As the grounded supertanker Exxon Valdez leaked millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound on Friday, a hasty debate began about how best to contain a spill that threatens environmental devastation in one of America's most sensitive coastal zones.
Never before has so much oil been spilled into such a rich and confined northern coastal environment, and biologists were unsure of the implications or of how to respond.
Some wanted to bomb the spreading spill with detergents to disperse the oil before it had a chance to foul beaches, and by Friday evening they had obtained a permit to allow that contingency later on.
Others worried the use of dispersants could break the oil down into microscopic particles that would play havoc with the delicate food chain that supports the Sound's $100 million commercial fisheries and its abundance of birds and marine mammals.
"You have to weigh a lot of different things," said Lance Trasky, habitat protection coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "What's the resource of most value?"
Biologists' immediate concerns focused on three distinct species of wildlife:
* Sea otters which are highly vulnerable to oil because they need clean fur to protect them from cold northern waters.
* Immature salmon which are beginning to enter the ocean and feed on oilsensitive plankton.
* Spawning herring which are moving toward beaches where oil could smother and kill their eggs.
As of Friday night, a Northern Air Cargo plane loaded with dispersants was in Valdez waiting for a decision on whether to begin dispersant bombing.
A dispersant could help protect the otters and sea birds highly vulnerable to floating crude, but it could harm the juvenile salmon just beginning to enter the Sound from surrounding streams, and the herring headed for spawning grounds.
There are thousands of otters, ducks, murres and gulls already in the Sound, and an estimated 10 million migratory shorebirds and waterfowl will start arriving there in the next couple weeks.
Many birds are expected to be fouled by oil as they forage for food in the Sound. As of Friday, no federal rescue effort was planned, according to Jon Nelson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official. Instead, a separate effort would be organized by a private group, the International Bird Rescue Foundation, which has been hired by Exxon USA.
The endangered immature salmon and the herring number in the millions. The herring also support a $5 million to $10 million fishery in the Sound. Fishermen in Cordova and Valdez were just getting ready to fish when the oil spilled.
Rick Steiner, a fisheries biologist with the University of Alaska's marine advisory program in Cordova, said fishermen are furious about the tanker accident.
Fishermen sued to stop construction of the transAlaska oil pipeline in 1971 because of fears about a tanker spill in the Sound. When they settled that suit out of court, they thought that one of the promises they got was a commitment by the oil industry to a stateoftheart oil spill cleanup team, Steiner said.
No cleanup had begun as of Friday afternoon, he said. Anchorage biologists involved in discussions over what to do said people were still trying to decide whether to try the dispersants.
"It's a big trade off," Trasky said.
At stake is an ecologically rich mixture of flora and fauna that has helped attract an everexpanding number of tour boats, yachts and sea kayakers to this islanddotted waterway. Only narrow passages lead to the ocean, and there is little place for the oil to go except toward land.
The number of species threatened by the oil is long and varied. Trasky and others listed endangered fin and humpback whales; four species of salmon; herring; Dall and harbor porpoises, sea otters, and Stellar sea lions; a variety of clams and crabs; bald eagles; swans, Canada geese, ducks, and a wide variety of sea birds; and the species of the unique salt marshes and intertidal estuaries with the herring, salmon and otters at the center of concern.
The playful sea otters, a major tourist attraction in the Sound, could die of hypothermia if they come in contact with the oil. Unlike other marine mammals, otters have no blubber to keep them warm. They depend on their fur, and studies have shown their fur quickly loses its insulating capabilities when contaminated with oil.
"If their fur gets oiled, they're in a world of hurt," said John Nichols, a marine mammal biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said federal biologists discussed using boats to herd the otters away from the oil spill.
Steiner said there were a couple of hundred otters in the immediate vicinity of the spill on Friday afternoon, but none appeared to have been contaminated.
During an overflight of the spill, however, Steiner said he spotted five or six confused sea lions caught in the middle.
"The sea lions were trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there," Steiner said.
Don Calkins, a marine mammal biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said there is little information on the danger of oil spills to sea lions, but most biologists believe the 2,000pound mammals are intelligent enough to avoid visible oil slicks.
