Santa Monica Bay may not be immune to oil in Santa Barbara waters

By Gary Walker

State wildlife officials and local environmental groups are unsure whether the recent Santa Barbara oil spill will directly impact the Santa Monica Bay but worry about potential long-term consequences for migratory marine birds and mammals.

State environmental officials estimate that much as 21,000 gallons of crude oil has poured into the ocean since the May 19 pipeline rupture spilled more than 100,000 gallons along the coastline.

Elizabeth Crosson, executive director for the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Los Angeles Water Keeper, said the organization is monitoring the oil spill and hasn’t seen any impact to Santa Monica Bay water currents or marine life at present.

“But there are lots of migratory species — pelicans, sea lions — that can be affected long-term because the spill was so close to the coast. We know that from other spills like the [2010] Deepwater Horizon spill. We’re still seeing the destructive effects on marine life from that one,” said Crosson.

Tom Ford, executive director of the Bay Foundation, said birds and sea mammals in Santa Barbara that migrate south could later show signs of illness if they’ve come in contact with oil.

“They could develop lesions on their skin that could lead to secondary infections,” Ford said.

Others cautioned against assuming an oil spill will sicken marine life on a wide scale.

“Just because there’s a lot of oil in the environment doesn’t mean we will have huge numbers of [sick] animals,” Mike Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis, said in a statement. “Sometimes there are small spills with large numbers of animals and huge spills with just a few animals.”

According to a report released last week by the National Marine Mammal Foundation, bottlenose dolphins throughout the Gulf Coast are still suffering unusually high mortality rates linked to the Deepwater Horizon spill off the Louisiana Coast in 2010. Researchers monitoring dolphins in the region began tracking cases of adrenal and lung disease shortly after the spill.

The report acknowledges that dolphin mortality rates were also high in the weeks before the spill and attributed high mortality to “combined oil exposure, an unusually cold winter during 2011, and fresh water infusions.”

Michael Jasny, who heads the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Marine Mammal Protection Projects, said the same species of dolphins can be found off the coastline of Venice and Santa Monica.

“There is a small population of bottlenose dolphins that have a range of several hundred miles and they are terrible about avoiding sheens from spilled oil. These 300 to 400 dolphins often migrate to Santa Monica Bay,” Jasny said.

Jasny also cited long-lasting consequences for marine life in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in 2007 that some 21,000 gallons of crude oil remained in the Port William Sound ecosystem and that some orca whale pods and certain species of salmon, herring, seals and ducks still hadn’t recovered.

“When you have a spill like this one and like the Exxon Valdez, you can expect a parade of harmful effects. It’s not about the moment, it’s about what happens over the long haul after the cleanup crews leave. It’s hard to understand what’s going to be happening beneath the waves,” he said.

State officials say they will be monitoring wildlife near the Los Angeles coasts throughout the coming weeks.

“Given the trajectory of the oil spill, our experts think that the impact to Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Bay will be minimal,” said Mary Fricke, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network. “But we’re keeping an eye on the wildlife in the [Los Angeles] area.”