Oiled Sea Otter Rehabilitation Course

Chapter 15 – Introduction

The amphibious life history of pinnipeds and polar bears exposes them to spilled oil under circumstances not faced by sea otters. Their utilization of coastal and pack ice zones (which in many cases coincide with areas of hydrocarbon exploration, handling and transport) and the gregariousness of some pinnipeds, increase the potential for large scale impact. Furthermore, pinnipeds are a highly diverse group of mammals in terms of their global distribution, size, behavior, difficulty and risk of handling, and susceptibility to oil contamination. Any prediction of the impact on this group of animals must consider such variables as the type of oil involved, how much it has weathered, and the environmental conditions at the time. Light oil freshly spilled on a warm day is a threat to those breathing the vapors; heavy, weathered or residual oil in cold water is tenacious enough to restrict physical movement. In view of this, we caution against generalizing the findings of previous investigations. Rather, we encourage a thorough investigative approach to each new case to advance our ability to cope with inevitable future events.

The goal of this chapter is to provide workers with a practical framework for dealing with an oiled pinniped or polar bear. Oearly, the scope of potential scenarios of oil impact among these species is enormous. Our approach is to present a guide that must necessarily be tailored to meet local needs and animals. We assume that workers undertaking any such action will have a thorough knowledge of the life history and ecology of the species involved and the environmental and logistic conditions of the site. For a more detailed treatment of this subject, we refer readers to McLaren (1990) and St. Aubin (1990a) for pinnipeds and Stirling (1990) and St. Aubin (1990b) for polar bears.

We also provide a historical summary of oil spills involving the river otter, a fur-bearing mammal that may frequent coastal habitats. Information concerning the effects of oil contamination on this species is sparse. Therefore, we do not discuss the handling, cleaning, or treatment of oiled river otters. Readers are referred to Chapters 2 through 6 in this volume which address these topics for sea otters.