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Quantifying long-term risks to sea otters from the 1989 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill: reply to Harwell & Gentile (2013)

August 1, 2013

Recovery of sea otter populations in Prince William Sound (PWS), Alaska, has been delayed for more than 2 decades following the 1989 ‘Exxon Valdez’ oil spill. Harwell & Gentile (2013; Mar Ecol Prog Ser 488:291–296) question our conclusions in Bodkin et al. (2012; Mar Ecol Prog Ser 447:273-287) regarding adverse effects that oil lingering in the environment may have on sea otters. They agree that exposure may continue, but disagree that it constitutes a significant risk to sea otters. In Bodkin et al. (2012), we suggested that subtle effects of chronic exposure were the most reasonable explanation for delayed recovery of the sea otter population in areas of western PWS, where shorelines were most heavily oiled. Here, we provide additional information on the ecology of sea otters that clarifies why the toxicological effects of oral ingestion of oil do not reflect all effects of chronic exposure. The full range of energetic, behavioral, and toxicological concerns must be considered to appraise how chronic exposure to residual oil may constrain recovery of sea otter populations.

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