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Timelines and mechanisms of wildlife population recovery following the Exxon Valdez oil spill

November 1, 2017

Research and monitoring activities over the 28 years since the T/V Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska have led to an improved understanding of how wildlife populations were damaged, as well as the mechanisms and timelines of recovery. A key finding was that for some species, such as harlequin ducks and sea otters, chronic oil spill effects persisted for at least two decades and were a larger influence on population dynamics over the long term than acute effects of the spill. These data also offer insights into population variation resulting from factors other than the oil spill. For example, while many seabirds experienced direct and indirect effects of the spill, population trajectories of some piscivorous birds, including pigeon guillemots and marbled murrelets, were linked to long-term environmental changes independent of spill effects. Another species, killer whales, suffered population declines due to acute spill effects that have not been resolved despite lack of chronic direct effects, representing a novel pathway of long-term injury. The observed variation in mechanisms and timelines of recovery is linked to species specific life history and natural history traits, and thus may be useful for predicting population recovery for other species following other spills.