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Remembering Cosco Busan: An Overview of the 2007 Oil Spill

This is the first in a week-long series of blogs in remembrance of the Cosco Busan oil spill that happened 10 years ago on Nov. 7, 2007. In this blog, Patrise Henkel offers an overview of the spill, its impact on the San Francisco Bay and the outcome that followed.

A large shipping vessel loaded with containers. A gash appears on the port side over the text "Hanjin."
Photo showing damage to port side of vessel. Photo credit U.S. Coast Guard District 11 Public Affairs.
Oil on a sea surface with hills in the background.
Oil on the sea surface, with Tennessee Cove, Marin County, visible in the background; view from overflight aircraft. Darker patches represent the thickest accumulation of spilled oil. The oil is spreading out to become sheen (very thin layer of oil on the water). Sheen is visible here as lighter colored patches. Photo credit: NOAA

The Spill

In the decade since marine vessel Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco Bay Bridge, our concept of a big oil spill has changed. Compared with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which 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 — 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 the cold water and strong winds and tides swiftly carried it to the bay shorelines and as far as Pacific beaches.  

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.

Bunker fuel proved especially toxic to sea life. Fish and birds were highly impacted, with more than 6,800 dead birds 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

Through the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) and resulting settlement, the ship’s owners were held accountable for damages incurred. A historic settlement of $44.4 million was reached with the responsible parties to pay civil penalties, reimburse remaining costs of the emergency response, cleanup and damage assessment, and to provide more than $30 million for projects to restore injured natural resources and compensate for lost recreational uses. 

"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 began as a pilot’s blunder in the fog has since led to an improvement in how we respond to and recover from such incidents. Not only that, the Cosco Busan incident raised awareness throughout the Bay Area about protecting local resources and led to significant habitat improvements for birds, aquatic vegetation, fish and shellfish.

For more information on the Cosco Busan oil spill, watch for our upcoming blogs detailing 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.

Patrise Henkel is a communication specialist with NOAA Fisheries.



To learn more about the Cosco Busan oil spill, you can also visit the resources below:

A shipping vessel being offloaded.
Photo of M/V Cosco Busan being offloaded on Nov. 10, 2007. Photo Credit NOAA.
A view of a bay with a bridge in the background.
Pt. Bonita in the foreground looking across sheens eastward to Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay on Nov. 9, 2007. Photo credit NOAA/NMS.
Last updated Tuesday, November 8, 2022 1:43pm PST