Harlequin Duck population injury and recovery dynamics following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill

Samuel A Iverson, Daniel Esler
Ecological Applications 2010, 20 (7): 1993-2006
The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill caused significant injury to wildlife populations in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA. Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) were particularly vulnerable to the spill and have been studied extensively since, leading to one of the most thorough considerations of the consequences of a major oil spill ever undertaken. We compiled demographic and survey data collected since the spill to evaluate the timing and extent of mortality using a population model. During the immediate aftermath of the spill, we estimated a 25% decrease in Harlequin Duck numbers in oiled areas. Survival rates remained depressed in oiled areas 6-9 years after the spill and did not equal those from unoiled areas until at least 11-14 years later. Despite a high degree of site fidelity to wintering sites, immigration was important for recovery dynamics, as the relatively large number of birds from habitats outside the spill zone provided a pool of individuals to facilitate numerical increases. On the basis of these model inputs and assumptions about fecundity rates for the species, we projected a timeline to recovery of 24 years under the most-likely combination of variables, with a range of 16 to 32 years for the best-case and worst-case scenarios, respectively. Our results corroborate assertions from other studies that the effects of spilled oil on wildlife can be expressed over much longer time frames than previously assumed and that the cumulative mortality associated with chronic exposure to residual oil may actually exceed acute mortality, which has been the primary concern following most oil spills.

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