State biologists landing on a few miles of beaches in Prince William Sound have found hundreds of dead and oily birds and are trying to "reverse the spin" on publicity that not many animals have died in the spill of the Exxon Valdez.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman John Lyman talked to his superiors in Juneau on the telephone Saturday about getting the word out.
"When you have comments from the Coast Guard that no one has shown me a dead bird yet, it's just because the admiral hasn't bothered to land yet," he said. "You can't rely on aerial surveys. It just doesn't work. What you're looking for is just a wishbone."
State biologists working on less than four miles of beach on Green Island found 520 oily birds of 20 species, including four bald eagles. Dead birds were difficult to find in the rocks and grass, but when searchers made a thorough check of a 100 yard straight line, they counted the remains of 50, said Claudia Slater, who is coordinating the effort for Fish and Game.
As of Saturday evening, a bird rescue hospital in Valdez had received a total of 59 birds and 32 otters, one of which died on the washing table. The otters, which take five people two hours to wash and require extensive veterinary treatment, overwhelmed the hospital, and several were sent to the Lower 48 for weeks of rehabilitation.
Gov. Steve Cowper visited one of the beaches Saturday. He said oil there was two to three inches deep.
"There were a couple of dead birds we saw," he said. "It was a pretty discouraging sight."
Birds killed by oil often look smashed and desiccated and drip with gooey sludge that looks like mucous.
Lyman wants that image in people's living rooms. He took video tape on Green Island and copied it for the television networks.
"You've got to have the footage now, because people aren't going to believe it," he told department publications specialist Sheila Nickerson. "I think the spin is going to start reversing on this. I think reality is about to start hitting people up along the side the head. The giant amoeba has finally swallowed the world. The environmental disaster is here."
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Dan Timm on Friday afternoon reported a body count of "birds in the thousands, otters in the hundreds."
But Dave Kennedy, of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said the state may be trying to whipsaw the public impression back unrealistically in the opposite direction.
"What they have done is, they have taken Green Island, which is a dot in the Sound which has been very heavily hit, which was very biologically rich, and you can't extrapolate from that," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the reason why there were not more reports of dead animals before was not only because observers relied on viewing from aircraft, but also because it took large numbers of animals time to get in trouble.
"The last two days the animals have become so distressed that they're coming to the beaches. They hadn't done that before," he said.
An independently verifiable number of dead birds for the entire Sound does not exist, and never will. The spill is vast and, as animals die, they quickly sink or get eaten.
"It's like flying over a small state," Cowper said.
The observations of Valdez's army of scientists are being indexed by a pair of computer data bases. Later, academics will review the information and find out what it means.
Maybe then there will be a body count, Kennedy said. Up until now, there are only anecdotes by the carload.
Lyman said his pilot on one flight stepped on a dead otter thinking it was a stepping stone.
"I put my camera down yesterday on what I thought was a rock, and it was a bird," Lyman said. "It pulled its head out from under its wing and moved."
Fish and Game's Timm said he's worried things will get even worse.
A portion of the spill appears to be headed for Orca Inlet in the southeast corner of the Sound, Timm said. That area and the nearby Copper River Delta contain some of the most important fish and wildlife habitat in Alaska.
More than 10 million shorebirds will begin arriving on the Delta within a week. Timm said a call had gone out to Cordova fishermen to round up cable, cable clamps and chainsaws in hopes that oldfashioned manpower can be used to build a boom of felled trees to keep oil out of the inlet and away from sensitive wetlands behind it.
"Keeping that (oil) away from Orca Inlet and the Copper River Delta is a number one priority," Timm said.
Birds and otters have proven themselves highly vulnerable to the oil that has drifted around the Sound the past week.
"Everybody's quite positive it doesn't take much oil to kill a sea otter," said state fish and game biologist Karl Schneider.
Otters are the only marine mammal lacking a protective layer of blubber beneath their hide. They depend totally on their dense fur for warmth and floatation. When that fur gets dirty, the otter dies.
These animals are so sensitive to contamination that early efforts to transplant them from Alaska to other parts of the West Coast failed. The otters, their fur dirtied by handling, died in captivity. It wasn't until biologists developed ways to keep the animals clean that transplants became possible.
Given this problem, scientists see little hope of saving the otters. There are 4,000 to 6,000 of these animals in the Sound. No one knows how many will come in contact with the oil.
Sea birds aren't in much better shape than otters. Rescuers are having a difficult time getting to the birds to catch them on rocky beaches, and even when they capture one there is little to be done.
"In order to rehabilitate one bird successfully, you need 150 gallons of water at 104 degrees," said birdrescue specialist Lynne Frick of the Tri State Bird Rescue and Research Center in Wilmington, Del.
Cleaning each bird takes about an hour, she said. Frick and her coworkers, early in the Alaska disaster, worked up the logistics for a bird rehabilitation program. The hurdles standing in the way of the job were intimidating.
"It was just a monumental, almost impossible task," Frick said. She figured rescuers need at least 10 cleaning stations manned by three or four trained people, with about 1,500 gallons of hot water each hour at each station.
Working with two crews on nine hour shifts and going 18 hours a day, the stations could clean only 180 to 230 birds per day.
Oil mats the feathers of birds, and that leads to death in a number of ways. Matted underfeathers or down cease to insulate and birds die of hypothermia. Oil coated feathers make it impossible for the birds to fly to safe areas. Birds exhaust themselves trying to stay afloat after oil destroys the water repellency of their feathers.
Marine mammals are better off in some ways. Although biologists worry about the plight of the sea otters, they are optimistic that seals, sea lions and whales can avoid the oil.
"We don't know if it kills them or not," Timm said. "(Biologists) did see them (sea lions and seals) hauled out on rocks, and they could not see oil on their skins."
Whether the animals will be harmed by oil that gets in their eyes or that they swallow remains to be discovered. Timm said biologists plan to take tissue samples from any seals or sea lions they find dead in the Sound in hopes of learning more.
Schneider also worries about animals that live in the nearby forests and roam onto the tidelands in search of food. Mink, land otters and bears could be harmed.
Bears might prove particularly vulnerable. They are heavily dependent on intertidal greens and carrion when they emerge from their dens in the next few weeks or months.
There are similar fears for bald eagles, another scavenger. The eagles have already begun preying upon scoters and other seabirds killed or injured by oil.