HOMER, Alaska — The limelight has faded a bit, but, for Ron Britton, the hard work remains.
Two weeks after the Exxon Valdez ripped its belly on a rock in Prince William Sound, the Ventura biologist plunged into the thick of the nation's worst oil spill and he has yet to emerge. He has been following the 11-million-gallon slick, which now extends more than 500 miles, tallying the ecological devastation and doing what little he can about it.
In the tiny crew quarters of the fishing boat Roman E., which is being tossed around in whitecap-laced Windy Bay, Britton cups a glass of hot cocoa as he explains the need for his work.
"The reason I'm here is that I'm responsible for the oil-spill contingency plan for sea otters in the state of California," he said. His bosses with the endangered species recovery unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura saw the tragedy to the north as an opportunity for Britton to examine firsthand the effects of a massive spill.
The devastation witnessed by Britton, Carl Benz and Greg Sanders from the Ventura office, as well as many other California wildlife specialists, is epic. More than 11,000 birds of 30 species, including 20 bald eagles, are among the known dead, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. However, some biologists say the toll could be three to five times that because of the unknown numbers of dead animals washed out to sea. And the toll could rise much higher as bears and other mammals devour contaminated carcasses.
Britton frames the catastrophe in Californian terms.
If the Exxon Valdez had hit a rock a few miles off Santa Barbara, he said, beaches from Point Conception to La Conchita would have been black within days. Pelicans would have dived into the crude and eventually washed ashore in unrecognizable clumps.
Within two weeks, the beaches at Malibu would have been covered with brown sludge a foot deep.
A month later, balls of tar would have washed up on Santa Catalina Island. The surf in San Diego would have carried in black foam and patches of material the consistency of wet concrete.
Two months later, Mexican officials would have been preparing for the worst in Baja California.
Sea otters--the cute little mammals reviled by fishermen both in Alaska and California for their rampages through beds of abalone and other shellfish--haven't had much of a chance in the face of the black tide.
The exact number of otters dead from the spill will never be known. Alaska coastal natives say as many as 5,000 otters have died. Six weeks into the spill, Britton estimated the toll at 2,000--about 300 more than all the otters living in California last year. As of mid-May, 885 otters had been recovered, but 585 were dead or died in captivity.
But the deaths of the otters and thousands of sea birds is only the immediate issue. The danger extends to those animals further up the food chain--predators and scavengers. Bald eagles are dying after eating oil-tainted carcasses. Britton fears for the nine bears he saw one recent afternoon scavenging among the corpses on a beach.
"You know if they find a bird or otter," he said, "they're going to eat it."
Recovery of Dead
Consequently, even the dead animals are being recovered. But, Britton said, that also eliminates natural deaths as a food source for the scavengers--an unintentional but potentially serious impact.
"Those are interesting implications you have to think about at night when you are sitting around the table wondering if you are doing any good," he said.
Britton also wonders what good is going to come of the otters he and others have saved from death. After the animals have been transported to cleaning centers, where they are doused in gentle detergent, they are placed in holding pens in quiet bays far from the spill. What will happen afterward is anybody's guess.
"You can't release them back into the habitat they were in," said Britton, who has been a leader in the Fish and Wildlife Service's controversial move of coastal otters to San Nicolas Island. "It's either not there or tainted."
Ann Rappoport, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman in Homer, Alaska, acknowledged that wildlife experts are uncertain about the otters' future. She said the temporary pens will give experts time to figure out where to send them, with the goal of keeping as many as possible in the state.
"There is no place to send them," Rappoport said. "We have to evaluate the habitat. These otters have been through a lot of trauma. If we put them in with other otters, the others might have an advantage. It would be irresponsible to dump them in the wild now."
Meanwhile, more pressing life-and-death issues occupy Britton and his crew on the Roman E., one of scores of fishing boats pressed into service by Exxon. The Roman E. is the centerpiece of a jury-rigged flotilla of a dozen smaller boats that prowl the rugged coast of the Kenai Peninsula with 200-foot-long nets to snare otters feeding near shore.