How to keep killer whales out of oil spills (Exxon Valdez anniversary)

Photo Credit:  kckellner  via  Compfight  cc

Photo Credit: kckellner via Compfightcc

Imagine if you woke up one day and parts of your town were coated in a hard-to-see but highly-toxic chemical. How would you know what to areas to avoid, where to find safety, or even which grocery stores had non-contaminated food? For humans the answer is signs, police tape, announcements on the radio, and breathless disaster reporting on the television.

But for marine mammals the techniques are a little different.

25 years ago today, the Exxon Valdez spilled tens of millions of gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Back before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, people thought killer whales would know better than to swim into an oil spill.

Turns out they were wrong. Many individuals in the two pods of orcas that use Prince William Sound, pods AB and AT1, had direct contact with the spilled oil. The pods suffered large population losses in the years following the spill. Twenty-five years later the AB pod has started to recover, but scientists think the AT1 pod, with only 7 members left, will soon go extinct.

So how do you keep killer whales out of oil spills?

This was a question SeaDoc sought to answer back in 2007. We partnered with NOAA to bring together a group of killer whale experts and spill response professionals to discuss how the Salish Sea's resident and transient killer whales could be protected. Even though 18 years had passed since the Exxon Valdez event, the Northwest Area Contingency Plan did not include a plan for dealing with killer whales.

Over two days, the workshop participants discussed the effects of oil on cetaceans, killer whale mortality from the Exxon Valdez event, permit issues, risk assessments, response coordination, availability of equipment, pre- and post-event monitoring, and techniques for hazing animals to keep them away from oiled areas.

The result is a much higher level of preparedness to save whales' lives in the event of a catastrophic spill. The response plan for killer whales has been incorporated into the current Northwest Area Contingency Plan. Responders will have techniques and equipment ready to use. Of course, it's an open question how effective these techniques will be in any particular spill. It will depend a lot where the spill takes place and how close any killer whales are. But the planned out strategy will certainly be more effective that ad-hoc tactics pulled together in the middle of a crisis.

SeaDoc's work on killer whales and oil spills is a good example of how we bring people together to solve tough issues, especially issues that involve both sides of the international border that splits the Salish Sea.

Interested in learning more? Read the meeting notes from the 2007 workshop.

Also, see NOAA's page on oil spill response and killer whales, and a 3/24/2014 report from KUOW's Ashley Ahearn: EarthFix Conversation: 25 Years Later, Scientists Remember The Exxon Valdez.