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How Did The OC Oil Spill Impact Local Seafood?

half a dozen cooked mussels on a plate with some green leaves
A dinner of mussels.
(Edward Howell/Unsplash)
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It was the smell.

Scott Breneman, who sells his locally caught black cod and red snapper at the Dory Fishing Fleet and Market in Newport Beach, recalls the moment, when he first noticed the sharp stink of crude oil wafting through the air. He was on his boat and the stench was so strong, his instinct was to check his engine for a leak.

"We were coming in [to the harbor] and I was jumping around the engine room because you could just smell it," Breneman says. He checked everything. The engine was fine, the hatches were sealed and any containers that could've spilled were unbroken. Nothing was leaking yet the stench of oil was pervasive. "All my deckhands smelled it," he says. "We're like, ‘What the hell's going on?'"

Breneman didn't know it at the time but an undersea oil pipeline, running from Long Beach to an offshore oil platform near Huntington Beach, had ruptured, causing oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean. Most of the crude that washed ashore found its way to the sands of Huntington Beach, including the 25-acre ecological reserve known as Talbert Marsh. Tar and clumps of oil were spotted up and down Orange County’s coastline, in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Dana Point. Some tar washed up as far south as San Diego County.

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Sealife, including a number of seabirds and a handful of mammals such as sea lions, died. Clean-up on some of the affected beaches lasted for more than a month. Officials closed beaches in the affected areas for anywhere from a few days to a week or more. Immediately after the spill, local authorities also enacted a fisheries closure, prohibiting the acquisition of fish and shellfish from 650 square miles of marine waters and 45 miles of shoreline, with closure boundaries that included all bays and harbors from Seal Beach to San Onofre State Beach. The fishing closure was finally lifted November 30.

Still, many people remain wary of eating local seafood. Here's what you need to know to make an informed decision.

Oil is washed up on Huntington State Beach after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

What Happened With The Orange County Spill?

A 17.5-mile oil pipeline located about four miles offshore of Orange County ruptured, creating an oil slick that covered approximately 13 square miles. It's believed that the culprit was a cargo ship's dragging anchor, which might have damaged the pipeline.

Was This A Big Spill?

Original estimates put the spill at 126,000 gallons, but the total amount spilled was closer to 25,000 gallons. Compared to other spills in California's past, the Orange County spill was fairly small.

In 1969, for instance, a Union Oil drilling rig platform off Santa Barbara experienced a catastrophic blowout, causing 4.2 million gallons of sticky black crude to spill into the ocean and cover nearby shores, killing scores of seabirds and other marine life. There have also been other smaller but still terrible spills closer to Orange County.

In 1976, an oil tanker exploded in Los Angeles Harbor, killing nine people and releasing 1.2 million gallons of crude into the ocean. In 1990, in Huntington Beach, an oil tanker named the American Trader ran over its own anchor. The resulting accident caused approximately 416,000 gallons of crude to spill into the water, killing thousands of seabirds.

Workers attempt to contain oil that seeped into Talbert Marsh, which is home to around 90 bird species, after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021 in Huntington Beach.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

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How Did The OC Oil Spill Impact Local Seafood?

On October 3, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife closed the affected area to fishing, including roughly 650 square miles of marine waters. Over the course of two months, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) sampled seafood sourced from the region to see if it had retained dangerous chemicals from the spill (such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs). These chemicals can build up in certain marine life, potentially causing cancer or other ailments if humans consume them. Stationary creatures (like oysters and mussels) were a big focus for testing, as it can take longer for these animals to show dangerous concentrations of PAHs, compared to fish. On November 30, after consulting with the OEHHA that consumption of seafood from the affected area would not risk public health, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife lifted the closure. Fishing in the affected waters has since resumed.

a hand holds a shell with a few scallops in it
(Gaana Srinivas/Unsplash)

How Do Local Fishers Feel About The Spill And The Closure?

In a word: frustrated. Much of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported. What local seafood we do consume is sourced through a fishery management system that is highly regulated and science-driven — and arguably quite successful at managing sustainable fishing populations, especially along the West Coast of the U.S. To be a successful local fisher like Steve Escobar, you have to follow the rules, even if they get a little complicated.

"I've been fishing for over 30 years now," says Escobar, who sells his crab and lobster at the Dory Fleet. He says that business at the Dory Fleet market, which has been selling seafood since 1891, slowed down when news of the spill and the subsequent fisheries closure broke. He thinks that customers assumed that because of the closure, Dory Fleet didn't have any seafood to sell.

That wasn't the case. Fishers with the Dory Fleet followed the rules and, when they were able to, they began fishing further offshore, well outside of the closure area. "We would never catch something in a closed area and sell it. I'd never do it, nor would any fisherman I know because the risks are too high of losing your permit, and they're hard to come by nowadays," Escobar says.

