Spill Readiness in Alaska

Sorry to be later than normal getting this blog entry out, but it has been a challenge getting my photos off my new camera to include on this entry without the cable that came with it (ah, technology!). And, yes, I am IT support for the OWCN…

Back in December, Tim Lebling, Alaska Sea Life Center’s (ASLC) Stranding Coordinator, invited me up to attend the AK Marine Mammal Stranding Network’s annual meeting. He asked if I could share my experiences with Deepwater Horizon (him being one of the three folks reading my blogs during the event – and yes I know there were more than three but it makes me feel less under the spotlight saying so) as well as info on how the OWCN operates response here in California. I had to hold off saying yes at first, as some DWH after-action meetings were tentatively scheduled around that time, but luckily those became de-scheduled and I was able to head up to Seward.

Alaska Sea Life Center

While normally I wouldn’t be ecstatic in heading northward in February (I thought I left all that behind by leaving Chicago), I had long wanted to visit the Center, as: 1) it was borne out of the Exxon Valdez disaster; 2) I had heard wonderful things from Shawn Johnson about it (as he worked there several years ago); 3) the OWCN has funded several research projects there through the veterinarians Pam Tuomi and Carrie Goertz; 4) the Marine Mammal Network has undergone a huge increase in activities over the past several years; and 5) spill response planning in that region (largely through ASLC and IBRRC) has begun to pick up again. Additionally, Sarah Wilkin of NOAA (my co-conspirator/OMTU Leader during Deepwater Horizon) was going to be able to attend, so together we could see how AK was moving their Network forward and possibly apply some of these activities to CA (that and she could give one of the talks I was slated to give!). So I packed my warm clothes and headed up.

The trip was beautiful – landing in Anchorage with absolutely clear skies, driving from ANC to Seward along the inlet as the sun set, and being a balmy 30 degrees! The next day, the meeting started, with over 50 folks in attendance. Many, many interesting reports and presentations were done from all regions in the state – Kodiak/Aleutians, Bearing Strait, Arctic/Barrow, Southeast, South Central and Yakutat. Additionally, presentations from USFWS on sea otter and walrus (and, no, not the Gulf walrus…) issues, the US Coast Guard on regional capabilities, the AK Health Department on marine mammal zoonotic agents (and referencing one of my grad student’s papers fairly extensively on it) , and an update of algal biotoxin testing helped round out the first 1 1/2 days of the meeting.

Brett Long and Woody, ASLC's captive Steller Sea Lion

Interestingly enough, USFWS also reported on ongoing oil spill preparedness issues – issues related to polar bears. Ahh – nothing like discussing a species that looks at you more like a chocolate pudding cup than a predator. On a serious note, it was heartening to see the issue revisited, as previously it was assumed that bears would not be cared for due to human safety issues. However, females and cubs are now being considered for possible oil spill rehabilitation should space and resources be available. Dr. Pam Yochem (of Hubbs Sea World Research Institute in San Diego) has been involved with this effort, and hopefully I will be able to assist as well if (and when) this effort continues to move forward.

The last half of the second day was the Mike-Sara Show, where I gave an overview of the Marine Mammal National Standards and Oil Spill 101, and Sarah gave an excellent synopsis of the DWH spill as it related to marine mammals and sea turtles (this was in addition to my being asked to “just tell stories” at the previous night’s banquet, but that is another story…). We then had an excellent open discussion on AK readiness for spill response, and how the regional and species differences would impact oiled wildlife efforts. In 2005, when Shawn J. and I had gone through the US providing trainings to each of the Stranding Networks on oil spill response, I unfortunately was not able to attend the AK Regional training, so the discussion was extremely informative to me.

I was heartened to hear that there was great enthusiasm about assisting during oil spills, but the fact that the ASLC is the only permanent rehabilitation facility for mammals in AK, coupled with challenges due to the rugged environment and issues related to substinence hunting of wildlife, make the enacting of oiled wildlife recovery very complex. However, it is clear that the wildlife professionals to our north are very interested in increasing their capabilities and capacity if (and when) an oil spill might come through, and I hope the OWCN can be an active participant in helping them work through these thorny issues.

Lastly, I want to thank Tim and the ASLC staff (particularly Brett Long, previously of UCSC’s Long Marine Lab, and Carrie Goertz) for the invitation and wonderful hospitality. Hopefully it won’t be the last time I will be able to visit, but I would prefer to come up again for ongoing plnning versus response!

– Mike

P.S. – Was also able to drop in on the Warnock clan while waiting for my 1:30 am flight out of ANC. Everyone is doing great and Nils gives all OWCN folks a hello!

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