Looking Back: Anniversary of 1999 New Carissa Oil Spill Response

Some of the wildlife response team at the New Carissa oil spill, released Sanderlings back to nature.
Map from the 1999 New Carissa oil spill at Coos Bay, Oregon.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of a smaller but significant wildlife oil spill response in Coos Bay, Oregon.

On February 4, 1999 the 640 foot (195 meter) wood chip freighter  M/V New Carissa ran aground just north of the Coos River. Within a few days, up to 140,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled into the ocean. The currents and winds further washed oil onto beaches on the adjacent Coos Bay North Spit, and as far north as Sutton Beach, near Florence, OR.

In the path of the oil were the tiny, threatened shorebird, the Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus). This was important wintering and breeding site for these plovers along this stretch of Oregon Coastline. Snowy Plovers found in this region and along the Washington and California coast were a part of the Pacific Coast Population of the Western Snowy Plover which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“What gives IBRRC the best chance to make a difference to threatened species during oil spills is the year-round dedication to saving individual lives that has been at the heart of our mission since 1971.” –Jay Holcomb, then Executive Director of IBRRC.

International Bird Rescue (then IBRRC or International Bird Rescue Research Center) was activated and setup a nearby temporary wildlife rescue center. Incoming oiled birds were triaged and stabilized before washing. Ground mesh nets were used in the field to capture the most illusive oiled shorebirds – especially Snowy Plovers.

From February through March, Bird Rescue had 175 intakes of live oiled birds. For reference, the Snowy Plover population in Coos Bay was 30-45 birds. Bird Rescue captured 31 and rehabilitated all of them. They were– and continue to be – an intensely studied shorebird and each one is considered valuable to the species.

After treatment and washing, 132 birds were released back to nature. Around 43 birds that came into care succumbed to the oiling or were humanely euthanized. Further study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the spill killed over 3,000 birds. Among the birds that lost their life were 262 threatened Marbled Murrelets.

At the ‘New Carissa’ oil spill in Oregon in 1999, the snowy plover population in Coos Bay was 30-45 birds. We captured 31 and rehabilitated all of them. They are an intensely studied bird and each one is considered valuable to the species.

Bird Rescue’s efforts in Oregon are a reminder that the heart of organization’s response to any wildlife emergency is preparation.

“What gives IBRRC the best chance to make a difference to threatened species during oil spills is the year-round dedication to saving individual lives that has been at the heart of our mission since 1971,” said Jay Holcomb, then Executive Director of IBRRC.

“This approach has helped us to develop teams of trained animal care and oiled wildlife professionals that understand the intricacies of this specific field of rehabilitation and continually strive to improve our techniques as well as build a more comprehensive scientific picture of our work over time,” added Holcomb.

The M/V New Carissa captain and crew were deemed responsible for the grounding of this 640 foot freighter.