW-OSPR’s inception, over $210 million in restoration projects have been funded through settlements.

“It was luck that a bird I observed had a connection to an oil spill restoration project that I helped make happen years ago,” said Hampton. “The event was a highlight of my summer!”

Annual sea otter oil spill drill focuses on new protocols

OSPR scientists and colleagues, including eighteen veterinarians and rehabilitation specialists, participated in the annual southern sea otter oil spill drill at OSPR’s Wildlife Care Center in Santa Cruz.

Participants came from organizations around California and included a Brazilian veterinarian responsible for oiled wildlife response in Brazil, who was visiting The Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay, as part of their veterinary exchange program.

“These drills are a great opportunity for sea otter specialists to validate and optimize our response processes, to foster consistency for sea otter care statewide, and to learn from each other practical tips and approaches to cleaning oiled sea otters,” said Wildlife Care Center Supervisor Laird Henkel. “The collaboration and cooperation from participants is essential so that we continually improve how we respond to oiled sea otters.”

OSPR’S Wildlife Care Center is the first-of-its kind facility in the United States dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and research of oiled marine wildlife, with an emphasis on southern sea otters. The Wildlife Care Center is the state-designated facility in California to treat and rehabilitate oiled otters and has customized equipment including floating pens large enough to house sea otters after being washed, and specialized pools for recovery that mimic conditions of sea otter habitat.

This year’s drill focused on new data forms and protocols outlined in the recently finalized “Protocols for the Care of Oil-Effected Sea Otters” prepared by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network and MWVCRC staff with input from specialists from the Southern Sea Otter Research Alliance.

The Southern Sea Otter Research Alliance is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative team of researchers from six primary institutions, with help from other state, federal and non-governmental organizations who specialize in the conservation and recovery of the threatened Southern sea otter and its habitat.

Sea otter rehabilitation specialists walked through and reviewed the new protocols using case examples for each phase of care of oiled sea otters: field recovery, field stabilization, intake and processing, washing, post-wash care and release. As part of the protocol review, participants completed required paper work through each phase of care. At the end of each phase of care, the group discussed and analyzed the protocols.

“This drill was exceptional for preparedness and response,” said OSPR Environmental Scientist Corrine Gibble. “The collaboration and cooperation that went into the drill was especially noteworthy.”

Mexican Delegates observe SeaWorld San Diego drill

Stakeholders from Mexico got a firsthand glimpse of California’s oiled wildlife response program, as their country develops its own program for Baja California.

A group of Mexican delegates toured the annual Oiled Wildlife Care Network’s (OWCN) full-deployment drill, which took place at SeaWorld San Diego on Jan. 31.

Staff from OSPR, the OWCN and the United States Coast Guard (USCG), provided a tour to a dozen people from different Mexican groups. The Mexican delegates represented staff from the Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, the Mexican Navy and PEMEX (Petróleos Mexicanos).

“The main goal of this tour was to share with our Mexican neighbors a front-row view of how we respond to oiling events that affect wildlife in California,” said Kyra MillsParker, Deputy Director of Field Operations at OWCN. “For several years, the OWCN and OSPR have been working with various interested groups in Baja California to assist with the development of an oiled wildlife plan for that region.”

The delegates looked on as more than 100 drill participants from 18 of OWCN’s member organizations participating in the drill based on a scenario of a large spill along the San Diego County coastline.

OSPR executives lead the tour while a staff member served as an interpreter.

The group got to observe wildlife field operations, stabilization, and care and processing. The delegates also toured the incident command post, giving the delegates a sense of where the major decisions of a response are made.

Staff from OSPR and the USCG also learned how Mexico responds to oil spills. For example, Mexico’s primary source of oil spills is from their expansive pipeline network as they don’t have much tanker traffic.

So far, interested groups in Mexico are still in the discussion phase of their county’s response to oiled wildlife on the Pacific side of Baja California. Staff from OSPR, the OWCN and the USCG will continue to support their Mexican counterparts as they develop an oiled wildlife plan that meets their country’s unique needs. Because oil spills and wildlife do not know country boundaries, it makes sense that both countries work together towards a mutual goal: protecting each other’s natural resources and wildlife.


Enhancement Projects Weed Out Invasives

Sandy dunes along the California coast often feature hardy European beachgrass and a succulent freeway iceplant that many assume is part of the native flora. However, these plants are invasive species that out-compete the native plants and the animals that live there.

“Gold Rush settlers introduced the invasive plants along the Pacific Coast to anchor blowing sand and dunes from moving onto nearby roads, railroads and land,” said Bruce Joab, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife Environmental Scientist. “Scientists determined that removing them would be the best way to restore the dunes and the ecosystem that depend on them.”

CDFW awarded $54,000 in Environmental Enhancement funds to the Point Reyes North Great Beach located in Marin County to restore the native sand dune plants on a 13-acre area in 2015. The fund committee selected the Point Reyes application because of the success of their previous dune restoration projects.

Over the years, the invasives took over the native Tidestrom lupine and beach layia placing them on the federally endangered list. The threatened snowy plover and the endangered Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly are dependent on native plants like these and are in jeopardy of disappearing from the area.

The endangered butterfly feeds on nectar of the native curly-leaved monardella flowers, which has been nearly replaced by the invasive iceplant. The threatened snowy plover also once nested on the dunes in greater numbers.

“Snowy plovers naturally select open areas to nest so that they can more easily spot predators,” said CDFW Environmental Scientist Laird Henkel. “The European beachgrass spreads quickly making the dunes less desirable as a place for these birds to nest.”

Point Reyes National Seashore staff oversaw the removal of the invasive plants on the dunes. Their contractors spray-treated the dunes with an herbicide and uprooted the invasives by hand, making sure weather conditions worked in their favor with low winds and no rain, protecting other natural plants, wildlife, nearby farms, and the public from overspray.

Point Reyes scientists monitored the treated area with an easy-to-use mapping tool. Visual surveys and the mapping program showed over time an only a one-to-three percent regrowth of the invasive plants, while previous restoration projects showed much more regrowth.

“The project area represents a vital link between earlier restoration efforts near Abbotts Lagoon and new restoration efforts at the AT&T cell tower area  enabling the park to move closer towards its goal of several miles of dune habitat not wiped out by invasive plants such as European beachgrass and iceplant,” said Point Reyes National Seashore Ecologist, Lorraine Parsons.

CDFW administers the annual grants for environmental projects that preserve, improve or acquire habitat and function of an ecosystem to benefit fish and wildlife. Selected projects also need to be located within or immediately adjacent to waterways in California. Organizations interested in environmental restoration or enhancement may qualify for the grant. A selected project must also have a measurable outcome within a set timeframe. Submitted projects do not have to be affected by an oil spill.

Collections from oil spill fines and penalties fund this grant program. OSPR’s Oil Spill Prevention Specialists routinely board ships and visit oil production facilities to verify information such as current phone numbers and required contacts in the event of an oil spill. When an organization cannot provide required information, OSPR conducts an investigation and issues monetary citations for all violations of state oil spill prevention laws.

These penalties, which are spent restoring habitats like the one in Point Reyes, are legally permitted under the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act.

“Any person responsible for intentionally or negligently releasing oil into state waters, or failing to follow applicable contingency plans, or the directions of an administrator in connection with an oil spill, is subject to civil penalties,” explained OSPR attorney Kathy Verue-Slater.

CDFW-OSPR and the Point Reyes staff consider the project’s first objective, eradicating invasive European beachgrass and ice plants, a success. The reappearance of native plants and wildlife is the second objective and the success of that will be determined over time.