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Remembering Cosco Busan: An Overview of the 2007 Oil Spill

November 3, 2017

This is the first in a series of blogs in remembrance of the M/V Cosco Busan oil spill that happened 10 years ago on Nov. 7, 2007. See links below for related articles and blogs taking a look back at this oil spill and it's aftermath.

The Spill

In the decade since marine vessel Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco Bay Bridge, our idea of a big oil spill has changed. Since the monumental Deepwater Horizon breech gushed millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico, Cosco Busan’s 53,000 gallons seems small. Yet that incident had a major impact on the Bay Area ecosystem — on both the habitat and the public outlook.

Initial reports were that only 140 gallons were spilled. However, those estimates were quickly revised when it became obvious that more than 50,000 gallons of thick tarry oil were spreading across the Bay. This bunker fuel congealed in cold temperatures and was swiftly distributed to the bay shoreline and even carried on the strong winds and tides to Pacific beaches. It also proved especially toxic to some sea life. The accident and cleanup were widely publicized as the largest spill to date in the Bay Area. This densely populated region is home to many well-educated citizens who are active in outdoor recreation, and particularly attuned to their environment. The closed beaches around the Bay and up the coast brought local and national attention to the spill. Oil was found as far north as Muir Beach, and south as far as Pacifica. Miles of beaches were closed; fishing and crabbing were suspended. An estimated one million user-days were lost.

Fish and birds were hit hard. More than 6,800 dead birds were documented, including many marbled murrelets, a threatened species. The timing was bad for herring who spawn at that time of year. Fish embryos are particularly vulnerable to even traces of bunker fuel, developing developmental defects that decimated their numbers in 2008. As the herring are a major food source for salmon and other large fish, and marine mammals as well, more wildlife were affected.

The Outcome

However, due to the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) and resulting settlement, the ship’s owners were held accountable for damages incurred. A settlement of $44.4 million was reached to compensate for the costs of emergency response, damage assessment, the massive cleanup, and compensating the public for lost use and the natural resources.

"The repercussions from this oil spill led to many changes in how we prepare for, respond to, and assess effects from such incidents in the Bay Area, the state, and even nationally,” noted Dr. Rob Ricker, branch chief of NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

What started as a pilot’s blunder in the fog eventually led to an improvement in our ability to recover from such incidents. Not only that, the Cosco Busan incident raised awareness around the Bay about protecting that local resources and drew more people to local waterfront venues. It also led to significant habitat improvements for birds, aquatic vegetation, fish and shellfish.

For more information on the Cosco Busan oil spill, read the additional stories detailing the incident, (linked below) from the initial call and the emergency response efforts, the assessment phase, a close-up look at the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary’s response efforts, and a concluding piece on the continued restoration efforts.



Beach Watch Volunteers Aid Cleanup

Restoring the Bay's Resources


To learn more about the Cosco Busan oil spill visit the resources below: