This paper was written as part of the 2011 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.
Management of Marine Resources After An Exxon Valdez-Type Oil Spill Near Kaktovik, Alaska
The village of Kaktovik, Alaska is in the North Slope Borough on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. Animals are relied upon for the subsistence of villagers, the Kaktovikmiut. The problem the team presented is an Exxon Valdez-sized crude oil spill the vicinity of Kaktovik. The management plan developed concerns three animals that live in the area: the bowhead whale, the walrus and the polar bear. The protection already in place by federal and state agencies will adequately protect these animals under normal circumstances. But, to protect the three types from a crude oil spill, two creative solutions are proposed. A "Cheeseburger Approach" uses a large barge to collect crude oil. The barge contains oil-eating microbes. The culture converts the crude oil into a usable animal or human food product that is locally consumed by the villagers or dogs. The other management approach is an "Alps Approach" where a mostly natural fiber fabric cover is placed over critical habitat. The covering prevents crude oil exposure and helps in clean up of the contaminant. Then pieces of the fabric heavily coated with crude oil can be cut and used to heat homes in the area. Less heavily coated sheets could be cleaned and reused for habitat protection. The worst situation would be management of an oil spill during winter severe cold, heavy snow, or strong winds. Any of these likely would prevent or delay oil removal activities.
Description of Kaktovik, Alaska
Within the North Slope Borough is the small town of Kaktovik, Alaska. It is positioned at 70.131 degrees north latitude and 143.623 degrees west longitude. Located on the shores of the Beaufort Sea, Kaktovik is home to many types of sea wildlife, among other animals. Animals that rely on the Beaufort Sea for subsistenance include: beluga whales, bowhead whales, porcupine caribou, musk ox, walrus, puffins, arctic fox, fur seals, and even polar bears. Many Kaktovikmiut (as the people who live in Kaktovik call themselves) depend upon these animals for survival, like people of the area have for generations. Though depending on them, the people of Kaktovik do not take more animals than what they need to survive and almost no part of the animal is wasted. To set themselves aside from the people who hunt for sport, they use the word harvesting, rather than hunting the animals.
Description of Exxon Valdez-Type Oil Spill as the Agent of Change
March 24 of 1989, the vessel Exxon Valdez, crashed on a reef, and spilled 11 million gallons of Alaska crude oil into Prince William Sound. The response to the oil clean up, was about 11,000 people, 1,400 boats and 85 aircraft. The first cleanup of the shoreline started in April 1989 continuing to September 1989. The cleanup effort took place the summers of 1990 and 1991. Thousands of workers were needed to help clean up the shoreline that was heavily oiled. There were dead and dying wildlife on the beaches and in the water. In the following months the oil spill traveled a wide distance in Prince William Sound and beyond.
This oil spill happens to be the biggest cleanup ever. After the oil had spilt a few days, on March 26 a storm came into Prince William Sound. It weathered most of the oil which had caused the oil to change in to mousse and tar balls. The storm distributed the oil over more of an area and the oil had moved 90 miles by the 30th of March. The economic impact from the Exxon Valdez was from loss of sport fishing and tourism. It cost millions of dollars. There is still oil that remains and still cause problems for the wildlife (http://www.eoearth.org/article/Exxon_Valdez_oil_spill?topic=58075).
Selected Local Marine Resources Ecosystem
A bowhead whale, a right whale relative, is named for the arched head thought to resemble the bow of an archer. They live at the southern part of the arctic ice edges. During summer, the bowhead whales move into opening ice leads. The whales are an important subsistence item for native arctic hunters. The muscle, blubber and some visceral organs are high energy foods. The baleen that filters feed from sea water is used to make useful and decorative items as well as baskets (American Cetacean Society, 2010).
The bowhead whale is a year-round visitor to the village of Kaktovik. They may grow to be 50 feet long and weigh 60 tons. The whales feed on krill and benthic crustaceans. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s to early 1900s for their oil and baleen. Currently they are considered an endangered species and are protected. It is the state marine mammal of Alaska. World wide there are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 bowhead whales and the population is increasing. The number of whales that migrate through Kaktovik in the fall are around 8,000. This population is known as the North Pacific Bowheads (http://www.acsonline.org/factpack/bowhead.htm).
The migration of the bowhead whale follows southward to the Bering Sea in winter, northeast to the Beaufort Sea, and northwest to the Chukchi Sea. On the bowhead whale migration they will bring their calves along to the feeding grounds where they stock up on food for the next mating season. They go back to the mating grounds to give birth to the next generation. The migration continues through September and into October.
Male and female walruses separate into different herds during migration. The male walrus's migration pattern is seasonal from their southern range in the Bering Sea where they are found on the pack ice in the winter, to the Chukchi Sea. Female walrus's migration pattern is in the summer when the ice melts and recedes, then head north to Chukchi Sea. Once both male and female reach the mating grounds, they will mate so they can give birth to their calves. As soon as the mating is done the male will separate to their herds to migrate back to their feeding grounds are. The females will stay behind to give birth and to raise their young until they are old enough. Once they are old enough the males and females will separate to other herds where the will feed until its time to mate again.
During the winter the Pacific walrus occupies pack ice. In April when the ice starts to loosen up they head northward and their distribution becomes less clumped. In late April the distribution extends from Bristol Bay northward to the Bering Sea. During the summer months when the ice continues northward, the walruses migrate to the Chukchi Sea. The males are mainly found at the Bering Strait and Wrangel Island.
Polar bear migration is a journey between the North Pole and northern Alaska. They have two migration seasons which are summer and winter. The polar bear mating season is in midsummer. During this time the male and the female polar bears stay apart until it is time to mate. When they are in their feeding grounds they are in the North Pole hunting for seal. Once the female polar bear has her cubs she will care for and raise them for some time. The males will feed until it is time to mate again. Sometimes during the female polar bear's summer migration her cubs will drown from extreme weather conditions of the sea. During winter when the sea is mostly ice the polar bear will move south to hunt for seal. As the ice beings to melt they move northward.
Ecosystem-Based Management Approach with Definite Goals
Even though there are no records of bowhead whales and oil spills, a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez could have the potential to greatly devastate the whale population by affecting their food source, krill. To keep the bowhead whale population from decreasing, the krill poulation needs to be healthy. The way to keep the population healthy is to make sure there is plenty of phytoplankton. Hydrocarbons would have to be converted in order to provide nutrients for the phytoplankton. This would provide a large healthy population to sustain the krill which would give the bowhead whales a stable food source large enough to support them. It is essential for them to have enough food so that they can have enough energy for the migration south to their breeding grounds.
Subsistence hunters are only permited to hunt the whales. Because of this the population is on the rise. This rule would remain the same even if a large oil spill were to occur. If the bowhead whales were to go extinct it would impact the native people of Kaktovik since subsistence hunting of bowhead whales has been a tradition for thousands of years. Also when they die they are a huge meal for polar bears and other animals that happen to stumble on them.
The walrus is an important part of the diet and lifestyle to the Native and Russian cultures of Kaktovik. They are a big part in their subsistence way of life. Walrus belong to the family Odobenidae which contains one species and two subspecies, the Atlantic and Pacific walruses. The Pacific walrus are found only in the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea. During the winter months the salrus spend time on the pack ice on the Bering Sea. During summer months, they are in the northern areas following the ice as it receedes. Walrus mainly eat bivalved molluscs but they also eat flatworms and crabs. On rare occasions they have been known to hunt and eat seals. The number of these sightings is increasing (http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/walrus/nhistory.htm).
Walrus rest and give birth on the ice. They mainly stick to first year ice forms since they have holes that they can use to breath from. An oil spill on the ice would affect the newborn walrus because they could be born with birth defects. The walrus is already a protected species. It is illegal to hunt and kill one except for subsistence hunters. The Congressional Walrus Act of 1941 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 prohibited killing and/or disturbing the marine mammals in U.S. waters. Also prohibited is importing marine mammal parts or their bodies. However if an oil spill the size of the Exxon Valdez were to happen their would be no hunting of the walrus as it is now and subsistence hunting would be regulated allowing a certain quota of walrus to be brought in each year. Shrinking sea ice is a huge factor in the decline of walrus populations. Many say it is due to global warming.
