• Open Access

Quantifying population-level risks using an individual-based model: Sea otters, Harlequin Ducks, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill



Ecological risk assessments need to advance beyond evaluating risks to individuals that are largely based on toxicity studies conducted on a few species under laboratory conditions, to assessing population-level risks to the environment, including considerations of variability and uncertainty. Two individual-based models (IBMs), recently developed to assess current risks to sea otters and seaducks in Prince William Sound more than 2 decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS), are used to explore population-level risks. In each case, the models had previously shown that there were essentially no remaining risks to individuals from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) derived from the EVOS. New sensitivity analyses are reported here in which hypothetical environmental exposures to PAHs were heuristically increased until assimilated doses reached toxicity reference values (TRVs) derived at the no-observed-adverse-effects and lowest-observed-adverse-effects levels (NOAEL and LOAEL, respectively). For the sea otters, this was accomplished by artificially increasing the number of sea otter pits that would intersect remaining patches of subsurface oil residues by orders of magnitude over actual estimated rates. Similarly, in the seaduck assessment, the PAH concentrations in the constituents of diet, sediments, and seawater were increased in proportion to their relative contributions to the assimilated doses by orders of magnitude over measured environmental concentrations, to reach the NOAEL and LOAEL thresholds. The stochastic IBMs simulated millions of individuals. From these outputs, frequency distributions were derived of assimilated doses for populations of 500 000 sea otters or seaducks in each of 7 or 8 classes, respectively. Doses to several selected quantiles were analyzed, ranging from the 1-in-1000th most-exposed individuals (99.9% quantile) to the median-exposed individuals (50% quantile). The resulting families of quantile curves provide the basis for characterizing the environmental thresholds below which no population-level effects could be detected and above which population-level effects would be expected to become manifest. This approach provides risk managers an enhanced understanding of the risks to populations under various conditions and assumptions, whether under hypothetically increased exposure regimes, as demonstrated here, or in situations in which actual exposures are near toxic effects levels. This study shows that individual-based models are especially amenable and appropriate for conducting population-level risk assessments, and that they can readily be used to answer questions about the risks to individuals and populations across a variety of exposure conditions. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2012; 8: 503–522. © 2012 SETAC