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Mechanisms of impact and potential recovery of nearshore vertebrate predators following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill

January 1, 2002

The 1989 spill of some 42 million L of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, represents not only the largest tanker spill in United States history, but the world’s largest spill in northern waters. Acute effects have been studied extensively. However, efforts to quantify the spill’s long-term chronic effects and develop defensible restoration measures have been plagued by varying levels of scientific uncertainty. That such uncertainty exists is not unexpected. The spill occurred in Prince William Sound’s highly variable physical setting typified by its complex oceanography and fjord-like geomorphology. Additionally, uncertainty was driven by the scarcity of precise pre-spill population estimates and spotty life-history information for most species. The research reported herein in, structured in eight primary papers and 27 supporting papers (appendices), documents the state of recovery and assessments of continuing constraints to population recovery for four vertebrate predators (sea otter Enhydra lutris, harlequin duck Histrionicus histrionicus, river otter Lontra canadensis, and pigeon guillemot Cepphus columba) whose recovery status remained uncertain some 5 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. These species are used in a collective weight of evidence approach to better understand the process of coastal community recovery. Each species is examined for the strength of information it brings in health, population, and trophic metrics to support or reject the hypothesis of continuing oil effects in the nearshore system versus the alternatives that food constraints or demographic bottlenecks limit these focal species. While data for individual species contain various levels of uncertainty, scientific confidence is developed in the following picture when examined across species, metric, and hypothesis: Within the nearshore coastal environment, sporadic releases of residual oil are occurring, and benthic species, primarily invertebrates, are being exposed in a temporally and spatially patchy manner sufficient to transport oil up through the food chain. Thus, for the two invertebrate-feeders, sea otter and harlequin duck, evidence exists over several lines of investigation to suggest that local-scale populations continue to be constrained not by food availability or natural demographic processes, but by increased levels of mortality coincident with continued exposure to residual oil. Conversely, weight of evidence suggests that only limited direct oil-related effects are being transferred through the fish trophic pathway. Sufficient evidence suggests recovery is occurring in river otter populations, while the lack of recovery in pigeon guillemot may be attributed to food limitations (both natural and indirectly related to the spill) and/or slow demographic response to initial acute mortalities. Individual lines of investigation often contained uncertainty, but the collective weight of evidence presented in this multipaper volume indicates lack of full recovery of the nearshore ecosystem from the Exxon Valdez oil spill nearly a decade following the event. Integrated, multispecies approaches can allow sufficient weight of evidence to develop despite inherent system variability or data limitations and, thus, facilitate both better societal understanding of such pollution events and development of appropriate restoration responses.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2002
Title Mechanisms of impact and potential recovery of nearshore vertebrate predators following the 1989 <i>Exxon Valdez</i> oil spill
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Series Title
Series Number
Index ID 70188451
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center