Breneman, whose family has been selling seafood at the Dory Fleet since the early 1900s, concentrated on sourcing his catches up to a 100 miles offshore, out in deep waters, untouched by contaminants. But, he says, with the fisheries closure, business slowed because people thought all locally caught seafood was contaminated, even if it was caught well outside the closure area.

"There's little awareness of what we're doing, how we fish and where we fish," Breneman says. He tries to build relationships with his customers, so they can learn more about his methods and where he chooses to source his catches.

Since the fishing ban was lifted, business has started picking back up, according to Escobar. Local lobster fishers are also pushing hard to make up for the lost time. They missed the opening of the California spiny lobster season, which runs from October to March. "It affected them deeply," Escobar says.

The OC spill is a critical example of the importance of establishing a relationship with your local seafood market or fishermen. "We want to sell you safe and high quality seafood. We want to have happy customers," Escobar says.

If you're buying locally caught seafood, what you're buying has probably passed through a highly regulated and monitored system. It's easier to know where and how something was caught if it's locally sourced. So talk with your local fishers. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Especially at a long-running market like the Dory Fleet, you'll learn more about what they do to ensure your seafood is sustainably caught and safe to eat.

Oil and sea water collect in a tide pool after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on October 3, 2021 in Newport Beach.
(Michael Heiman
Getty Images)

Will Another Spill Happen?

Big Oil has been an integral part of Southern California's infrastructure for more than a century. The pipelines and oil derricks are so common, or cleverly hidden, most people don't even notice them — until they fail.

Damon Nagami grew up in La Palma in Orange County. For him, oil pump jacks were just background scenery. "I just didn't really think much about them," Nagami says. Now, as the senior attorney and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Southern California Ecosystems Project, he concentrates on protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of oil production. These pump jacks, he notes, are part of an extensive oil infrastructure that can be found throughout Southern California, from the Beverly Hills Oil Field to the THUMS Islands of Long Beach.

Sometimes, oil production is in plain sight, like the extensive Inglewood Oil Field, which is one of the largest contiguous urban oil fields in the nation, and has produced an estimated 2.5 to 3.1 million barrels of oil each year for the last decade. Some active drill sites, like the Cardiff Tower on West Pico Boulevard, are hidden from the public behind mundane camouflaged facades. Some wells are sealed away and buried, out of sight and mind, unless they blow out spectacularly, much like the Marina del Rey well incident in January 2019.

Orange County has long been tied to oil production. In the early 1920s, discovery of oil led to a financial boom. By the 1940s, oil derricks lined the sands of Huntington Beach. "It's completely unthinkable today, how close these derricks were jammed right next to one another right on the sand. But that was commonplace back then," Nagami says.

The wells in Huntington Beach have been closing down over the last few decades. Crashing oil prices in the 1980s, rising real estate prices and an increased emphasis on tourism caused Huntington Beach to transform from an Oil City to a Surf City. After incidents such as the American Trader spill in 1990, environmental groups and the city pushed Chevron to close a number of its wells near Pacific Coast Highway.

"The big picture point is that fossil fuels impact us and our environment in so many ways. The list goes on and on," Nagami says.

Emissions from oil drilling, he notes, can cause adverse health impacts, ranging from respiratory illnesses to increased risk of cancer. Oil spills can be profoundly disruptive, not just to marine life but to coastal communities.

"Unless we have real policy changes to make sure that this type of disaster doesn't happen again, then it will happen again," Nagami says.

Change is coming to Southern California but it's hard to say what that will look like. Tom Ford, CEO of The Bay Foundation, notes that oil is entrenched in Southern California. "We have a long history of oil processing, transportation, and infrastructure," says Ford, who served for 10 years in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Existing uses of our coast, like oil infrastructure, are sometimes at odds with recreational and commercial uses, such as fishing, he notes.

"Not to sound too glib but you don't want oil in your seafood. That is what the general public has to come to a decision on, and a spill really brings that into focus," he says.

Trying to prevent a spill from happening again isn't as simple as banning oil production. Big Oil is a big part of Southern California's history and infrastructure. In some cases, offshore oil platforms can help endangered marine life, as the rigs sometimes function as enormous artificial reefs.

For Ford, and other environmentalists, there's a hope that public pressure and policy changes will transform offshore oil platforms and pipelines into greener initiatives, like wind or wave farms, which are economically beneficial while helping to create artificial structures that act as safe harbors for marine life — just like some oil platforms do currently.

"The question is: Can we build a new generation of infrastructure off our coast that not only provides clean energy but also enhances the ocean's structure to create more fish and fisheries?" Ford says.

Change is happening, albeit slowly, in part because of oil spills, like the one in Orange County.

In late October, the Huntington Beach City Council voted to support an offshore oil drilling ban. "I don't know if that would've happened if a spill like this had not occurred," Nagami says.

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