2013 update on sea otter studies to assess recovery from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska

Open-File Report 2014-1030
By: , and 



On March 24, 1989, the tanker vessel Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling an estimated 42 million liters of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. Oil spread in a southwesterly direction and was deposited on shores and waters in western Prince William Sound (WPWS). The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) was one of more than 20 nearshore species considered to have been injured by the spill. Since 1989, the U.S. Geological Survey has led a research program to evaluate effects of the spill on sea otters and assess progress toward recovery, as defined by demographic and biochemical indicators. Here, we provide an update on the status of sea otter populations in WPWS, presenting findings through 2013. To assess recovery based on demographic indicators, we used aerial surveys to estimate abundance and annual collections of sea otter carcasses to evaluate patterns in ages-at-death. To assess recovery based on biochemical indicators, we quantified transcription rates for a suite of genes selected as potential indicators of oil exposure in sea otters based on laboratory studies of a related species, the mink (Mustela vison). In our most recent assessment of sea otter recovery, which incorporated results from a subset of studies through 2009, we concluded that recovery of sea otters in WPWS was underway. This conclusion was based on increasing abundance throughout WPWS, including increasing numbers at northern Knight Island, an area that was heavily oiled in 1989 and where the local sea otter population had previously shown protracted injury and lack of recovery. However, we did not conclude that the WPWS sea otter population had fully recovered, due to indications of continuing reduced survival and exposure to lingering oil in sea otters at Knight Island, at least through 2009. Based on data available through 2013, we now conclude that the status of sea otters—at all spatial scales within WPWS—is consistent with the designation of recovery from the spill as defined by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The support for this conclusion is based primarily on demographic data, including (1) a return to estimated pre-spill abundance of sea otters at northern Knight Island, and (2) a return to pre-spill mortality patterns. Gene transcription rates in 2012 were similar in sea otters from oiled, moderately oiled and unoiled areas, suggesting abatement of exposure effects in 2012. However, because 2012 gene transcription rates generally were low for sea otters from all areas relative to 2008, we cannot fully interpret these observations without data from a wider panel of genes. This slight uncertainty with respect to the data from the biochemical indicator is outweighed by the strength of the data for the demographic indicators. The return to pre-spill numbers and mortality patterns suggests a gradual dissipation of lingering oil over the past two decades, to the point where continuing exposure is no longer of biological significance to the WPWS sea otter population.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title 2013 update on sea otter studies to assess recovery from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2014-1030
DOI 10.3133/ofr20141030
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center
Description iv, 40 p.
Country United States
State Alaska
Other Geospatial Prince William Sound
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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