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Trends in sea otter population abundance in western Prince William Sound, Alaska: Progress toward recovery following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill

January 4, 2012

Sea otters in western Prince William Sound (WPWS) and elsewhere in the Gulf of Alaska suffered widespread mortality as a result of oiling following the 1989 T/V Exxon Valdez oil spill. Following the spill, extensive efforts have been directed toward identifying and understanding long-term consequences of the spill and the process of recovery. We conducted annual aerial surveys of sea otter abundance from 1993 to 2009 (except for 2001 and 2006) in WPWS. We observed an increasing trend in population abundance at the scale of WPWS through 2000 at an average annual rate of 4 percent: however, at northern Knight Island where oiling was heaviest and sea otter mortality highest, no increase in abundance was evident by 2000. We continued to see significant increase in abundance at the scale of WPWS between 2001 and 2009, with an average annual rate of increase from 1993 to 2009 of 2.6 percent. We estimated the 2009 population size of WPWS to be 3,958 animals (standard error=653), nearly 2,000 animals more than the first post-spill estimate in 1993. Surveys since 2003 also have identified a significant increasing trend at the heavily oiled site in northern Knight Island, averaging about 25 percent annually and resulting in a 2009 estimated population size of 116 animals (standard error=19). Although the 2009 estimate for northern Knight Island remains about 30 percent less than the pre-spill estimate of 165 animals, we interpret this trend as strong evidence of a trajectory toward recovery of spill-affected sea otter populations in WPWS.