Exxon Valdez trustees revise injured species list

Posted: Wednesday, August 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council has determined that orcas in Prince William Sound should be considered ''recovering,'' not ''recovered'' from the effects of the 1989 oil spill.

The trustees adopted a final list of which injured species and habitats have recovered, are still recovering and which are not yet showing signs of improvement.

It is essentially a report card on the health of the Sound's ecosystem, said Bob Spies, the council's chief scientist.

Last spring, a team of scientists familiar with the Sound and its mammals, fish, beaches and birds issued a report suggesting that the AB pod of killer whales should join the list of recovered species. Also on the draft list for the first time were pink and red salmon, black oystercatchers, common murres and the subtidal communities on dozens of beaches.

On a separate list, harlequin ducks and Pacific herring were said to be recovering, an improvement over the species' previous standing of ''not recovering.''

That was the advisers' view. But members of the public took exception earlier this summer, and Tuesday the trustee council took that testimony to heart. In adopting the final lists, it removed killer whales from ''recovered'' and said they are ''recovering.''

The trustees also moved herring and harlequin ducks from ''recovering'' to ''not recovering.''

''There's no disagreement on the science or the status of the recovery,'' explained Molly McCammon, the council's executive director. ''This is just a disagreement over where (each species) is on the continuum of recovery.''

Spies, the council's chief scientist, said that determining a species' place on that continuum is a judgment call.

''It's an attempt to communicate with the public in a way that's relatively understandable and brief. It's not a perfect tool,'' he said, ''but it's a tool.''

While the council reviews the injured species lists periodically, every year it directs money to study the health of the Prince William Sound ecosystem.

The council approved $3.7 million on nearly three dozen scientific projects next year. Many are in their second or subsequent year, and one has been going for more than a decade. Each project must be approved annually after review by Spies and independent scientific advisers.

The work contributes to the overall understanding of the Sound, but some projects are more technical than others. One going into its eighth year is mapping the pink salmon genome to find the regions of the DNA that may contribute to the growth and recovery of the fish. It costs $54,000 a year.

Another continues to look into the effect of the remaining oil buried in the beaches on the health of clams, fish, sea birds and sea otters, costing about $122,000 a year. Other projects are aimed at filling in more basic gaps in knowledge, such as the $18,000 approved to continue a ''ships of opportunity'' project.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers attach sensors to the cooling water intake on an oil tanker to gather long-term measurements of the surface temperature and salinity between Valdez and Long Beach, Calif.

Spies called it an ''innovative and cost-effective project'' that will help show changes in the Pacific Ocean ecosystem over time.

After a dozen years of such projects, the trustee council is accumulating a wealth of data, and Tuesday it approved spending some $300,000 on data management and library services.

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