Scientists said they also think porpoises, seals and whales which are also common in the area should be able to avoid the oil. An estimated 100 killers whales, 250 Minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales periodically frequent the Sound. There are also about 10,000 gray whales beginning to pass along the outer edge of the Sound on their migration to the Arctic.
Calkins said his major worry is that the oil would wash up on Seal Rocks at the entrance to the Sound.
"The oil is headed right in that direction," he added.
Seal Rocks is a breeding rookery for about 2,000 sea lions. About 1,000 pups are born there in late May of each year. There are an estimated 7,000 sea lions in the entire Sound.
Calkins said that if oil lingers and hits the beaches it could threaten both sea lion and harbor seal pups. Seals already are in trouble; the population of several thousand has declined 40 percent since 1984.
Dan Timm, regional wildlife supervisor for the state, said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has given the U.S. Coast Guard a list of marine mammal haulouts it considers vital to protect from the oil. He said the agency hopes the Coast Guard will put protective booms around those areas if oil approaches, although he doubts the booms will help.
Steiner and state fisheries biologists said they don't see much that can be done to protect the herring either.
"It's going to be on the beaches by tonight," Steiner said Friday. "It's gonna be on the beach all over up there . . . and those herring are heading right into these beaches."
Because of the way they spawn, herring are more vulnerable to oil or other nearshore pollutants than are most other fishes, scientist Thomas R. Merrell Jr. warned in 1977 in a paper assessing the risks of an oil spill in the Valdez area. "An entire stock could be decimated by an oil spill during the spring when they congregate in dense schools to spawn near shore."
The roe of herring, highly valued as a Japanese delicacy, have come to support a major Alaska fishery. That fishery was expected to begin in early April in Prince William Sound.
In a Friday overflight of the oil spill, Cordova fisherman Riki Ott said she spotted herring already present in two important coastal spawning grounds Galena Bay and Fidalgo Bay. At Galena, the oil slick was less than two miles away and appeared to be heading toward the herring, Ott said.
Oil also was less than a half mile off Bligh Island beach, another important spawning area, Ott said.
Ott, who also is a marine toxicologist, said fishermen don't want to see dispersants used because they will be absorbed by fish, and the valuable roe eggs could be poisoned.
The oil also was threatening one of the state's most ambitious ocean ranching programs a network of three major hatcheries operated by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation. Last year, the hatcheries provided more than half of the pink salmon caught by commercial fishermen in the Sound.
In stainless steel incubation trays, nearly 500 million fry are now birthing, according to Bruce Suzumoto, the corporation's president. The fish are being put into floating net pens and most are scheduled for release later this spring.
Suzumoto fears that oil contamination will decimate the penned fish, and the corporation is scrambling to gather booms and other equipment to protect the hatchery waters.
Longterm effects on a widerange of species also may occur.
"It's very difficult to know what ultimately will happen. The potential for serious problems is just staggering," said Chuck Meacham, regional biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game.
"This is like getting hit with a 25ton sledge hammer right now,"' said Jack Lamb, vice president of Cordova District Fishermen's United.
WILDLIFE IN THE SOUND
When They Frequent Prince William Sound
Species Critical Season
Northern Sea Lion Late May to June when pupping
Harbor seal Late May to June when pupping
Killer whale April to September
Southern sea otter Year round
Finback whale May to September
Minke whale May to September
Humpback whale May to September
Dall porpoise Unknown
Dungeness crab April to May, larval stage
King crab April to May, larval stage
Tanner crab April to May, larval stage
Whistling swan Late April to September
Canada goose Year round
Mallard Year round
Pintail Late April to September
Canvasback Late April to September
Whitewinged scoter Year round
Surf scoter Year round
Arctic tern April to August
Old squaw March to May
Harlequin Year round
Bald eagle Year round
Marsh hawk April to May
Glaucouswinged gull Year round
Herring gull April to May
Common murre Year round
Tufted puffin April to September
Pink salmon April to May, fry leave streams
Chum salmon April to May, fry leave streams
Silver salmon April to May, smolts leave streams
Red salmon April to May, smolts leave streams
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