Oil spill lessons offer hope for sea otters
Experts say pollution and disease are leading to a drastic decline in sea otter numbers
February 18, 1999
Web posted at: 11:40 AM EST
Ten years ago, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled almost 11 million gallons of oil into Price William Sound, killing more than 5,000 sea otters. The spill has been called the largest environmental disaster in recent history -- but because of it, the United States is now better equipped to handle such a disaster.
Research and programs initiated recently by several members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums have focused on providing immediate help during such disasters.
"In 1989, the scientific community was completely unprepared to deal with an oil spill of such magnitude. There wasn't even a local veterinarian on site," said Terrie Williams, a comparative physiologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and former research committee chair for the alliance.
Williams, who helped organize the rescue effort in Prince William Sound, said the result of that experience and the research that followed enables "the marine mammal community to reduce our disaster response time from one week to 48 hours, and allows us to minimize damage to sea otters when crises occur."
During the 1989 spill, rescue teams converted a gymnasium and a parking lot into an otter rescue center. Today, there are established centers at marine mammal facilities to de-oil otters. Teams trained to safely rescue animals caught in oil spills are in place and ready to respond to disasters.
Zoos and aquariums also assisted with sea otter rescue and recovery efforts after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and continue to assume leadership roles in helping the public understand the importance of protecting the sea otter, as well as making major contributions to ongoing marine mammal rescue and recovery programs.
Rescue teams managed to rehabilitate 300 sea otters and return them to the wild after the spill. Another 30 animals, too weak or young to be released, found new homes in aquariums throughout the U.S., Canada and Japan. As a result, nearly a dozen educational sea otter exhibits have opened at U.S. aquariums since the disaster. These exhibits teach the public about the sea otter and explain their vulnerability to tragedies caused by humans, including oil spills.
Aquariums also conduct valuable research into sea otter biology and behavior, which helps better protect sea otter habitat and manage their populations in the wild. They also continue to rehabilitate stranded and oiled animals in minor oil spills.
Despite the commitment of specialists, sea otters are still in danger.
Sea otter populations off the Aleutian Islands have dropped by 80-90 percent since the 1970s. A recent study by James A. Estes, Williams and her colleagues suggest killer whales are now eating sea otters because their usual food sources, which include fish, seals and Steller sea lions, are in rapid decline in Alaskan waters. This drastic drop has raised concerns in the scientific community.
In addition, the central California sea otter populations are vulnerable to extinction. Experts say pollution and disease are leading to a drastic decline in otter numbers. Scientists believe that if the number of otters drops below 1,850 from the 1,937 otters reported today, they will be pushed from their current classification as "threatened" and will become officially designated "endangered" on the government's Endangered Species List.
For more information, contact Erin Battison, Public Communications Inc., (312)558-1770.
Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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