Six months after the oil spill blackened Orange County's shore, many species of sand-dwelling animals, including shrimp and clams, have not recovered from severe population losses, state biologists say.
The tiny creatures that normally thrive in the tidal area off Huntington Beach may take five years to rebound, said John Grant, a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game.
Also, thousands of adult grunion and millions of eggs were killed during the first month after the spill, but grunion runs apparently have returned to normal, Fish and Game biologists said.
On Feb. 7, the American Trader tanker spewed almost 400,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean off Huntington Beach, causing the worst oil spill in Southern California in 21 years. The tanker was pierced by its own anchor as it approached an oil refinery mooring in too-shallow water.
The sketchy information on the crustaceans and the grunion is the first to surface on the long-term, biological effects of the oil.
State Fish and Game biologists are conducting various studies to gauge the spill's impact on parts of the ecosystem, including marine mammals, fish and brown pelicans.
But most findings are not being revealed because they are key evidence in the state's lawsuit being prepared by the attorney general's office.
The state plans to sue British Petroleum and perhaps other parties involved in the accident, seeking damages for loss of economic, recreational and ecological resources. The other parties could include American Trading Transportation Co. Inc., which owns the tanker, and Golden West Refining, which operates the offshore mooring where the accident occurred.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Sylvia Cano Hale declined to discuss the findings of the studies.
Grant, who is the state agency's oil-spill damage assessment expert in Southern California, said the injury to the sand creatures has been dramatic along the water line off Huntington Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach. The oil wiped out a large amount of the population, and the counts remain low, he said the studies show.
"The infauna (species living in the sand) have shown no signs of recovery," said Grant. "There is no doubt they are severely impacted--everywhere we looked."
However, the long-term effect on those animals is probably minor, Grant said.
The populations are abundant along the rest of the coast, and they are resilient enough to eventually recover from oil spills, he said.
"We saw significant impacts on the critters, but they're not significant as far as long-term damage," Grant said. "Animals in those environments have the ability to rebound from catastrophic impacts, whether it's a storm or an oil spill."
The populations will recover "unless there's poison in the sand that stays," he said. "And the sand is replaced by every new set of waves."
British Petroleum, which owned the Alaskan crude oil aboard the American Trader, mounted a five-week cleanup of a 15-mile stretch of coastline from Newport Harbor to Seal Beach. As part of an agreement with local officials, the cleanup continued until petroleum hydrocarbons in the sand were detected only at low concentrations.
Because of the attorney general's investigation, the only written study that Fish and Game biologists would release to The Times involved grunion spawning.
The only apparent impact on grunion was within the first month, when several thousand fish died off Huntington Beach, along with countless millions of their eggs, Grant said. That loss is probably insignificant to the species.
Several thousand grunion eggs were collected from sand at the high-water mark along Huntington Beach on March 15, the day the cleanup ended and all beaches reopened.
One batch, collected at the northwest end of Bolsa Chica beach almost in Seal Beach, suffered a high mortality rate of 39%, about 10 higher than normal, a Fish and Game report said.
But Paul Gregory, a state Department of Fish and Game marine biologist in Long Beach, said when he resampled that same spot in June, mortality rates among the eggs were normal.
Eggs collected at two other sites--near the Bluffs area at the northern end of Huntington Beach--had none of the same problems, the report said. They hatched normally, with 3% dying.
Gregory said there is no evidence that the deaths were caused by the oil. He said they could have all come from one bad batch from one fish.
"It wasn't something I could definitely pin on the oil. In fact, the oil was not as heavy there during the spill." Grunion, a small, abundant fish along the Pacific shoreline, have learned to master the rhythm of the tides when reproducing. They burrow their eggs into wet sand on warm nights during extreme high tides, and the young hatch and swim into the ocean two weeks later.
Other fish spawning in the ocean might not be faring as well. Grunion eggs have a tough outer shell that might protect them from any oil residue.
"Grunion eggs are very durable. They have to be resistant to drying out and temperature extremes," said Steve Bay, a biologist in the toxicology department of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, a nonprofit group of marine scientists in Long Beach.
"It's safe to say that the grunion egg may be more resistant than the eggs of other fish. Other organisms may be more sensitive," Bay said. "A study done on one organism can't be generalized to other species."
Gregory said other fish lay eggs in the water, and their larvae might be more vulnerable to oil residue than the grunion eggs buried in the sand.
Studies into the long-term reproductive effects on other fish and on birds have not been completed, said Kim McClenighan, statewide oil spill coordinator with the state Fish and Game Department in Sacramento.
Pelicans--some oil-slicked and some untouched--were tagged, and their migration patterns are being followed to see if they reproduce normally, McClenighan said.
"It's too early to have even a preliminary report back on that," he said, adding that the study could take a year.
Birds are probably the most vulnerable animals to an oil spill, and about 700, including some endangered brown pelicans, died. Almost 600 others were slicked with oil.
Randy Davis, a research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said there probably won't be any effects on seals or dolphin off Huntington Beach.
"There weren't any mammals observed in the oil, so long-term effects are unlikely," said Davis, from his office in Anchorage, Alaska, where he is studying effects of the Exxon Valdez spill on sea otters and other mammals.
He said he didn't know how quickly sand-dwelling creatures would rebound off Huntington Beach, but he said mussels, barnacles and other organisms along Alaska's shoreline are already recovering a year after the spill.
Environmental officials have said the Huntington Beach spill was more of a crisis for Orange County's recreational and economic resources than it was for its ecology.