Response To The Refugio Oil Spill

image of oil spill scene

The Refugio Oil Spill occurred on May 19, 2015, just north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. According to the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, the spill was caused by a buried pipeline that ruptured. Initial reports estimated the amount of oil spilled to be approximately 21,000 U.S. gallons (500 barrels). This estimate was later revised to over 105,000 U.S. gallons (2,500 barrels). More than 20,000 U.S. gallons (480 barrels) of crude oil is estimated to have spilled into the ocean.


PISCO scientists have extensive long-term monitoring data from this region in rocky intertidal and subtidal habitats. In addition, scientists from PISCO and other institutions have monitored multiple habitats inside and outside of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in this region as part of the Marine Life Protection Act. Together, these data contribute comprehensive information about the condition of areas at and near Refugio State Beach before the spill and will serve as reference points for identifying changes. Immediately after the spill, scientists from PISCO and collaborating organizations mobilized to conduct rapid monitoring of affected areas in coordination with California's Office of Spill Prevention and Response. This work includes:

  • Rapid assessments of the rocky intertidal at six key sites near the spill: One of groups leading assessments in the intertidal is the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe). MARINe is an organization of rocky intertidal scientists from many institutions and agencies along the U.S. West Coast who use standardized methods for long-term monitoring of intertidal biological communities. PISCO/MARINe Investigators Carol Blanchette (UC Santa Barbara) and Pete Raimondi (UC Santa Cruz) have been working very closely with public agencies and other scientists within this research network to monitor the oil-impacted rocky intertidal habitats. Long-term public funding for MARINe comes from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Park Service. PISCO partners with MARINe by providing funding and expertise.
  • Oceanographic monitoring and modeling of spill trajectories: PISCO-UC Santa Barbara Investigator Libe Washburn and collaborators temporarily installed a solar-powered high frequency (HF) radar system at Gaviota, CA to improve the coverage of surface ocean currents near the spill site and help forecast spill trajectories. This mobile system was supplied by California Polytechnic State University and calibrated with instrumentation built at UC Santa Barbara. PISCO provided critical funding for the initial development of HF radar operations at UC Santa Barbara, and on-going funding comes from the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS), which is part of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).

Because of these and similar efforts, the scientific and management communities have critical information about the spill’s path and initial impacts. Continued monitoring will be key to understanding effects of the spill and tracking ecosystem recovery. 

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