A way of keeping the ice from completely going away would be by placing a type of white durable sheet across the ice. This experiment has been tested on glaciers in the Alps. The material used was a wool, hemp and plastic combination (http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/alps-meltdown/). This would reflect the suns rays and would keep the reduction of sea ice to a minimum. If an oil spill were to occur and spill on the ice the fabric could be removed, cleaned, and reused. This would prevent many animals from harm and since the walrus gives birth on the sea ice the baby would be protected from being exposed to the oil (http://www.helium.com/items/1893035-what-is-being-done-to-help-the-walrus-from-becoming-extinct).
The polar bear is at the top of the food chain in the arctic ecosystem of Kaktovik and is the largest land predator. They mainly hunt ringed seals. Cubs stay with their mothers two and a half years. As adults they never have to drink water since they recieve it from the animals they consume. Since seals are their main food source they heavily depend upon them. A large oil spill would hurt the seal population which in return would hurt the polar bears. Without a stable food source not only would have the risk of starvation but the risk of dehydration as well (http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/polar-bears/bear-essentials-polar-style/polar-bear-basics).
Recently the Obama administration set up 187,000 square miles of land aside as a polar bear habitat. There is about 13,000 miles of coastline. This will greatly restrict drilling for gas and oil. This protected area is on the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where Kaktovik is located. In other words the polar bear population of Kaktovik will be a protected population. This would prevent oil spills from happening on land in the area. Tom Strickland the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks at the Interior Department said that this plan should help the polar bear stave off extinction even though the great threat of sea ice melting (Anchorage Daily News November 25, 2010).
Another, Anchorage Daily News story, discussed the drastic effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill had on animal populations. The story reported that 28 of 37 sea otters had died after they had been transported to aquariums or zoos. They had initially survived the oil spill but died within 10 years (http://www.adn.com/evos/stories/T99032750.html).
Sea otters, on average, live 15 to 20 years. The organs that showed damage consistently were the lung and the liver. Captive sea otters produced pups born/dead at a rate of 50%. Also, of 45 surviving, tagged sea otters, one-third were still alive, one-third were known dead and one-third were missing. Although sea otters are not a species found in the Kaktovik area, we think the health effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill may be like what might happen with walruses.
Phone Interview with Matthew Rexford, Kaktovik City Hall employee
11/29/10 by William Middleton
Question 1: How far do you usually have to go to see bowhead whales?
Answer: During the fall you have to go out about 20 miles but sometimes they're seen closer.
Question 2: When do you see walrus?
Answer: Walruses are rarely seen around.
Question 3: When can polar bears be seen near or around the village?
Answer: In the fall they come on to the island and they sometimes enter the village. We have a polar bear patrol set up in the village.
Question 4: How often do large ships pass by the village?
Answer: We have a few pass by in sight every now and then otherwise their a little farther out.
From the interview, we know that polar bears are around the village enough so that a patrol was set up, that large ships occasionally go by the village now and that they rarely see walruses. Also, bowhead whales are within 20 miles of the shore there. It is unknown if villagers eat polar bears. Walruses are relatively unavailable (figure 9). The bowhead whale as the main food source that could be impacted by an oil spill (figure 3).
Our team has two solutions to minimize the impactof a potential Exxon Valdez-sized oil spill in the vicinity of Kaktovik. One we call the "cheeseburger approach" where oil-eating microbes break down the oil and make an edible end product. The other is a natural fiber covering over critical habitat to minimize coating of organisms, aid in the oil's clean up and create a by product that can be used as fuel in the village if heavily coated and cleaned for reuse to cover critical habitat if not heavily soiled. This approach we call the "Alps approach".
The first method is to convert spilled oil into a useful product by collecting the oil in a barge and using the barge as a growth chamber for microorganisms that are known to metabolize oil. Here, we would manufacture a large barge and tow it in through the ocean to spots of major oil affected areas. The barge bow would be lowered down a few meters, where it could take just the top layer of ocean with the oil, since the oil rises to the top and makes a slick layer that is above the ocean water. Then the oil and ocean water would be filtered on the barge and then siphoned onto the tanker ships to be further settled. After the oil settles, oil-eating micro-organisms will start to eat away at the oil, to attempt at making it safe for the ocean life, and not poisoning them. Since oil is toxic to the billionth particle, it would be needed to be filtered down and ate down by the organisms for a certain amount of time determined over time to make it safe for the ocean life (Walters, 2010). The mass of microorganisms cells produced from consuming the oil could be made into a non-toxic animal or human food-like cheeseburgers or "crude burgers".
