Could residual oil from the Exxon Valdez spill create a long-term population "sink" for sea otters in Alaska?

Ecological Applications
By: , and 



Over 20 years ago, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 42 million L of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA. At the time of the spill, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) population inhabiting the spill area suffered substantial acute injuries and loss. Subsequent research has resulted in one of the best-studied species responses to an oil spill in history. However, the question remains: Is the spill still influencing the Prince William Sound sea otter population? Here we fit time-varying population models to data for the sea otter population of western Prince William Sound to quantify the duration and extent of mortality effects from the spill. We hypothesize that the patchy nature of residual oil left in the environment has created a source-sink population dynamic. We fit models using the age distributions of both living and dying animals and estimates of sea otter population size to predict the number of sea otters in the hypothesized sink population and the number lost to this sink due to chronic exposure to residual oil. Our results suggest that the sink population has remained at just over 900 individuals (95% CI: 606-960) between 1990 and 2009, during which time prime-age survival remained 2-6% below pre-spill levels. This reduced survival led to chronic losses of ???900 animals over the past two decades, which is similar in magnitude to the number of sea otter deaths documented in western Prince William Sound during the acute phase of the spill. However, the unaffected source population appears to be counterbalancing these losses, with the model indicating that the sea otter population increased from ???2150 individuals in 1990 to nearly 3000 in 2009. The most optimistic interpretation of our results suggests that mortality effects dissipated between 2005 and 2007. Our results suggest that residual oil can affect wildlife populations on time scales much longer than previously believed and that cumulative chronic effects can be as significant as acute effects. Further, source-sink population dynamics can explain the slow recovery observed in the spill-affected western Prince William Sound sea otter population and are consistent with available data. ??2011 by the Ecological Society of America.
Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Could residual oil from the Exxon Valdez spill create a long-term population "sink" for sea otters in Alaska?
Series title Ecological Applications
DOI 10.1890/11-0152.1
Volume 21
Issue 8
Year Published 2011
Language English
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Ecological Applications
First page 2917
Last page 2932
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