Protecting Winter Wildlife from Oil Spills

By Lisa Matlock

Steller sea lions are just one species of many found in Prince William Sound during the winter. Photo by Dave Janka.

“What lives here in the winter?” This is a question anyone might ask when visiting Prince William Sound in the off-season. It is also a question recently asked by local organizations in order to better protect these rich waters and their wildlife occupants year-round from oil spills.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council worked with the Prince William Sound Science Center in 2016 to complete a biological resource inventory of winter species in the Sound. The goal of this project was to develop a detailed bibliography documenting the presence of all wildlife studied in the Sound during the winter since 1989. This project allows this information to be shared with anyone working or visiting the region.

The resulting paper also identifies gaps in knowledge regarding the Sound’s winter species to be filled by future researchers. It provides valuable, scientifically accurate information that can be used by the Council and others to identify sensitive biological resources which informs oil spill contingency plans and helps spill responders and spill drill participants better consider winter species when protecting sensitive areas from harm.

To see the list of winter species download the final report:

Winter Species in Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989-2016


Community Corner: Citizen scientists help the Council monitor our region

By Lisa Matlock, Outreach Coordinator

Lisa Matlock

One of the Council’s federal mandates involves environmental monitoring. With a small staff and vast geographic area, this monitoring takes many forms. Monitoring is often done by staff or contractors, but some monitoring takes place thanks to the Council’s volunteers and interns – all citizen scientists.

Since 2014, the Council has had high school interns in the community of Cordova who help monitor for aquatic invasive species. Three interns, Sarah Hoepfner, Cadi Moffitt, and currently Cori Pegau, have volunteered to hang sturdy plastic “settling plates” in the Cordova harbor each spring, to be picked up in the fall. The interns check the organisms that accumulate on the plate for critters such as invasive tunicates and bryozoans.

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Plan for applying dispersants to crude oil spills in Alaska waters updated

Stricter rules applicable in certain areas

This map from the ARRT (larger image at the link) shows the “preauthorized area” between 24 and 200 nautical miles from shore (within the green boundaries). Within the preauthorized areas, some “avoidance areas” have been reclassified (striped areas) and will require the case-by-case approval.

The Alaska Regional Response Team, or ARRT, recently updated a list of areas that would receive extra scrutiny before dispersants are applied to a crude oil spill. The update completes the planned changes to the Dispersant Use Plan for Alaska. The plan is a guide for spill responders, and it spells out how oil spill dispersants would be used during a crude oil spill. The previous dispersant use plan had not been updated since 1989.

The first changes went into effect in 2016. Two different processes for deciding whether to use dispersants, depending on the location of the spill, were developed at that time. The application of dispersants is now considered “preauthorized” except for “avoidance” areas. In an avoidance area, a decision to use dispersants must undergo more extensive scrutiny on a case-by-case basis.

By pre-authorizing use of dispersants in certain areas, the ARRT can speed up the decision-making time on whether or not to use dispersants. Consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Services is still required before dispersants would be used in a preauthorization area. For avoidance areas, additional consultation and a consensus between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Commerce, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is required prior to use.

There is a short window of time after a spill when dispersants should be applied. Dispersants work best on freshly spilled oil.

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Smithsonian partners with council to search for marine invasive species

Citizen scientists, the Prince William Sound College, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the council partner for invasive species event in Prince William Sound

Linda McCann
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

An opalescent nudibranch is a native species common in Prince William Sound. This one was found during the September bioblitz. Photo by Nelli Vanderburg.
An opalescent nudibranch is a native species common in Prince William Sound. This one was found during the September bioblitz.

A crew of marine biologists ventured to Prince William Sound this September for the third Smithsonian-led “bioblitz” in Alaska, this time in Valdez. During a bioblitz, volunteer citizen scientists team up with professional scientists to search for invasive marine invertebrates. This year, the Smithsonian partnered with the council and Prince William Sound College for a week of scientific sampling.

Three months before the bioblitz, council staff placed “settlement plates,” sheets of sanded PVC that the invertebrates attach to over time. During the bioblitz, volunteers and staff collected the plates, towed plankton nets, set crab traps, and went scuba diving, to look for various nonnative species.

The study helped establish critical baseline data for future research, invasive species management, and conservation initiatives. Fortunately, no new non-native species were found during the bioblitz or the scientific sampling.

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