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Oiled seabirds linked to ship that sank off SF coast in 1953

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Red-necked Grebe that was contaminated with oil leaking from a ship that sank off the San Francisco coast in 1953 receives care at SF Bay Center on Dec. 18, 2015. (Courtesy International Bird Rescue)

Nine oiled seabirds rescued along the California coast late last year have been linked to oil oozing from a ship that sank west of the Golden Gate Bridge more than 60 years ago, state officials said.

The link was announced last week by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife after state lab tests from the birds’ feather samples definitively traced the oil back to the sunken cargo ship, according to the International Bird Rescue, a non-profit organization that rescues birds harmed in oil spills and other wildlife disasters.

The S.S. Jacob Luckenbach, a cargo vessel loaded with almost 500,000 gallons of bunker fuel, sank on July 14, 1953, roughly 17 miles west-southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, according to the organization.

Despite efforts from the Coast Guard in 2002 to remove 100,000 gallons of oil from the ship and seal the remaining fuel, the boat has continued to leak occasionally, especially in the high currents brought on by winter months.

The leaking oil poses a continued threat to sea life, according to the International Bird Rescue, which estimates it has treated possibly thousands of birds impacted by the occasional leakage of the ship.

“We had no idea, for many, many years, where this was coming from [until 2002],” said International Bird Rescue spokesperson Russ Curtis. “For us, it was always kind of a mystery.”

According to the International Bird Rescue, birds lose their ability to remain waterproof and are exposed to extreme temperatures as a result of being exposed to oil, among other issues.

Of the nine seabirds rescued by the organization along the Monterey and Santa Cruz coasts, four have died, two are still being treated and three have been released back into the wild, according to the organization.

The birds, all of which were rescued in December, included a Pacific Loon, a Red-necked Grebe, a Western Grebe, and six Common Murres, which are common birds in the North Bay, Curtis said.