Rescuers race to save birds tarred by San Francisco Bay oil spill |

Rescuers race to save birds tarred by San Francisco Bay oil spill

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) ” The Coast Guard on Saturday nearly doubled the number of ships working to clean up San Francisco Bay’s worst oil spill in nearly two decades as rescue teams raced to save hundreds of seabirds tarred with black shipping fuel.

At least 60 birds have died since 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel leaked into the bay Wednesday after a massive container ship hit a tower of the Bay Bridge, according to the Coast Guard.

Tides carried the oil under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, closing about two dozen beaches around the bay and along the Pacific coast.

The Coast Guard deployed 20 oil skimmers Saturday, up from 11 the day before, said Petty Ofc. Sherri Eng. Nearly 20,000 gallons of oily liquid had been sucked up by Saturday morning.

Still, authorities said most of the spilled oil will never be captured and eventually will dissolve into the water. Concentrated globules could remain for months and cause problems for seabirds.

About 500 workers joined shoreline cleanup crews Saturday to mop up the damage ” a job that is expected to last weeks or possibly months.

State wildlife officials said they have received hundreds of reports of oiled birds found on Bay area beaches. So far, 200 live birds have been recovered and sent to a rehabilitation center in Solano County.

Most of the injured birds are surf scoters, a duck-like species that lives on the water’s surface and dives for fish. When oil gets on their feathers, it disrupts their waterproofing system and ability to stay warm, forcing them on shore where they are at risk of starvation.

“Oil and feathers don’t mix,” said Yvonne Addassi, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. “We’re in a time crunch. The birds can only stayed oiled for so long before they can no longer be rehabilitated.”

Fish and Game officials said the fuel generally stays on the water’s surface, and they had not seen any evidence that fish have been harmed ” though they are concerned that the spill could affect bay herring that spawn at this time of year.

Fishermen are worried that the spill could impact the much anticipated Dungeness crab season that begins Nov. 15. Bay Area fishermen planned to meet Saturday to discuss delaying the commercial season, said Larry Collins, who heads the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association.

Once the crabs are harvested from the ocean floor, sea water is circulated in boat tanks to keep them alive, and the fishermen are concerned the spilled fuel could contaminate the crustaceans. The oil was blamed for the deaths of some crabs kept in tanks of circulating bay water at Fisherman’s Wharf, Collins said.

“If the crabs get contaminated and someone gets sick, then you’ve lost your market,” said Collins, who believes the season should be postponed until the spill is cleaned up. “This is a big mess.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday after meeting with state, federal and local officials overseeing the cleanup. The proclamation makes additional state personnel, funding and equipment available.

“This has done tremendous damage to the environment, to wildlife and to the birds,” the governor said. “We have to clean up as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, criticism mounted regarding the U.S. Coast Guard’s response to the spill that has fouled miles of California coastline.

The attorney for the pilot who was guiding the vessel away from the Port of Oakland when it hit the bridge said the pilot notified authorities immediately, and soon after alerted them that there was a sheen of oil on the water.

According to the statement from Capt. John Cota’s lawyer, it took cleanup crews at least 90 minutes to respond. Coast Guard logs of the day’s events shows a response team on the scene in about a half hour, but also show it took much longer for oil-skimming vessels to arrive.

Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard’s top official in California, conceded the agency should have done a better job keeping local authorities informed. “That is not acceptable,” said Bone.

But Bone insisted the Coast Guard’s response was immediate and aggressive and that the miscommunication did not impede efforts to corral the oil.

The accident’s cause is being investigated, and Coast Guard officials are focusing on possible communication problems among ship personnel and with vessel traffic controllers.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

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