MEPS 241:255-270 (2002)  -  doi:10.3354/meps241255

Food limitation and the recovery of sea otters following the 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill

Thomas A. Dean1,*, James L. Bodkin2, Allan K. Fukuyama3, Stephen C. Jewett4, Daniel H. Monson2, Charles E. O¹Clair5, Glenn R. VanBlaricom3

1Coastal Resources Associates, 5674 El Camino Real, Suite M, Carlsbad, California 92008, USA
2Biological Resources Division, US Geological Survey, Alaska Biological Science Center, 1011 East Tudor Road, Anchorage, Alaska 99503, USA
3Washington Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Biological Resources Division, US Geological Survey, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, PO Box 355020, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-5020, USA
4Institute of Marine Science, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7220, USA
5National Marine Fisheries Service, Auke Bay Laboratory, 11305 Glacier Highway, Juneau, Alaska 99801, USA

ABSTRACT: We examined the potential role of food limitation in constraining the recovery of sea otters Enhydra lutris in Prince William Sound, Alaska, following the 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill. The spill resulted in the removal of a large number of sea otters in 1989, and as of 1998, the portion of the population in the heavily oiled northern Knight Island region had not fully recovered. Between 1996 and 1998, prey consumption rate was higher and the condition of sea otters was better at northern Knight Island than in an unoiled area of the sound (Montague Island). Estimates of prey energy available per unit mass of sea otter were about 4 times higher at Knight than Montague Island, albeit not significantly different between the 2 areas. Over this same period, the number of sea otters remained constant at northern Knight Island but increased at Montague Island. These data suggest that food was at least as abundant at Knight than at Montague Island, and that recovery of sea otters via intrinsic population growth was limited by factors other than food. However, the availability of food, the prey consumption rate, and the condition of sea otters were all much lower at both Knight and Montague Islands than in areas newly occupied by sea otters where the population growth rate was near the theoretical maximum. It is possible that the relatively short supply of food (compared to areas where sea otter population growth rate was high) may have inhibited immigration or interacted with other factors (e.g. oil-induced mortality or predation) to restrict sea otter population growth. Nonetheless, these data suggest that impacts of anthropogenic disturbances on large, often food-limited vertebrate predators can persist in spite of the availability of food resources that are sufficient for intrinsic population growth.

KEY WORDS: Prince William Sound · Alaska · Predator-prey interaction · Prey availability · Prey consumption rate · Condition indices

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