Nearly two weeks after a ruptured pipeline spilled 105,000 gallons of crude oil near Santa Barbara, hundreds of tired and oil-soaked workers are still on site working to scoop, boom and skim what they can of the 21,500 gallons estimated to have reached the ocean. As the slick spreads on the surface, and more oil sinks beneath the waves, a complicated environmental, chemical and biological process is unfolding in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel. While every oil spill differs depending on local conditions, science and past history allow us to anticipate some of the long-term impacts to marine wildlife, habitats and communities.
Oil produced offshore of Santa Barbara is particularly heavy and thick, likely worsening the effects of external exposure to marine birds, mammals and fish. These effects include smothering those animals that can’t move, and impairing the ability of some animals to insulate against cold water. Marine birds that become oiled may lose the ability to fly, forage and feed their young. Highly mobile birds and marine mammals that frequent the ocean surface, where spilled oil initially collects, are especially vulnerable. They may be exposed to oil in one location only to sicken or die elsewhere. The spill’s location in shallow, nearshore waters exposes a particularly rich array of wildlife and habitats to damage, including shorelines, sea grass, kelp beds, rocky reefs and kelp forests.