Sea otter Enhydra lutris populations were severely affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in western Prince William Sound, AK, and had not fully recovered by 2000. Here we present results of population surveys and incorporate findings from related studies to identify current population status and factors affecting recovery. Between 1993 and 2000, the number of sea otters in the spill-area of Prince William Sound increased by about 600 to nearly 2700. However, at Knight Island, where oil exposure and sea otter mortality in 1989 was most severe, no increase has been observed. Sea otter reproduction was not impaired, and the age and sex composition of captured otters are consistent with both intrinsic reproduction and immigration contributing to recovery. However, low resighting rates of marked otters at Knight Island compared to an unoiled reference area, and high proportions of young otters in beach cast carcasses through 1998, suggest that the lack of recovery was caused by relatively poor survival or emigration of potential recruits. Significantly higher levels of cytochrome P4501A (CYP1A), a biomarker of hydrocarbons, were found in sea otters at Knight Island from 1996 to 1998 compared to unoiled Montague Island, implicating oil effects in the lack of recovery at Knight Island. Delayed recovery does not appear to be directly related to food limitation. Although food availability was relatively low at both oiled and unoiled areas, we detected significant increases in sea otter abundance only at Montague Island, a finding inconsistent with food as a principal limiting factor. Persistent oil in habitats and prey provides a source of continued oil exposure and, combined with relatively low prey densities, suggests a potential interaction between oil and food. However, sea otters foraged more successfully at Knight Island and young females were in better condition than those at Montague Island. We conclude that progress toward recovery of sea otters in Prince William Sound is evident, but that in areas where initial oil effects were greatest, recovery may be constrained by residual spill effects, resulting from elevated mortality and emigration. It is evident that internal reproduction and immigration of juveniles has been the primary means of population recovery, as opposed to broad scale redistribution of adults from outside affected areas. The result is a recovery period protracted by long-term spill effects on survival and emigration and intrinsic limits to population growth.
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Sea otter population status and the process of recovery from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill