Seabirds still not recovered from Exxon oil spill

May 01, 2001

Alaska's oil spill may still be hitting wildlife hard

MOST seabird populations hit by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska have still to show signs of recovery over a decade after the disaster, say scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Their findings flatly contradict the claims of both Exxon, the oil company responsible for the spill, and other researchers who say that all affected species are well on the road to recovery, if not back to normal.

David Irons and colleagues in Anchorage surveyed seabird populations over eight years in Prince William Sound, scene of the 1989 spill. Of 17 taxa whose numbers were hit by the spill, he found that four showed only a "weak to very weak" recovery from the disaster. Nine "showed no evidence of recovery", while four continued to show signs of being increasingly affected by the pollution from the spill.

Seabirds that don't seem to be recovering include cormorants, various gulls, grebes, terns and murres, a kind of guillemot hardest hit by the spill. Most of the 30,000 oil-covered carcasses collected in the months after the spill were murres. "Densities of pigeon guillemots in oiled areas are still going down in summer," says Irons.

However, Exxon, now part of ExxonMobil, which has been involved in lengthy litigation since the disaster, says that "the environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust and thriving". Its claims are backed in part by the findings of John Wiens of the University of Colorado, another leading analyst of the spill's aftermath. He has recently concluded that "all of the impacted species show strong evidence of recovery".

Wiens has said that "preconceptions that oil spills are bad can easily lead to one adopting an advocacy position in which science suffers". But Irons disputes Wiens's methodology. He says Wiens uses a relatively tough test for showing birds have suffered after the spill, and a less demanding standard for identifying recovery. "The burden of proof is placed on the data to establish injury, but not recovery," he says.

Irons believes that birds are still suffering because food in the intertidal zone and shallow waters near the shore, such as mussels, is still contaminated with oil. Populations of other prey species are still much lower than before the spill, Irons says. For instance, Pacific herring and clams "had not recovered by 2000".

ExxonMobil argues that it is unreasonable to expect all bird populations to recover because there are other environmental changes affecting the numbers. "For example, average summer water temperatures have increased in the last 10 years at least three to four degrees above the historical average," says the company.

But Irons believes the oil spill is still to blame. "Lingering effects of the spill and natural variability appear to be acting in concert in delaying recovery of the bird populations," he says.
Author: Fred Pearce More at: Marine Pollution Bulletin (vol 42, p 298)

New Scientist issue: 5th May 2001


New Scientist

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