Prince William Sound sea otters have herpes. Nobody knew that until biologists began trying to rehabilitate sea otters oiled by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. That's when they found open lesions in their mouths and on their genitals.
The discovery raised a host of questions and fueled a huge debate in 1989. That debate raged on at the four-day Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Symposium, which ended Friday and drew nearly 500 biologists, lawyers and environmentalists.
Rehabilitating sea otters made people feel good, Kathy Frost of the state Department of Fish and Game said.
But Exxon has said it cost about $90,000 per otter to do so.
"People need to think through if they want to do it again or should public policy change," Frost said.
Keith Harris, a biologist with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, said scientists quickly discovered the virus existed in other sea otters from Sitka to the Aleutians.
But they still don't know if the infection contributed to the high number of rehabilitated otters that died after being released, or to the high death rate among sea otters already living in the area where the rehabilitated otters were released.
Those kinds of unanswered questions have scientists longing for more money for more studies.
Exxon officials attended the conference but refused to participate or comment all week long. Just as the conference was ending, however, they issued a written statement saying Exxon "strongly disagrees" with how the current state of the sound was presented.
"In many cases, there are significant differences between Exxon's scientists' findings and those reported," according to the statement. When asked specifically about those findings, the officials would not comment. Exxon plans to unveil its findings at a symposium in April in Atlanta, spokesman Dennis Stanczuk said.
Throughout the week, biologists apologized for their lack of conclusions, saying so few studies had been done before the spill that they had little baseline data.
They said much of their work was driven by what lawyers wanted as evidence in court, not what they would have chosen as a good path for scientific inquiry. And they stressed it would be cheaper to prevent spills rather than paying for studies and restoration.
Ray Highsmith, a University of Alaska Fairbanks biologist, said that when the trans-Alaska pipeline was being built, biologists at UAF advocated conducting inventories of the sound's resources. Nobody wanted to pay for it, he said.
"It's hard to make a legal case if you don't have the data up front," said Fred Felleman, a biologist with the American Oceans Campaign in Seattle.
After watching the state of Alaska struggle with this, he said, the state of Washington has begun that work within its own waters.
Highsmith said that not only did the state lack the data scientists needed to work with, history risks repeating itself. After spending two years studying intertidal areas in the sound, Highsmith lost his funding.
"We still don't know what normal winter kill is in the intertidal zone," he said. "We can't separate winter kill from spill kill in the intertidal zone. That would have been a big hole for Exxon to shoot through" in the courtroom.
Highsmith wants to see part of the $900 million Exxon settlement fund set aside as an endowment to fund research at the rate of about $3 million to $4 million a year.
Another debate centered on using blasts of high-pressure hot water to clean oiled beaches.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist Alan Mearns is skeptical of the hot-water treatment. He said there is still much not known about its effects, such as did it push the oil farther into the sediment and was 70-degree temperature water as deadly to living organisms as the 140- degree spray.
Ernie Piper, who was the state's oil-spill coordinator during the cleanup, acknowledged the treatment had serious side effects, but said it doesn't mean it should not be used. Piper advocated limited use of the hot-water treatment.
Michael Fry, a bird specialist from the University of California Davis, said policymakers and biologists should be creative when looking at the studies. One idea would be to look at ways to move birds out of the way of approaching oil, he said.
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