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September 22, 1997

State to fund $250,000 Oiled Seabird Facility at Long Marine Lab

Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group will study methods of cleaning and releasing oiled birds

By Robert Irion

A $250,000 facility dedicated to the care and monitoring of oiled seabirds soon will arise next to the state's Oiled Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center at UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory, the California Department of Fish and Game has announced.

The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group (SCPBRG) of UCSC received the grant and will construct and operate the Oiled Seabird Facility. It will become part of a network of care stations along the California coast funded by the state to ensure that animals injured in oil spills receive prompt and effective treatment.

The new facility will treat and release up to 150 birds the size of pelicans and greater numbers of smaller seabirds in the event of an oil spill. At other times, SCPBRG researchers will study the effectiveness of various methods of cleaning oiled birds and how best to release them into the wild. Scientists will evaluate the survival and reproduction rates of released birds with advanced telemetry and satellite tracking techniques.

The California Department of Fish and Game's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) will provide construction costs for the facility through its statewide Oiled Wildlife Care Network. Funding comes from interest on the state's Oil Spill Emergency Response Trust Fund.

Construction of the Oiled Seabird Facility should begin by January 1998, according to SCPBRG coordinator Brian Walton. The facility will consist of modular wooden buildings between Long Marine Lab and the $5 million Oiled Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, which was dedicated in July.

"The big question has been whether seabirds cleaned and released after oil spills live very long or ever breed successfully again," Walton said. "We want to evaluate the cleanup techniques and learn how to track these birds over the long term."

The state's Oiled Wildlife Care Network Advisory Board, appointed by the administrator of the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, solicited proposals for the Oiled Seabird Facility from organizations in the Monterey Bay Area. After a careful review, board members awarded the grant to SCPBRG for two main reasons, said OSPR veterinarian David Jessup. First, the new facility will share resources and personnel with the existing Oiled Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, which Jessup directs. That, he said, will give the state "an awful lot of bang for its buck."

Second, said Jessup, SCPBRG researchers have years of experience in handling and tracking sensitive species of birds. In particular, the group restored the state's peregrine falcon population to healthy levels over a 15-year period with successful captive breeding, release, and follow-up techniques. SCPBRG scientists also work with golden eagles, bald eagles, hawks, condors, and other birds of prey.

"We stand to learn so much from this new facility," Jessup said. "The follow-up studies will be critical for us to understand how to improve our treatments. In the past, when released seabirds died, there seldom has been an attempt to find out why. It could be the rehabilitation or release process, cumulative stresses, the chronic effects of oil, or some unrelated cause or a natural cause. Now we will have the tools and the expertise to help us answer those questions."

Jessup noted that the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response earmarked the $250,000 as supplemental funding to bolster the state's capacity to treat seabirds in the Central Coast region. The possible needs of other animals of concern, such as sea otters and large marine mammals, are now well covered by the Oiled Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center and other stations, he noted.

In the event of an oil spill, both the Oiled Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center and the future Oiled Seabird Facility would accept and treat seabirds. However, the existing center has limited capacity for long-term care and for treating sensitive species that need special rehabilitation, such as marbled murrelets and snowy plovers. The Oiled Seabird Facility will fill that gap.

Gary Griggs, director of UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences, said the new facility will fit nicely with an emerging theme at Long Marine Lab. "Our projects and collaborations with other agencies all concern, in some way, the health of the oceans and their future," he said. "Our research is targeted both to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and to human impacts on the global marine environment." The grant also illustrates the effective and continuing links between university researchers and state and federal agencies, Griggs added.

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