Wed, March 26, 2014

Personal memories from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill: Rehabilitating sea otters

by Shana Loshbaugh

For me, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was about sea otters.

Like many Alaskans, I turned on the radio the morning of March 24, 1989, and spent the following hours and days riveted in dismay as the oil and news of it spread. Could I do anything about the ghastly situation unfolding in Prince William Sound? Yes. I volunteered to go to Valdez. On April 5, I reported for work at the Valdez Otter Rescue Center and shampooed my first sea otter. Little did I know that the project would dominate my life for more than a year.

Prior to that, my sea otters had been distant brown spots bobbing in the coastal waters. I knew a few things about them. Biologically, they were big, shellfish-eating sea weasels that lived in groups and were clever enough to use tools. Historically, they were – arguably – responsible for the existence of “Alaska” as a geo-political entity because their luxuriant fur inspired Russian traders to trek to the ends of the known world. Contact with humans always seemed to work out badly for sea otters. The fur trade drove them close to extinction. They had been collateral damage during nuclear bomb tests in the Aleutians. In 1989, they were in history’s crosshairs again, accidental victims of our society’s insatiable lust for fossil fuels.

Unidentified protesters in Homer expressed
their opinions of Exxon in 1989. Photo
by Doug Loshbaugh .

Working on the sea otter project was, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, the best of jobs and the worst of jobs. The positive aspects included the amazing sea otters themselves; the fat filthy lucre of oil-spill paychecks; the heady idealism, altruism, and hard work; and the wonderful, inspirational people I met. The negative aspects included being away from my family; the poisonous crude; the corrosive cynicism, corruption, and incompetence; and the horrible, disheartening people I also met. I outlined the checkered history of the sea otter project in a 2009 talk to the Alaska Historical Society annual meeting in Unalaska, and wrote it up for the proceedings of that conference.

The spill’s 25th anniversary is a time to reflect on that bizarre experience and its long-range consequences. Following are my personal impressions.
Alaskans have divergent views of the spill in general and the otter project in particular. The oil spill remains abstract to many who were too young or living elsewhere at the time. It never was very relevant to communities far from the site or those whose lives never touched the sea. Some who live on the coast consider sea otters marine varmints that overrun shellfish beds and compete with people for resources. But many Alaskans, particularly fishermen and subsistence users in the affected areas, consider the Exxon Valdez oil spill a festering environmental and socioeconomic wound, and they feel a kinship with the sea otters’ suffering.

A mother otter cuddling her pup in a holding pen
at Little Jakalof Bay near Homer. Photo by
Doug Loshbaugh.

These people also see the otter project as part of the larger spill-response effort and Exxon’s troubled legacy. Few who drew large paychecks from Exxon in 1989 respected or trusted the company. Feeding the alienation was a sense that Exxon thought money was more important to the region’s people than the damaged environment, resources, and the lifestyles they had supported; a sense that Exxon expected checks to satisfy Alaskans’ grievances. A related problem was the role of profiteers, exploiters, and outright criminals who flocked to the oil-spill scene to line their pockets and use more innocent or vulnerable colleagues. The otter center was the first place I ever encountered a professional con artist or “stress-induced psychosis.” Petty theft was rife, and factional disputes went all the way to the top. Co-workers made efforts to report crime and mismanagement, but, other than a case involving fraudulent boat contracts featured in the state news, those in charge seemed uninterested in punishing malfeasance. While some people in the USA claim that government is incompetent and private corporations better suited to manage our resources and economy, I cannot imagine anyone familiar with Exxon’s 1989 and subsequent performance in Alaska asserting that view.

Working on the spill was, I admit, a rare opportunity to hold a managerial post and network with professionals. Circumstances threw together diverse but passionate people for long and stressful hours that led to a rare sense of camaraderie. The sea-otter project led to at least four marriages and one divorce. Its excitement, motivation, and quirkiness made it thrilling if not fun.

Burt Wood, Leslie McBain, and two others
washing an otter in Valdez, April 1989.
Photo by Shana Loshbaugh.

But on another level, otter center work was traumatic. We witnessed beautiful animals dying in droves despite our toil. Afterwards, those memories reinforced my concerns about human-caused environmental damage. I became almost obsessed about “reduce, reuse, recycle.” One colleague talked about “post-otter stress syndrome,” and another told me how she pulled her car over to the side of the highway to weep during a radio story on the spill’s first anniversary. Scientists involved found their careers blighted by association with Exxon. Years after the ship hit Bligh Reef, I had a nightmare in which I heard the piercing scream of a distressed sea otter and frantically searched for the beast.

The unique chance to spend time with sea otters opened our eyes to what extraordinary creatures they are and gave us a glimpse of their lives in a complex society alien to our own. Just to touch their fabled fur was a delight. Their pups were the cutest creatures imaginable. But most amazing was their behavior. Alone, they languished; but when placed in groups they perked up and recovered. Again and again, caretakers witnessed otters interacting in affectionate and altruistic ways that implied intelligence, emotion, and empathy. When frightened, otters clutched each other; when content, they held hands (paws) with a friend. Pen mates carried food to a mother otter that would not leave her sleeping pup at feeding time. Most disturbing was an incident in which a healthy otter drowned after a veterinarian sedated it for a routine procedure. The other otters tried to save their friend, holding it up by the armpits on each side and trying to keep its face out of the water. With mixed feelings, we saw the otters grow tame and friendly. As young ones patted my leg, begging for food, my heart ached. On the one hand, I knew that such trust put them at high risk of being shot after release. On the other hand, their touch was a fantasy-come-true of gentle contact with wild creatures. Is it possible to describe such observations without anthropomorphizing?

Liz Simonis and Kathy Hill, workers at the Little Jakalof sea otter
facility, snapped photos during the release at McCarty Fjord in
Kenai Fjords N.P. in August 1989. Exxon arranged to fly otters
and their caretakers via helicopter to release sites. Photo
by Shana Loshbaugh.

Did the sea otter rescue effort help the wildlife at all? The answer is complex. For the population, in the short run: no. Recovering since the 1911 international fur seal treaty, the species is no longer endangered. Damage assessment studies estimated that the oil directly killed about 3,000 otters, mostly in Prince William Sound. That contrasted with 436 animals captured for “rescue” of which 187 were released to the wild eventually. Despite people’s helpful intent, additional animals may have died due to the stress of capture, transport, and life in captivity. For individual animals, there is no question that the intervention saved lives, especially for the 36 juvenile and handicapped otters that spent the rest of their lives in captivity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only declared the sound’s sea otter populations recovered in February 2014. For the long run, I believe the project did help the wildlife, at least in the hypothetical case of any future oil spills or other events prompting people to put otters into “protective custody.” Fears that the stint of captivity would transfer lethal diseases from domestic animals to wild otters did not materialize. One good side effect of the bad situation was the unprecedented leap in expertise regarding sea-otter capture, medicine, and husbandry. This already has been applied in places such as the Alaska SeaLife Center.

What people learned, on a larger scale, led to revamped spill-response plans that include more sophisticated wildlife response. Alyeska and other entities have pre-fab, modular otter centers in storage. They contract with companies to provide trained responders in the event of future spills. There’s even a book on how to rehabilitate sea otters, written by veterans of the 1989 project.

This year, as people reflect on this anniversary of the oil spill, we do so with knowledge of newer fiascos such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and of looming threats such as ocean acidification and climate change. Sea otters remain symbols of wild Alaska and its vulnerability to human error and hubris.