Pictured: Jimmy Young (left) and Dr. Sean Anderson show the bags of oil collected from the Huntington Beach oil spill. Oct. 5, 2021. Photo submitted. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Late on Saturday, Oct. 9 and into Sunday, Oct. 10,  word of the Huntington Beach oil spill began to spread. So far, reports of 155,000 gallons of oil being released dominate a discussion about impacts to birds, fish and marine mammals. The current thinking as to the cause is that a large tanker ship’s anchor pulled a seafloor oil pipeline, causing the pipe to split, releasing oil into the ocean. Beaches have since reopened. 

Meanwhile, well north of the impacted coastline, a Camarillo-based science professor and a Ventura-based drone pilot and spill response volunteer began to mobilize, both recognizing an opportunity. 

“I started making plans to go down on Monday, I could get there on Tuesday,” said Jimmy Young, resident of Ventura, owner of McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream in Ventura. Young volunteers as the Spill Response Lead for Climate First:Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG). He also serves on the nonprofit organization’s advisory board. 

Young had worked before with Dr. Sean Anderson, program chair and professor in the Environmental Science and Resource Management department at California State University, Channel Islands. He let Anderson know he would be headed down and Anderson asked Young to bring him back samples of the oil. 

Jimmy Young, CFROG volunteer collecting blobs of oil from the spill on Huntington Beach. Photo submitted.

Leaving at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning to beat the traffic, Young arrived on scene at 7 a.m. He found a beach access point about 200 yards away from where the media was staging, on the same stretch of beach where hundreds of cleanup crew members in yellow hazmat suits combed the sand for blobs of oil and tar. 

“I don’t know how they’re going to clean up that mess down there.” Young staged out of four different locations. The first was at a spot where the Santa Ana River meets the beach. “My impression was just shock.” 

He obtained two handful-size samples of oil that differed in consistency. “Two different types of blobs.” He bagged them separately and presented them to Anderson. 

Oil spills impact marine food chain

“We are going to try and repeat some of the stuff we did with the [2015 Refugio Oil Spill north of Santa Barbara],” Anderson said. He guided students in toxicology experiments seeking to understand the impacts of the spill on the smaller creatures that are often forgotten. 

With every oil spill, we see the seabirds, fish and the marine mammals that may be impacted. This is terrible, but Anderson points out the wider impact is occurring beneath the surface, among the invertebrates that make up the base of the food chain.

“In the grand scheme of things, with these types of spills, not that many birds or mammals are impacted . . . Obviously birds are killed . . . [about] 30 oiled seabirds” have been found so far. “That sucks, but it’s not as if it’s catastrophic. One of the things that really is hit in the ecosystem are the invertebrates. They are the base of the food chain . . . and living in the coastal ecosystem . . . people don’t think about them.” 

His students study the effects of oil spills on sand crabs and mole crabs. 

“Sand crabs are right in the immediate intertidal zone. They actually choose to live where the waves are breaking. Not super subtidal, not above the high tide. They are at the tide line . . . the epicenter of the oil events, and they aren’t typically studied.” 

But he points out “everybody eats them. Fish eat them. Birds eat them. Humans use them as bait. They are like candy for predators.” 

He explained that sand crabs “sit in the sand and when the waves break they kick water into their mouths. They filter feed. When oil is coming in they are kicking what could be oil into their bodies.” 

Anderson said during the 2015 Refugio spill, he and his students walked the beach along that wave line. “We saw dead individuals.” He said it’s normal to find crab shells or exoskeletons on the beach, as they grow they shed their shells. “We don’t typically see the body, with meat and organs.” At Refugio they saw many dead bodies of sand crabs, “right at the oiled strand line on heavily oiled beaches. It seemed to be an impact of the spill.” 

Sand crab embryos most vulnerable

The problem with sand crabs is “they are highly variable critters. You can dig for them right where you’re standing and get nothing. Then 10 feet away get tons. It’s hard to say how many absolutely died,” from any particular event. So to get at the impacts you can’t just count the bodies. 

A female sand crab (Emerita analoga) with many orange eggs. Photo courtesy of Dr. Sean Anderson, CSUCI.

Ideally, Anderson said, researchers would be able to measure how many sand crabs lived in an area before an oil spill, and how many lived there after. “You’d measure the delta, the change . . . But you can’t always do that. In the case of sand crabs, we’ve been monitoring them for a little bit, not decades. But there’s another approach.” 

If you can’t measure the before and after of an event, you can “measure the toxicity of this poison in a controlled way, in labs.” In their experiments, Anderson’s students use glass jars with air stones, and different concentrations of oiled sea water. They put clean sand crabs in the jars and study how they respond. 

Are they dying when exposed to more oil? His students didn’t see a lot of mortality. “We didn’t see a clear effect of oil on dying, but what about their behavior? It might not kill them, but could make them sluggish.”

To test this theory, the students used aluminum pie tins with clean beach sand and seawater. They’d take the sand crabs that had been living in different concentrations of oiled water and “test how fast they bury. We saw a suggestion of slower burrowing with higher oil exposure. But it was not significant.” 

Sand crab embryos with normal eye development exposed to zero contamination. Photo from CSUCI, ESRM, study of impacts of Refugio oil spill, 2015.

“Then we took sand crab eggs. Sand crabs are always making eggs. They peak in late spring, early to mid-summer.” In their research following Refugio, Anderson said his students “did see an effect on the eggs . . . changed development.” 

Eggs exposed to higher concentrations of oil differed dramatically from eggs exposed to lower concentrations. “The eye spots were not developing . . . we saw very few eye spots, mishapenness.” Anderson said this signified that the toxicity of the spill would have a greater impact on the young rather than the adults. 

“It’s a common thing. Adults of anything — humans, apes, birds — adults are most resistant to toxins. They have more fat, thicker skin. Whereas babies and juveniles are really vulnerable. Developing embryos are the most vulnerable, what we found confirmed that.” 

How does that toxicity exposure in the developing embryo affect the crab later in life? Anderson posited that it might hamper its ability to position itself properly in the sand to be able to feed. 

Sand crab embryos exposed to oil contamination with reduced eye development. Photo from CSUCI, ESRM, study of impacts of Refugio oil spill, 2015.

With the Huntington Beach spill researchers can start to understand whether it’s a “generalized phenomenon, a signal of toxicity.” If they see the same results in crabs now, in October, it will show it’s “more universally a problem, and not just a problem in June,” helping to confirm whether the toxic exposure caused the eye malformation.

Anderson’s students will soon be taking the samples gathered by Young and expose “these critters over a period of weeks.” 

“It’s rare that [these events] just kill everybody, more common to screw them up, further stress them.” He added that If we just talk about how many animals are killed or oiled as a result of an oil spill or other event, a whole segment of impacts are being overlooked.                      



Video Dr. Sean Anderson created on Oct. 11, 2021 in the wake of the Huntington Beach oil spill for his students about the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill and their study: