Bay oil spill killed herring, NOAA scientists report

Pacific Herring

by Dan Bacher

Pacific herring embryos in shallow waters died in unexpectedly high numbers following the Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay in November 2007, according to NOAA scientists and their collaborators in a study published in the scientific journal PNAS on December 26.

“The majority of embryos in samples from oiled sites were dead on examination in the laboratory,” the study’s authors wrote. The study suggests an interaction between sunlight and the chemicals in oil might be responsible for the unexpected deaths.

The study also potentially explains why the herring population in the bay declined to a record low in 2009, prompting the closure of the valuable commercial herring roe fishery. This was the first time a herring roe fishery closure was approved by the Commission since the fishery began in 1973-74.

The container ship Cosco Busan released 54,000 gallons of bunker fuel, a combination of diesel and residual fuel oil, into San Francisco Bay in November, 2007. The accident contaminated the shoreline near the spawning habitats of the largest population of Pacific herring on the West Coast, according to a statement from the NOAA Fisheries Service, Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

“In this study, scientists found that herring embryos placed in cages in relatively deep water at oiled sites developed subtle but important heart defects consistent with findings in previous studies,” said NOAA. “In contrast, almost all the embryos that naturally spawned in nearby shallower waters in the same time period died. When scientists sampled naturally-spawned embryos from the same sites two years later, mortality rates in both shallower and deeper waters had returned to pre-spill levels.”

San Francisco Bay has the largest herring spawning stock south of British Columbia and historically produces more than 90 percent of  California’s herring catch. The bay herring population rebounded during the 2009-10 spawning season, due to a strong recruitment of the 2-year old herring (2007-08 year class) to the spawning population, as well as improved physical condition of the fish in the population, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

“Based on what we know about the effects of crude oil on early life stages in fish, we expected to find live embryos with abnormal heart function, so it was a surprise to find so many embryos in the shallow waters literally falling apart,” said Dr. John Incardona, a toxicologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the study’s’ lead author.

“The study has given us a new perspective on oil threats in sunlit habitats, particularly for translucent animals such as herring embryos. The chemical composition of residual oils can vary widely, so the question remains whether we would see the same thing with other bunker fuels from around the world,” he said.

Two decades of toxicity research since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill has shown that fish embryos and larvae are particularly vulnerable to spilled oil, according to NOAA. Most catastrophic spills, such as the Exxon Valdez, involve large volumes of crude oil.

“However, residual oils used in bunker fuels are the leftovers of crude oil refining, and are not as well studied as crude oils. Bunker fuel is used in maritime shipping worldwide, and accidental bunker spills are more and more common and widespread than large crude oil spills,” NOAA reported.

The study demonstrates how fragile the waters of the Bay-Delta Estuary are – and how important it is to protect the estuary, the largest on the West Coast of the Americas, from not only oil and fuel spills, but from increased water exports out of the Delta to supply corporate agribusiness and southern California. Commercial and recreational fisheries up and down the California coast depend on a healthy Bay-Delta as a spawning ground, nursery, migratory corridor and feeding ground.

Besides Pacific herring, the estuary sustains populations of Dungeness crabs, Pacific anchovies, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, striped bass, California halibut, starry flounder, leopard sharks, sevengill sharks, soupfin sharks, white sturgeon, green sturgeon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, largemouth bass, white catfish, channel catfish and numerous other species.

However, the Brown and Obama administrations are fast-tracking the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build a peripheral canal, a government boondoggle that will lead to increased water exports to subsidized agribusiness and southern California. Delta residents, California Indian Tribes, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, family farmers, conservationists and environmental justice advocates strongly oppose the canal because it will lead to the destruction of many of the estuary’s fish species.

The study, “Unexpectedly high mortality in Pacific herring embryos exposed to the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay,” was jointly undertaken by scientists with NOAA, the Bodega Marine Lab (University of California at Davis) and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and will be available in the PNAS Early Edition at

MLPA Initiative won’t protect marine waters from oil spills

The study was released as Governor Jerry Brown and Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, in the footsteps of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, are forging ahead not only with plans to build the peripheral canal, but with the implementation of controversial “marine protected areas” under the privately funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

The corrupt initiative, overseen by a big oil lobbyist, marina developer and coastal real estate executive, fails to protect California marine waters from oil spills and drilling and all other human impacts on the ocean other than fishing and gathering.

The questionable “marine protected areas” (MPAs) now in place on the Central Coast and North Central Coast – and the new MPAs that will go into effect from Point Conception to the Mexican border on January 1 – will do little or nothing from stopping another Cosco Busan, BP Horizon and Exxon Valdez type of disaster from taking place in California waters.

The MLPA Initiative won’t protect fish embryos and other marine life from oil spills and drilling because the corporate operatives who oversaw the initiative, funded by the shadowy Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, went out of their way to eliminate true, wholistic protection in the creation of so-called “marine protected areas.”

Missing from corporate media reports on the MLPA Initiative is the alarming fact that Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast that oversaw the creation of the so-called “marine protected areas” that will go into effect on January 1. She also served on the North Coast and North Central Coast marine task forces.

Grassroots environmentalists and fishermen strongly opposed the egregious conflict of interest posed by allowing a big oil industry lobbyist to oversee the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs), especially when these MPAs fail to protect the ocean from oil drilling and spills, pollution, corporate aquaculture, military testing, wind and wave energy projects and all other uses of the ocean other than fishing and gathering.

In contrast, representatives of corporate environmental NGOs, funded by the Walton Family Foundation and other Wall Street-funded foundations, did nothing to contest Reheis-Boyd’s appointment as a “marine guardian.” Reheis-Boyd is a vocal advocate of new drilling off the California coast, Canadian tar sands drilling and the gutting of environmental laws, curious positions for a “marine guardian” to take.

SoCal oil co. wants to expand drilling into state waters

Dave Gurney, independent journalist and publisher of the Noyo News ( recently commented on a plan by a southern California oil company, Pacific Operators Offshore LLC, to drill further east onto state property off the coast of Carpinteria, California. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the company could drill as many as 25 underwater wells from Platform Hogan ( )

“We now witness the fruit born of a Marine Life Protection Act ‘Initiative’ that was hijacked by oil interests,” said Gurney. “A southern California oil company wants to expand its operations – from 3.7 miles out in federal waters, further east, to within the 3-mile limit of California state waters. They are proposing to drill up to 25 new offshore oil wells.”

“The southern California MLPAI Blue Ribbon Task Force was chaired by Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association,” said Gurney. “She was appointed to make sure these so-called ‘Marine Protected Areas’ did nothing to stop oil drilling or pollution. Public outcry over a blatant conflict of interest on the MLPAI’s ‘Blue Ribbon Task Force’ fell on deaf ears.”

Federal officials are evaluating the potential environmental impacts of the project. A meeting on the proposal is scheduled for January 19 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Carpinteria City Council Chambers.

For more information on NOAA, go to:, on Facebook at, or on Twitter at @NOAA_NWFSC.

For more information on the herring embryo study, contact: Dr. John Incardona, NOAA Fisheries Service, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, office (206) 860-3347, cell (206) 708-9723, email John.Incardona [at]


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