In the event of a large oil spill in Alaska's Arctic, officials say they would have limited ability to clean oiled marine mammals, and in some cases might not be able to clean them at all.
Assuming rescuers could reach them, polar bears would have to be cleaned just a few at a time. And the prospects for walruses are even grimmer.
With increased ship traffic and oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic waters, federal agencies are reassessing their guidelines for responders to assure as many animals as possible survive a spill. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just spent about two years updating a plan for polar bears, and in May finalized the first revision since 1999. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, is currently working on a new spill response plan of its own.
The new Fish and Wildlife Service plan is nearly twice as long as the one it replaces.
It includes more detailed information on questions such as how many responders are necessary and at what stages, and it includes a more comprehensive list of resources for spill responders. It also notes that if it became necessary to clean oiled bears, those responders would have to rely on a single holding facility in the Arctic region. That facility, which accommodates about three of the endangered bears at a time, is stored in Deadhorse but can be transported elsewhere.
"If we don't have any major spills, that would be a great help," said Lori Verbrugge, the oil response coordinator for the Alaska region of Fish and Wildlife.
A sizable offshore spill has never occurred in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas, so the plan used a model that simulated hypothetical situations in 2006. It calculated oil trajectories after a spill using wind and current data, and combined it with radio transmissions from collared bears to identify where and when they are most vulnerable.
In the most traumatic case, the plan said a spill in October, when a combination of ice and open water prevails, could oil anywhere between zero and 74 polar bears. It also cites a more recent model from World Wildlife Fund Canada showing that spills in Canadian waters could drift with sea ice and reach Alaska's shore.
If a spill did happen in the Arctic, it could take several days for a U.S. Coast Guard ship to respond, depending on weather and sea ice, because of the region's size.
If Fish and Wildlife officials were able to reach vulnerable animals, they'd first try to keep oil away from them by containing it or burning it.
If that didn't work, they'd attempt to keep animals away from the oil by scaring or herding them away. If those steps didn't prevent animals from becoming oiled, the plan calls for responders to use a triage-type system -- considering factors including which are easiest to move, which are most likely to survive and where they can be treated and released. In the polar bear plan, families and single adult females with the highest likelihood of survival have priority.
"That's one thing about capturing animals -- you have to have the whole plan," Verbrugge said. "We also have to have flexibility, depending on where it is and how big it is … things can change."
Bears will probably have to be sedated with a dart since they are dangerous, and responders will have to move them with an aircraft or a forklift to wherever they will be treated.
At least six people are required to clean an oiled polar bear -- two to monitor and four to wash -- to minimize the amount of time it's knocked out. For a cleaning solution, the Fish and Wildlife plan prescribes Dawn soap and water, which has been tested on polar bear fur and is commonly used on birds because it cuts grease and doesn't appear to hurt skin.
The cleaning would happen inside the holding facility; a custom-made, 144-square-foot collapsible module stored at the nonprofit spill response cooperative Alaska Clean Seas in Deadhorse. If a stable staging area is available, the module can be airlifted to the site of the spill, preventing responders from having to move bears away from their habitat. The facility is new, and Fish and Wildlife officials called its acquisition last year a milestone because without it, they would have to take the bears out of the Arctic and into Anchorage, further decreasing the likelihood they could eventually be released back into the wild.
"It's better to leave the polar bear in the environment rather than bring them off the Slope. The closer you can keep the animal to its natural environment … the better off you are," said Barkley Lloyd, president of Alaska Clean Seas.
If federal officials are able to maneuver the daunting task of capturing an oiled bear in the treacherous Arctic, they have to rely on this single holding module within the region. And since Fish and Wildlife has never had to clean an oiled polar bear, it does not know how much time the animals might need inside it to recover, limiting the ability to move on to the next.
"Although we've made some strides in our ability to treat bears that may potentially be oiled, our holding capacity is limited," said Susanne Miller, a wildlife biologist for Fish and Wildlife who edited the polar bear plan.
Fish and Wildlife is also refreshing its guidelines for walruses, which can be as heavy as polar bears and even harder to catch. Walruses are belligerent animals that hang out in packs. They can stampede and hurt one another if they feel threatened, causing rescue efforts to backfire, said James MacCracken, a supervisory wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife. They are also much more likely to die from sedation.
"The probability of a big oil spill is fairly low, but if one does happen at the wrong time of year and the wrong place it can be pretty catastrophic," said MacCracken, who specializes in walruses.
"We probably wouldn't try to make much of an attempt to capture and do anything with" a walrus, he said, unless it's a calf. (And then only if the calf didn't need to be separated from its mother, which would diminish the likelihood it could readapt in the wild.)
The upside for walruses is that their blubber might make them more resilient to oil than polar bears.
The bears rely on specialized hair to keep warm but walruses don't, so oiled walruses might not be at risk of death from hypothermia. (They can, however, ingest oil just as easily as other marine mammals.)
While Fish and Wildlife responds to polar bears and walruses, and sea otters, which aren't in the Arctic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration protects other marine mammals in the region, including seals and whales.
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is working on an Arctic Marine Mammal Disaster Response Plan that is all-encompassing instead of focusing on specific animals. A draft may be available for public comment by the end of the year.
The agency's current spill response guidelines say the prospect of capture and release of an oiled orca whale is "improbable."
A NOAA spokeswoman said their primary focus is keeping whales away from oil and there aren't any plans in place for capturing and de-oiling them in the Arctic.