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Thousands of individual animals died as a result the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Some died soon after contact with the oil. Others died more slowly as a result of the toxins. It is difficult to measure how animal populations continue to be affected by contact with oil after the cleanup. The long-term harm from chronic exposure to the chemicals in oil remains a problem in some areas, especially where oil can still be found under rocks. Since 1990, scientists have been gathering data about locations where oil continues to linger, as well as the movement of toxic chemicals throughout the Prince William Sound ecosystem.

The Lingering Oil project is studying the recovery of harlequin duck and northern sea otter populations in Prince William Sound because there are long-term health concerns for both of these populations. The Gulf Watch Alaska team is collecting data by taking samples in both oiled and non-oiled sites in Prince William Sound. Click on the images below to learn more about these two species.

Scientists use a variety of skills to capture ducks and otters in order to collect tissue samples. These methods are designed to safely capture the animals and then release them unharmed. According to Dr. Esler, “It might not be the greatest day for the animals, [but] their long-term survival is not compromised.”

To capture harlequin ducks, the team uses a floating mist net. This net sits above the water like an invisible wall. As the ducks come in for a landing, they are trapped in the net. Researchers can then safely remove the ducks and take them to the veterinarian for sampling.

Capturing sea otters is a bit more challenging. These cute and fuzzy creatures are, in fact, the largest member of the weasel family (the Mustelids). This is a group of animals who are not known for their sweet and cuddly personalities. Think of a sea otter as a floating badger or wolverine!

Watch the video below to see divers use a Wilson Trap to safely capture and handle sea otters for sampling.

VIDEO: Capturing Sea Otters

United States Geological Survey (USGS) video showing how divers use Wilson traps to capture sea otters in the wild. (3:53)

Video Transcript

Watch the video below to learn more about the scientists' field work as they monitor the effects of lingering oil in Prince William Sound.

VIDEO: Lingering Oil

Dan Esler describes how scientists are studying the effects of lingering oil on harlequin ducks and sea otters. (1:48)

Video Transcript





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  Concentration (n): the amount of something in a specific place or given volume
  Recovery (n): a return to a normal state of health
  Tissue sampling (n): various procedures to obtain bodily fluids, muscle, skin, fur or feathers for testing