It has been more than 20 years since the 640-foot freighter New Carissa ran aground on the Oregon coast during a major winter storm. At the time — Feb. 4, 1999 — the vessel was carrying nearly 400,000 gallons of fuel oil and diesel on board. After four days in the heavy surf near Coos Bay, the New Carissa began leaking oil. The ship eventually broke in half, releasing an estimated 70,000 to 140,000 gallons of fuel into the marine environment.
In an odd twist of fate, Lincoln County also became involved in this incident. An attempt was made to tow one of the halves of the New Carissa out to sea, where it was supposed to be scuttled. But it was apparently a ship that just wouldn’t die, and it broke free from its towing cable and eventually drifted ashore at Governor Patterson Memorial State Recreation Site south of Waldport. It remained there for a number of days before once again being towed out to sea and finally sunk. It would be a number of years before the other half of the vessel was dismantled and removed from the beach down south.
So why is that relevant two decades later? Well, the state reached a $22 million settlement in 2006 with the owner of the ship, Green Atlas Shipping of Japan. The bulk of the money, $19 million, went to pay for the removal of the wreck near Coos Bay, but because of the impact the oil spill had on wildlife, and in particular seabirds, a significant amount of money was spent on coastal seabird programs and educational efforts. The results of those expenditures are just now becoming evident along the coast. In essence, it brought to life that proverbial phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Mike Szumski is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s primary spill responder for the state of Oregon. He said an estimated 2,453 seabirds were killed or injured by the spill from the New Carissa. Among these were snowy plovers and marbled murrelets, both of which are listed as threatened under the Endangers Species Act.
“We had to put together a claim to the Coast Guard, who paid the majority of the money,” Szumski said about the settlement. “We specified different projects. There was a seabird component and an educational component. So we secured about $900,000 for the educational component.”
It is this educational component that is now catching the attention of coastal visitors and residents. Dawn Harris, visitor services manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said one aspect was to install new interpretive signs up and down the coast.
“We had a project that put these interpretive panels near major seabird colonies and other places where people tend to congregate,” said Harris, “so we could get the message out about the biology of seabirds, why they’re important and what people can do to protect them.”
Harris said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked closely with Oregon State Parks on a number of the projects. One of these was at Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint, which is situated between Cape Foulweather and Whale Cove. Whale Cove is part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service acquired some of the undeveloped property in Whale Cove in 2013. It’s an area that is very sensitive because we do have seabirds nesting on it,” Harris said. “And there was just no safe way to get visitors back there to visit Whale Cove — there’s private property, there’s no parking.”
But they wanted people to be able to enjoy this special place, so they approached state parks, which manages Rocky Creek. “We said, ‘What about putting a safe viewing deck on this property that overlooks Whale Cove?’” recalled Harris. An agreement was reached, and in July of last year, construction of a new viewing deck was completed. But because one must meander along a path through the trees for about a quarter of a mile, not a lot of people were even aware of this new amenity. Recently however, signage pointing the way was installed near the Rocky Creek restrooms, and people are beginning to discover this new, safe place to view a landscape that previously had no public access. Now, there is an unobstructed view of Whale Cove, where people can watch harbor seals and nesting oyster catchers, among other wildlife.
“The deck is on state park property, but it overlooks the wildlife refuge,” said Harris. “It was a great partnership. We worked with state parks very closely on this whole project.”
As another educational component of the New Carissa settlement funds, the Fish and Wildlife Service, using a smartphone app called Discover Nature, has created a new experience for visitors at three specific coastal areas. Discover Nature is a GPS game-based app that teaches visitors about the diverse seabirds, marine mammals and rocky shore habitats of the Oregon coast. The three locations are Yaquina Head, Haystack Rock and Coquille Point. When people download the app, they can receive site-specific information as they wander around those locations.
Yet another project funded through the settlement involved installation of predator-proof trashcans on state park properties that have heavy visitor traffic and that are near seabird colonies. “One of the impacts to seabirds is things like raccoons and gulls and crows and ravens — scavengers and predators,” said Harris. “If that population of animals is inflated because of human trash, that can be a problem for native wildlife, so we were able to purchase predator-proof trashcans.” She said there is also signage at these locations to explain why it is important to keep trash out of the natural environment.