A solution for the oil spill would be to manufacture a large barge towed in through the ocean in spots of major oil affected areas. The barge would be lowered down a few meters, where it could take just the top layer of ocean with the oil, since the oil rises to the top and makes a slick layer that is above the ocean water. Then the oil and ocean water would be filtered on the barge and then siphoned onto the tanker ships to be further settled. After the oil settles, oil-eating micro-organisms will start to eat away at the oil, to attempt at making it safe for the ocean life, and not poisoning them.
A second innovative solution follows. Shrinking sea ice is a huge factor in the decline of walrus populations. Many say it is due to global warming. A way of keeping the ice from completely going away would be by placing a type of white durable sheet across the ice. This experiment has been tested on glaciers in the Alps. The material used was a wool, hemp, plastic combination (http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/alps-meltdown/). This would reflect the suns rays and would keep the reduction of sea ice to a minimum. If an oil spill were to occur and spill on the ice the fabric could be removed, cleaned, and reused. This would prevent many animals from harm and since the walrus gives birth on the sea ice the baby would be protected from being exposed to the oil (http://www.helium.com/items/1893035-what-is-being-done-to-help-the-walrus-from-becoming-extinct?page) (figure 1).
How Management Plan Will Deal with Unanticipated Changes
Unanticipated changes affecting a management plan to maintain marine animal health in the event of an Exxon Valdez-type oil spill would include extraordinary storms. Oil spill clean up operations would be seriously acted upon by the resulting storm waves, wind, and precipitation. Oil skimming is limited by maximum wave height. Oil clean up would likely be stopped under storm conditions. Severe cold or almost any snow at all would also limit clean up activities.
Prioritized Research Needed for Successful Management
We don't know the migration pattern of bowhead whales. Neither do we know the gestation period for a cow. Also the future traffic through the area is unknown as the sea ice goes away. It is unknown about where and when the walruses migrate. Less is known of the walrus than the bowhead whale. It's unknown how polar bears will react when the ice goes away. Also it's unknown how they'll be have with people. Unknown to us is how a large oil spill will affect both polar bears and bowhead whales.
Physical and Biological Indicators Used to Adapt Management Plan to Anticipated Changes
Anticipated changes for the Exxon Valdez oil spill near Kaktovik scenario would be a change of season. Regardless of all else, seasons change predictably. If an oil spill were to happen in a summer time, the clean up may be less difficult and the immediate impact may be also be lighter. But, a winter spill anywhere in the arctic is something that responsible people and agencies should try to avoid at all costs. The physical effectiveness of a management plan to prevent and clean up a major spill would be the absence of oil contaminating local beaches, ice packs, or marine animals. The best biological indicators of spill prevention.
Local and Global Perspective of Topic
An Exxon Valdez-sized oil spill near Kaktovik certainly threatens the subsistence way of life in the area and could also impact the Canadian cultures adjacent to the Alaska village. The reduction of seasonal sea ice pack in the north likely will provide increased sea-born shipping opportunities. Increased sea traffic is expected to also heighten the likelihood of an oil spill of significant proportions in northern coasts of Alaska and the Canadian arctic. The impact could be anticipated to have local, regional, and global impacts. Global warming further complicates the subsistence life style as a depleting sea ice pack drives bowhead whales off shore, further from the village of Kaktovik (http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/walrus/wmain.htm).
Ecosystem Variables Used to Monitor Ecosystem Health
The long term effect on the shore would be caused for many years, no development or growth from the creatures living there. The small organisms even if they don't seem important they too can get effected. Small organisms use the shore line mainly for their home. It would impact the population of those creatures. The creatures that live in the ocean can also be effected greatly. Whales can be effected because of the food chain they eat smaller animals and we get them. And if the population goes down the food supplies goes down. Polar bears can also be affected even though they are on the shore because of what they eat.
Means Used to Manage Human Activities to Ensure Sustainability of Marine Resources Selected
After any oil contamination event as large as the Exxon Valdez spill, the safety of marine animals traditionally consumed would need to be checked by state or federal officials. Barring that happening rapidly, alternative food supplies might need to be provided for villagers.
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- Walters, Tim. Personal interview. 16 Nov. 2010. Wasilla High School science teacher, 701 East Bogard Road, Wasilla, AK 99654, (907)-352-8257.
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