Ask Randall Davis what the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was like and he'll sum it up in two words: war zone.
When the oil tanker ran aground in 1989, dumping 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound, Davis headed up a rehabilitation effort that captured approximately 300 oil-coated sea otters and returned 200 of them to the wild.
"One hundred of them died," said Davis, a marine biology professor from Texas A&M University and president of International Wildlife Research. "In 1989 the Port Valdez rehab facility had over 300 employees. When you have 200 otters it's a very big rehabilitation."
Now, almost 20 years after the oil spill, between 7,000 and 8,000 sea otters float amongst the fjords and glaciers of Prince William Sound. Davis said the otter population seems to be stabilized. And even though the risk of an oil spill off the Kenai Peninsula isn't too great, there is a petroleum dock in the area and sea otters do swim in peninsula waters. Davis also said the oil left Prince William Sound in 1989 and facilities were set up in Homer and Seward to rehabilitate wildlife there.
International Wildlife Research is offering a free sea otter rehabilitation and oil spill response training session to train new volunteers in the event of another emergency. The training session will be offered from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 9 at the British Petroleum Building in Anchorage and includes a free breakfast and lunch. Interested individuals are asked to RSVP by Friday and to read course material and take an online quiz at the group's Web site, http://www.wildliferesearch.com/index.html.
"We do this training every two years," said Amy Christiansen, a volunteer who's been with IWR since the 1989 spill. "We have an all-day class and we open it up to the entire community. Anybody in Alaska can come."
International Wildlife Research is a group of scientists, wildlife specialists, veterinarians, vet technicians and other volunteers contracted by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company to respond to oil spills. Davis said after the Exxon Valdez spill, Alyeska was required by law to come up with a contingency plan that would rehabilitate up to 200 sea otters should another oil spill occur in order to hold a shipping license out of Valdez.
"The requirement is that Alyeska has to be able to set up a facility and start taking oiled sea otters within 72 hours (of a spill)," he said. "Alyeska asked me if I would help them fulfill this requirement."
In order to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, facility personnel must know how to handle oiled wildlife. New volunteers have to read material on responding to oiled sea otters, take a quiz and complete a 16-hour course in order to be a certified responder. Volunteers must also take an eight-hour refresher course each year to keep their certificate. Christiansen, who has experience as a vet technician and currently works as a nurse in Homer, said the group maintains a call list of standby volunteers who can respond at a moment's notice. Volunteers must be 18 or older.
In addition to wildlife specialists and folks with a veterinarian back ground, Christiansen said people volunteer who are really into the safety aspect of the operation. In 1989 fishermen were on hand to supply and maintain the otters' food.
"We've (also) got people who just love otters," she said. "There's all kinds of volunteers who can help in a lot of different ways."
At up to 164,662 hairs per square centimeter, sea otters possess the densest fur in the animal kingdom. Davis said sea otters lack the layer of blubber that insulates most marine mammals and must consistently groom in order to maintain a layer of air between the water and their skin. If oil coats an otter's fur coat and it becomes matted, the animal could catch hypothermia and die.
"We don't have any way to restore the air layer, the otter does this by grooming," Davis said. He compared grooming to felting wool and said once the otters are clean the animals are introduced to water where they start to rub. The cleaning process could take as little as a few days or longer depending on the otter's health. "The fur hairs become intertwined and interlocked and trap small pockets of air that cannot be displaced by water, and this air layer is right against the skin," he said.
Alyeska's main rehabilitation facility is at its Port Valdez terminal, and the company pays for the training. Another organization, the International Bird Rescue Research Center, is also funded by Alyeska and handles bird rehabilitation.
"Oil is probably the greatest threat in the marine environment," Davis said. "The techniques we use for sea otters are also applicable to harbor seals and fur seals and to terrestrial animals as well."
For more information on the training session and to RSVP, call Christiansen at 235-5104 or e-mail Davis at email@example.com.
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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