Shelton, Andrew O.; Hunsicker, Mary; Ward, Eric J.; Feist, Blake; Blake, Rachael E.; Ward, Colette; Williams, Benjamin; Duffy-Anderson, Janet; Hollowed, Anne B.; Haynie, Alan. 2017. Spatio-temporal models reveal subtle changes to demersal communities following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. ICES Journal of Marine Science. (Abstract)
Toxic pollutants such as crude oil have direct negative effects for a wide array of marine life. While mortality from acute exposure to oil is obvious, sub-lethal consequences of exposure to petroleum derivatives for growth and reproduction are less evident and sub-lethal effects in fish populations are obscured by natural environmental variation, fishing, and measurement error. We use fisheries independent surveys in the Gulf of Alaska to examine the consequences of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) for demersal fish. We delineate areas across a range of exposure to EVOS and use spatio-temporal models to quantify the abundance of 53 species-groups over 31 years. We compare multiple community metrics for demersal fish in EVOS and Control areas. We find that areas more exposed to EVOS have more negative trends in total groundfish biomass than non-EVOS areas, and that this change is driven primarily by reductions in the abundance of the apex predator guild. We show no signature of increased variability or increased levels of synchrony within EVOS areas. Our analysis supports mild consequences of EVOS for groundfish communities, but suggests that long time-series and assessments of changes at the community level may reveal sub-lethal effects in marine communities.