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Pelicans saved from Refugio oil spill tracked one year later - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Pelicans saved from Refugio oil spill tracked one year later

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The massive oil spill last year at Refugio State Beach was a devastating event for the area's wildlife.

More 140,000 gallons of thick crude leaked onto a 10 mile stretch of the coast just north of Santa Barbara. Brown pelicans, California seal lions, elephant seals, dolphins, fish and many other birds were coated in oil. More than 100 marine mammals were killed, as well as nearly 200 birds.

"It's awful to see," said Elaine Ibarra, Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network Animal Care Assistant. "The pelicans were 100 percent coated. When you see this, you go into work mode."

Crews from all over the state set up medical stations in the field to try and get as much oil off the animals as quickly as possible. 

Petroleum is toxic. On the outside, it prevents an animal from regulating body temperature. On the inside, it can cause neurological damage.

"We provide the heat, the fluids, stabilize the animal so they are strong enough to make it to a primary care facility," Ibarra explained.

Once at a primary care facility, the rehabilitation begins, which can take weeks or months.

"We had one primary care facility in the San Pedro area, and that was the one for birds. And for the mammals, it was down at Sea World in San Diego," said Ibarra.

According to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network,  63 marine mammals and 57  birds were treated and have since been released into the wild.

"You never know the true impact of an oil spill just by the number of animals that come in, because there's always the animals that die at sea and they sink or they are never recovered," said Kyra Mills-Parker, Oiled Wildlife Care Network Deputy Director of Field Operations. "We are still seeing effects from the Exxon Valdez, which happened in 1989, so after one year I would think there will be effects for a long period of time."

The brown pelicans that were released are now being tracked with satellite transmitters to see if they survive for years to come.

"It looks like they are doing fairly well," said Mills-Parker. "Several of them went down to Baja, which is a big breeding area for the Brown Pelicans, and some went to the Channel Islands, which is also a breeding area. So we are hoping they will breed."

The numbers of brown pelicans breeding are actually down this year, but biologists are not necessarily blaming the Refugio oil spill. They say El Niño effects could account for the drop, as well as some of the sea lions reported dead.

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