An overview of sea otter studies

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Edited by:
Thomas R. Loughlin



The Exxron Valdez oil spill (EVOS) on 24 March 1989 threatened extensive areas of prime sea otter (Enhydra lutris) habitat along the coasts of south-central Alaska. The spill occurred in northeastern Prince William Sound (PWS), and oil moved rapidly south and west through PWS into the Gulf of Alaska. Much of the coastline of western PWS was heavily oiled, and the slick eventually spread as far southwest as Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula (Galt and Payton 1990; Morris and Loughlin, Chapter 1). All coastal waters affected by the spill were inhabited by sea otters.

Concern for the survival of sea otters following the oil spill was immediate and well founded. Sea otters are particularly vulnerable to oil contamination because they rely on pelage rather than blubber for insulation, and oiling drastically reduces the insulative value of the fur (Costa and Kooyman 1982; Siniff et al. 1982; Geraci and Williams 1990). Within days of the spill, recovery of oiled live otters and carcasses began. During the several months following the spill, sea otters became symbolic of the mortality associated with the spilled oil, and of the hope for rescue and recovery of injured wildlife (Batten 1990).

An extensive sea otter rescue and rehabilitation effort was mounted in the weeks and months following the spill. Handling and treatment of the captive sea otters posed an enormous and difficult challenge, given the large number of otters held at the facilities and minimal prior experience in caring for oiled sea otters. Rehabilitation of sea otters was a separate effort from the postspill studies designed to evaluate injury to the otter populations and is not addressed in this chapter only as it relates to evaluation of damage assessment studies. Detailed information on the rehabilitation effort is presented in Bayha and Kormendy (1990) and Williams and Davis (1990).

Sea otters retained a high profile in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) studies largely because the initial injury to the sea otter population was readily demonstrable, but also because of concerns about long-term damages. The scope of the postspill studies to assess oil-related damages to sea otters was extensive: From 1989 through 1993, more than $3,000,000 was spent, and more than 20 scientists were involved in a comprehensive research program. The studies were predominantly directed at sea otter populations in PWS.

Damages to sea otters generally can be classified as either acute, defined as spill-related deaths occurring during the spill, or chronic, defined as longer term lethal or sublethal oil-related injuries. Studies of acute damages focused on estimating the total initial loss of sea otters. Characterization of the pathologies associated with exposure to oil was a secondary goal of studies of acute effects. Chronic or longer term damages may have resulted from sublethal initial exposure or continued exposure to hydrocarbons persisting in the environment. Studies of chronic effects included evaluating abundance and distribution, survival and reproduction rates, foraging behavior, and pathological, physiological, and toxicological changes in the years following the spill.

The objective of this chapter is to review the studies conducted on sea otters in response to the EVOS and to synthesize the major findings of those studies relative to injury to the sea otter population associated with exposure to oil. We also provide recommendations for research to improve our understanding of the effects of future oil spills on Sea otter populations.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Book chapter
Publication Subtype:
Book Chapter
An overview of sea otter studies
Year Published:
Academic Press
Publisher location:
San Diego, CA
Contributing office(s):
Alaska Biological Science Center
13 p.
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Larger Work Subtype:
Larger Work Title:
Marine mammals and the Exxon Valdez
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Last page:
United States
Other Geospatial:
Prince William Sound