Ward, Eric J.; Adkison, Milo; Couture, Jessica; Dressel, Sherri C.; Litzow, Mike; Moffitt, Steve; Neher, Tammy; Trochta, John; Brenner, Richard. 2017. Evaluating signals of oil spill impacts, climate, and species interactions in Pacific herring and Pacific salmon populations in Prince William Sound and Copper River, Alaska. PLoS ONE. (Abstract)
The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in March 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and was one of the worst environmental disasters on record in the United States. Despite long-term data collection over the nearly three decades since the spill, tremendous uncertainty remains as to how significantly the spill affected fishery resources. Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) and some wild Pacific salmon populations (Oncorhynchus spp.) in Prince William Sound declined in the early 1990s, and have not returned to the population sizes observed in the 1980s. Discerning if, or how much of, this decline resulted from the oil spill has been difficult because a number of other physical and ecological drivers are confounded temporally with the spill; some of these drivers include environmental variability or changing climate regimes, increased production of hatchery salmon in the region, and increases in populations of potential predators. Using data pre- and post-spill, we applied time-series methods to evaluate support for whether and how herring and salmon productivity has been affected by each of five drivers: (1) density dependence, (2) the EVOS event, (3) changing environmental conditions, (4) interspecific competition on juvenile fish, and (5) predation and competition from adult fish or, in the case of herring, humpback whales. Our results showed support for intraspecific density-dependent effects in herring, sockeye, and Chinook salmon, with little overall support for an oil spill effect. Of the salmon species, the largest driver was the negative impact of adult pink salmon returns on sockeye salmon productivity. Herring productivity was most strongly affected by changing environmental conditions; specifically, freshwater discharge into the Gulf of Alaska was linked to a series of recruitment failures—before, during, and after EVOS. These results highlight the need to better understand long terms impacts of pink salmon on food webs, as well as the interactions between nearshore species and freshwater inputs, particularly as they relate to climate change and increasing water temperatures.