The answer is, we don’t know yet. But as energy companies increasingly seek to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic, increasing the chances of a catastrophic oil spill, “we don’t know” isn’t good enough.
And that’s why I found myself at an exciting hands-on marine mammal de-oiling workshop in Seward, Alaska. Along with more than 30 first responders, I joined conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Clean Seas, the Alaska SeaLife Center, the North Slope Borough, BP and Exxon to share knowledge about the current state of marine mammal de-oiling practices.
Over the course of two days, we examined the lessons we’d learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which oiled approximately 2,500 sea otters, as well as from SeaWorld experts Dr. Pam Yochem and Bill Winhall, who respond to oiled marine mammals off the coast of California. We also got to experience hands-on just how difficult it is to remove even a small amount of oil from the thick fur of marine mammals by vigorously cleaning an oiled sea otter pelt.
The Arctic presents many challenges to us. We have little marine mammal oil clean up equipment in place, few roads, darkness and hostile weather much of the year. These known challenges make this workshop so important and timely – providing us with time to examine what we know, what we do not know and what resources and training we need to prepare for a spill. This type of training is likely to become an annual event, in order to establish a timely, trained response team in place with the resources and tools needed to treat oiled marine mammals like polar bears.
Federal help for polar bears
The Department of the Interior took an important stand for the future of polar bears last week, announcing it will protect more than 187,000 square miles of onshore barrier islands, denning areas and offshore sea ice as critical habitat. Critical habitat designation will ensure that the federal government considers the impacts on polar bear habitat of actions it authorizes, funds, or carries out to ensure that critical habitat will not be adversely modified or destroyed.
This decision will provide crucial protection for polar bears, a species watching its habitat melt from beneath its feet. Designating critical habitat will help ensure that federal actions will not contribute to the polar bear’s plight.
Post by Karla Dutton, Alaska program director for Defenders. The Alaska office is focusing increasingly on initiatives on climate change and the related habitat impacts on polar bears.