Saving Birds After Oil Spills: Feels Good, Costs Fortune, Accomplishes Little
An oil-covered bird takes refuge on shore at Fort Baker near Sausalito, Calif., Thursday. Some 58,000 gallons of oil were spilled into the bay after a container ship hit a tower of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Wednesday.
Credit: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

When a container ship laden with bunker fuel rammed into a Bay Bridge tower near San Francisco last week, it released nearly 60,000 gallons into the bay. The oil has contaminated at least two dozen beaches, leaving a gunky film on everything from trees to rocks to wildlife.

Results of the spill can be seen all over, but for many, the damage is most visible in the pitiful birds coated in oily slime . Most of the affected fowl are ducks, and ordinary citizens have turned out in droves to help clean the poor animals.

Yet good intentions are seldom enough to solve complex problems. Many volunteers who showed up ready to clean oiled wildlife were turned away. California state law requires that anyone working with toxic oils must have official training, something few of the volunteers had.

In fact, the whole premise behind cleaning oiled wildlife has been called into question.

While no one is suggesting that contaminated birds should be left to die, research has shown that it is both expensive and ineffective. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, 357 sea otters were brought in for treatment, and 197 were returned to Alaskan waters.

Each survivor cost more than $82,000.

But radio-tracking studies of 45 of the released otters found that, eight months later, twelve were dead and nine were missing.

Around 1,600 sea birds were also captured, de-oiled, and rehabilitated. Half of them were returned to the sea at a cost of nearly $32,000 per bird. After assessing that effort, the Pacific Seabird Group of Stinson Beach, California, concluded that wildlife rehabilitation following oil spills is generally labor-intensive, costly, and has a low probability of success.

The money spent cleaning animals that are likely to die soon anyway could be much more effectively spent designing additional safety systems, investing in oil-containment research, or paying for additional emergency personnel to respond to spills. It's not surprising that the public prefers the hands-on, emotionally satisfying method of rehabilitating individual birds, though in the long run such a method may cost more, both in animal lives and in dollars.

Benjamin Radford is LiveScience's Bad Science columnist. He wrote about the importance of evidence-based public policy in his book "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.