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Exposure of sea otters and harlequin ducks in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA, to shoreline oil residues 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill



We assessed whether sea otters and harlequin ducks in an area of western Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA (PWS), oiled by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS), are exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from oil residues 20 years after the spill. Spilled oil has persisted in PWS for two decades as surface oil residues (SOR) and subsurface oil residues (SSOR) on the shore. The rare SOR are located primarily on the upper shore as inert, nonhazardous asphaltic deposits, and SSOR are confined to widely scattered locations as small patches under a boulder/cobble veneer, primarily on the middle and upper shore, in forms and locations that preclude physical contact by wildlife and diminish bioavailability. Sea otters and harlequin ducks consume benthic invertebrates that they collect by diving to the bottom in the intertidal and subtidal zones. Sea otters also dig intertidal and subtidal pits in search of clams. The three plausible exposure pathways are through the water, in oil-contaminated prey, or by direct contact with SSOR during foraging. Concentrations of PAH in near-shore water off oiled shores in 2002 to 2005 were at background levels (<0.05 ng/L). Median concentrations of PAH in five intertidal prey species on oiled shores in 2002 to 2008 range from 4.0 to 34 ng/g dry weight, indistinguishable from background concentrations. Subsurface oil residues are restricted to locations on the shore and substrate types, where large clams do not occur and where sea otters do not dig foraging pits. Therefore, that sea otters and harlequin ducks continue to be exposed to environmentally significant amounts of PAH from EVOS 20 years after the spill is not plausible. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2011; 30:659–672. © 2011 SETAC