MORTALITY OF SEA OTTERS IN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND FOLLOWING THE EXXON VALDEZ OIL SPILL

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Abstract

Abstract: This paper presents an estimate of the total number of sea otters that died as a direct consequence of the oil spill that occurred when the T/V Exxon Valdez grounded in Prince William Sound, Alaska on 24 March 1989. We compared sea otter counts conducted from small boats throughout the Sound during the summers of 1984 and 1985 to counts made after the spill during the summer of 1989. We used ratio estimators, corrected for sighting probability, to calculate otter densities and population estimates for portions of the Sound affected by the oil spill. We estimated the otter population in the portion of Prince William Sound affected by the oil was 6,546 at the time of the spill and that the post-spill population in the summer of 1989 was 3,898, yielding a loss estimate of approximately 2,650. Bootstrapping techniques were used to approximate confidence limits on the loss estimate of about 500–5,000 otters. The wide confidence limits are a result of the complex scheme required to estimate losses and limitations of the data. Despite the uncertainty of the loss estimate it is clear that a significant fraction of the otters in the spill zone survived. We observed otters persisting in relatively clean embayments throughout the oil spill zone suggesting that the highly convoluted coastline of Prince William Sound produced refuges that allowed some sea otters in the oil spill area to survive.

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