The Luckenbach Oil Spill and Sea Otters

Steamship Jacob Luckenbach

Steamship Jacob Luckenbach before her collision with the Hawaiian Pilot in 1953. (Photo Credit: Steamship Historical Society)

In late 1973, over a hundred live oiled birds appeared along the California coast line north and south of the Golden Gate. For the next 30 years, this would happen again and again, usually in the winter after large storms. Sometimes thousands of oiled birds would wash up, most of them common murres. Among them were at least four dead oiled sea otters.

Finally, in early 2002, federal and state agencies determined that the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach, a vessel that sunk in 1953, was responsible for the leaking oil. This 469-foot freighter, carrying railroad parts to South Korea, collided with its sister ship, the S.S. Hawaiian Pilot, and sank in the Gulf of the Farallones.

Hawaiian Pilot

Hawaiian Pilot after delivering the death blow to her sister ship the Jacob Luckenbach. (Photo Credit: Schwemmer Collection)

In the summer of 2002, the government conducted oil removal operations. These efforts relied upon divers breathing mixed gas and living in a pressurized chamber for up to a month. They used vacuum hoses to pump oil from the vessel, nearly 200 feet deep, to a barge stationed on the surface.  During these operations, approximately 100,000 gallons of oil were removed.  Some oil remained on board and was sealed up.

At the same time, government agencies studied the impacts, estimating that over 51,000 birds and at least 8 sea otters were killed by the leaking oil over time.  Under the law, the government agencies can make a claim for compensation to restore the natural resources injured by an oil spill.  In this case, because the owners of the vessel no longer existed, the agencies took their claim to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a pool of funds established for oil spill clean-up and restoration for cases like this.  These funds paid $20 million for the oil removal operations, and another $23 million for restoration projects to benefit seabirds and otters impacted by the spills.  In fact, a portion of these funds were used to develop some of the initial content for seaotters.com.

More information on the Luckenbach case and the restoration projects can be found at:
http://www.dfg.ca.gov/ospr/Science/Luckenbach.aspx 

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Seaotters.com is dedicated to raising awareness about California's threatened sea otters and the role research plays in the species recovery and conservation. It's a collaboration of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.C. Santa Cruz, U.C. Davis, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, among others. Seaotters.com is also home of the world's first HD live stream of southern sea otters in the wild.