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Synthesis of nearshore recovery following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill: sea otter liver pathology and survival in Western Prince William Sound, 2001 – 2008

February 1, 2014

We examined livers and liver biopsies collected from captured sea otters in WPWS, 2001–2008, to determine whether indicators of liver health correlated with history of oil contamination from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Sea otters captured in oiled areas had a significantly higher proportion of livers with gross pathological change, based on visual inspection at the time of capture, than those from unoiled areas. Of the 10 histopathology variables scored on liver biopsies, only two (vacuolar change and pigment) differed between animals from oiled and unoiled areas, and neither correlated with gross pathology scores. Vacuolar change indicates physiological disturbance, which is consistent with potential effects from oil exposure but also could be influenced by a number of other factors. We concluded that, as of 2008, some differences in liver health were evident between sea otters from oiled and unoiled areas; these differences were consistent with, but not specific to, effects that might be expected with sublethal exposure to lingering Exxon Valdez oil. We also quantified variation in survival of radiomarked sea otters within oiled areas of WPWS in relation to age, sex, body condition, selected blood serum chemistry variables, and histological scores indicative of liver health. Of the variables considered, only the serum enzyme aspartate aminotransferase (AST) and the ratio of serum proteins albumin and globulin (A/G) were correlated with survival, with higher levels of AST and lower levels of A/G associated with increased likelihood of mortality. High AST and low A/G both may be indicative of liver disease. Taken together, results reported here suggest that liver health of sea otters in oiled areas was slightly poorer than those from unoiled areas and, ifurther, that this may have translated to poorer survival through 2008, nearly 2 decades after the spill. More recently collected information indicated that mortality patterns and abundance had returned to pre-spill conditions between 2010 and 2013, suggesting that the effects that we detected through 2008 may have represented the end of effects related to exposure to lingering oil.