From 2001–2002, oiled birds were found along 220 miles of California's central coastline, with more than 2,000 birds recovered and transported for care. No significant slicks or other obvious sources of oil were observed. Response activities were coordinated to address a prolonged wildlife event, rather than proceeding as a typical short-term oil spill response. This event was part of a long pattern of repeat “mystery” oil spills in this region that puzzled investigators for 10 years, most believing the oil resulted from illegal dumping; but when the 2001/2002 event extended well beyond the winter season, investigators looked deeper. After an extensive investigation by state and federal agencies, the sunken vessel, SS Jacob Luckenbach was identified. A six month, $19 million, multi-agency response operation was undertaken by the U.S. Coast Guard with operations concluding October 2002.

To address the 11-month wildlife response for the 2001/2002 season, the Incident Command Structure was modified to address the unique needs of this event, including: activation and deactivation criteria for beach searches; weather prediction for oil release and animal stranding patterns; hybridization of field team functions; changing response priorities for key species; and long-term staffing, communication and coordination among the multiple agencies. Spill-specific policies and protocols were established, and information was made available to remote personnel through a website. On-going staff debriefs were conducted and adjustments implemented. Based on lessons learned, California's Wildlife Operations Plan is being revised and an electronic data collection system is being implemented to streamline animal tracking.

Although most response organizations are structured to respond to “batch” spills, with hundreds of aging sunken vessels along the California coast alone and as the continuous release from the TV Prestige demonstrated, organizational modifications may be necessary to adequately prepare for and respond to the more unusual, but potentially growing risk of long-term, intermittent releases in the off-shore environment.

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Author notes

* The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the California Department of Fish and Game nor the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network.