Rescue workers stepped up efforts Monday to save 300 seabirds found coated with a mysterious goop over the past few days that officials believe was spilled or dumped into San Francisco Bay.
The sticky, grayish, odorless material had killed at least 80 birds and coated the feathers of many more found Monday, baffling experts and volunteers who were frantically trying to clean the birds.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is planning to conduct necropsies and laboratory tests on Tuesday to identify the viscous substance and find its source. Volunteers and professional rescue workers were combing the shoreline Monday for more victims.
The coated birds were concentrated in the Crab Cove area and the Bay Farm Island shoreline trail in Alameda, in the San Leandro Marina, and around the Hayward Regional Shoreline near Winton Avenue.
“They are covered in this goo, and it is so weird because it really looks like rubber cement,” said Barbara Callahan, the interim executive director of International Bird Rescue, an aquatic bird rescue center in Fairfield. “It’s kind of gray. It’s hard to get off in the wash. It is sticky, but it doesn’t want to come off the feathers.”
The substance leads to death by taking away the ability of the birds to insulate their bodies, said Andrew Hughan, the spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We know it’s not a public health or safety risk,” Hughan said. “It killed the birds because they froze to death. It sapped all the heat out of them. They were not poisoned. They died because of a loss of body heat.”
Hughan said analysts already know it is not a petroleum-based substance.
“Obviously it’s got pretty high priority,” Hughan said. “It’s a mystery for sure. It could be a day or two before we come up with something definitive.”
The U.S. Coast Guard flew over the bay over the weekend but could not locate evidence of a spill.
Synthetic rubber suspected
Officials suspect the substance could be a synthetic rubber or fuel additive called polyisobutylene, a sticky, odorless substance similar to what was found on the birds. Polyisobutylene has been blamed in the death of thousands of birds in four separate spills in Europe, Callahan said.
The most recent spill, from a cargo ship, killed more than 4,000 seabirds along the southwest coast of England in 2013, Callahan said. After that crisis, the International Maritime Organization — a U.N. agency that sets safety standards for international shipping — began prohibiting ships from dumping all forms of the substance at sea. Polyisobutylene, also known as polyisobutene, is often used as a fuel additive to keep ship engines clean. The substance is not biodegradable and, according to an online information sheet prepared by Chevron Oronite, “may cause long-term adverse affects in the aquatic environment” if spilled.
“While on its face, this substance seems very similar to reports from the U.K. two years ago, we won’t know definitively until lab tests are completed,” Callahan said.
“To me, it’s extremely likely not an organic product, like vegetable or fish oil,” she said. “It’s not an algal bloom or anything like that.”
Callahan added, “It’s highly likely it’s a man-made product, which means we’ve had a breach in a pipeline or someone intentionally fouled the East Bay.”
Callahan said workers at International Bird Rescue have had to pretreat the birds with baking soda and vinegar to loosen the substance before washing it off with dish soap. That became necessary after their usual treatment for pollutants like oil, roofing tar, cooking oil from fast-food restaurants and glue traps did not work.
“I’ve worked 20 years in this business, handling oil spills all over the world, and I’ve never seen a product like this impact animals in our clinic,” said Callahan, adding that it is costing her organization $7,000 to $8,000 a day to pick up and treat the birds. “We are doing everything we can as an organization. I hope our supporters recognize that we need some help.”
Not getting better yet
The bird rescue workers had washed 35 seabirds by Monday afternoon, but “this is in no way a diminishing event,” Callahan said.
She said dead and dying birds are still being picked up. There have been reports of dead birds and one dead marine mammal around Dumbarton Pier at the eastern end of the Dumbarton Bridge, Callahan said. Surf scoters, buffleheads and horned grebes are the most commonly affected species.
Bird rescue workers were treating, feeding and washing birds at the bird rescue hospital in Fairfield on Monday. Dozens of staff and volunteers were putting the contaminated birds through a battery of treatments, but the first order of business was getting the gummy substance out of their feathers.
Isabel Luevano, the lead rehabilitation technician at the hospital, took a blood sample from the leg of an adult male surf scoter that was found stranded on a mud flat in Hayward, his feathers knotted up as if he had been covered with chewing gum.
“He hasn’t been able to forage or find food,” Luevano said. “He’s definitely malnourished.”
The rescued birds are given a medical exam and wrapped in a colorful assortment of donated bath towels. Several birds at the center Monday were being fed a slurry of fish, vitamins and water through tubes.
“They sort of get subdued when their stomachs are full, but we’re noting that they are a lot more lively than they were this morning,” said Carol Lombard, the volunteer who was feeding them.
Many birds waiting
It would be a long day. There were 110 birds waiting to be washed and 72 others that were brought in Monday evening for health examinations, feeding and cleaning.
“Some of the birds that have recently arrived are in much poorer condition, likely because they’ve had this substance on their feathers for several days now,” Callahan said.
Callahan said the dead birds that they’ve found may just be the beginning.
“If it’s killing animals like this, what’s it doing to your plant life?” she asked. “There are ramifications to this. We are seeing one little piece of the puzzle, but it’s got to have more impact.”
Peter Fimrite and Kurtis Alexander are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @pfimrite, @kurtisalexander
How to help
To report a sick or dead bird, or donate money to help offset costs to the International Bird Rescue, go to the organization’s website, http://www.bird-rescue.org.
Note: Bird Rescue officials are asking the public not to go out to the beach or show up at the center. Only trained volunteers can collect and clean birds.