Reef Check News

Santa Barbara Oil Spill Response Missed the Boat


By Gregor Hodgson, Reef Check Foundation Executive Director

The recent oil spill at Refugio Beach north of Santa Barbara was a drop-in-the-bucket compared to the huge blowouts and repeated spills in Santa Barbara in 1969 – a reported 100,000 gallons this time versus 200 million then. Given that almost half a century has passed, and we have had several monster spills since 1969, one would expect that we would be well prepared to deal with such disasters.

Unfortunately, the response to the Refugio spill missed the boat in one important area. Clean-up crews were dispatched to clean up oil on the water surface using boats and booms, and by hand on the beach and rocks. Oiled birds were captured, treated and released. But the authorities were apparently unprepared for an on-shore gusher that would enter the sea in shallow water endangering near-shore marine ecosystems. More seriously, there was no system in place to allow government or non-government divers or ROVs to quickly examine the damage to the most sensitive ecosystem lying just beneath the water surface. Worse, non-government marine biologists who have the most experience at the site were barred from diving in the area for several weeks.

After the spill, Federal authorities quickly took over, but ignored the rocky reef and kelp ecosystems beneath the waves, despite repeated requests from both the State and experienced non-government dive teams to be allowed to carry out surveys.

Santa Barbara oil is only slightly less dense than seawater, and with the help of wave action, some oil from a surface slick can reach the reefs just a few feet below, while other fractions evaporate or dissolve in seawater where they can be highly toxic to marine larvae. Spring and early summer are peak reproductive seasons for many reef organisms. Whether dissolved or intact, some oil is likely to have reached Refugio’s famed kelp forest and rocky reef ecosystems potentially endangering some life stages of the many species of fish and shellfish there. Some marine organisms such as lobster and octopus washed up dead. By Friday, four days after the spill, our helicopter and drone surveys indicated that 95% of the surface oil slick had been washed out of the site by strong wind, waves and currents, with small patches of oil still attached to floating kelp at the surface. But what was going on underwater is now a mystery. Two weeks later, the reefs were still closed to divers, a serious mistake. Divers could have determined if visible blobs of oil were in direct contact with the reef and could have collected water samples next to the reefs that could have been tested for oil components. This could have all been documented with photos and video. Without this information it is more difficult to determine what really happened to the reef ecosystem immediately following the impact.

Reef Check is staffed by professional marine biologists who train divers to become “citizen scientists” so that they can carry out standard scientific surveys of rocky reef ecosystems in California (and coral reefs in 90 countries). All of our high quality data are publicly available on a Google Ocean database at

We survey over 80 California sites per year from the Oregon border to Mexico. Our teams of citizen scientists, led by professional marine biologists, have been monitoring the Refugio reefs every year since 2006, providing the only standardized dataset available for this 9-year period. The data, photos, videos and personal observations will be used to assess the damage and monitor the recovery of those reefs.

Our data show that Refugio reefs support a relatively dense kelp forest compared to other sites along the Santa Barbara coast and northern Channel Islands. The rocky seafloor is covered in an understory of four species of brown algae that provide habitat for dozens of fish species such as cabezon, sheephead, surf perch and kelp bass. Red sea urchins, bat stars and red abalone are some of the invertebrates found at this site. Reef Check classified the biological community living on the Refugio reef as unique in southern California. Only one of the more than 30 southern California sites that we monitor along the mainland coast has a similar ecological community.

This relatively small oil spill should be a wakeup call to government managers that we are apparently poorly prepared to quickly examine the most valuable ecosystem potentially affected by oil spills that occur near rocky reef ecosystems in shallow water. Millions of dollars were spent on boats, booms and cleanup crews on the beach. But with an “out of sight, out of mind attitude,” the Federal authorities ignored the underwater reef ecosystem.

While it may be sensible to declare a hazardous materials or HAZMAT site after an oil spill, this limits access to only HAZMAT-trained personnel, including divers. Several Federal agencies have HAZMAT trained divers, yet none were deployed to examine the reefs – even after 2 weeks. Reef Check teams offered to undergo the one-day training the day after the spill, but both they and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife teams were barred from entering the area.

Reef Check marine biologists have finally been invited to re-survey the Refugio reefs. But the oil slick has long gone (much of it delivered to beaches in Los Angeles). Given the poor track record of honest reporting from oil companies, an independent assessment of the impact the oil spill has had on the rocky reef and kelp forest communities might be helpful. But the longer we continue to wait, the harder it will be to determine cause and effect.

Fifty years after the first Santa Barbara oil spill, it is imperative that both the state and Federal emergency plans be changed to allow trained marine scientists from government and non-governmental organizations to quickly and safely carry out marine biological surveys at oil spill sites, and potentially other HAZMAT sites.