When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the waters off Alaska, the event triggered a wave of ecological devastation that continues to this day. This week, says the Associated Press, one of the last two surviving otters rescued from the oil had to be euthanised.
Kenai was found as a pup, weighing less than 10 pounds (4 1/2 kilograms), along with her oil-coated mother after the disaster. Her mother died, but a sea otter biologist was able to care for Kenai in a hotel bathtub.
… Kenai was one of about two dozen sea otter pups orphaned after the spill, which dumped 11 million gallons (41.64 million litres) of oil into Prince William Sound along Alaska’s southern coast. The pups were given to U.S. aquariums and zoos because they wouldn’t have the skills to survive in the wild.
Having already vastly outlived the life expectancy for sea otters, a rapid decline in health forced Kenai’s caretakers at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to make the difficult decision.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Exxon Valdez spill put in danger “ten million migratory shore birds and waterfowl, hundreds of sea otters, dozens of other species, such as harbor porpoises and sea lions, and several varieties of whales.”
More than a thousand otters became coated with oil in the days following the spill, and 871 carcasses were collected throughout the spill area. Estimates of the total number of sea otters lost to acute mortality vary, but range as high as 40 percent (2,650) of the approximately 6,500 sea otters inhabiting the western areas of the Sound. In 1990 and 1991, higher than expected proportions of prime-age adult sea otters were found dead in western Prince William Sound. Higher mortality of recently weaned juveniles in oiled areas was documented through 1993. Continuing studies of mortality rates, based largely on sea otter carcass recoveries, suggest that relatively poor survival of otters in the oiled area persisted for well over a decade.
Even after 20 years, oil still litters the region. According to New Scientist, substantial quantities of oil remain buried beneath the beaches.