ANCHORAGE - A new report says killer whales, pink salmon, common murres and four other species damaged by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill have rebounded and should be considered recovered.
"Although full ecological recovery has not been achieved, the spill-area ecosystem is still largely intact and functioning and on its way to recovery 13 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill," says the report, prepared by Bob Spies, chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
The council oversees the restoration of resources hurt by the spill using the $900 million paid by Exxon to settle civil charges.
But the proposal to add species to the list of those recovered from the spill is drawing fire.
The list, which tracks 30 species and resources, has long been considered a barometer of the ecosystem's recovery. When last updated in 1999, it listed only bald eagles and river otters as recovered.
"The list itself is a vehicle of communicating with the public, kind of the status of the resources after the spill," said Spies. "The system is in the process of recovering, and we're evaluating evidence as we go along."
But the region's leading killer whale researcher said he disagrees with listing killer whales as recovered, especially the well-known AB pod. That whale group lost 14 of 36 members in the first two years after the spill and splintered into two groups.
"I think it gives a false sense that that group is back to normal, and it's not at all," said biologist Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society. "Although we've seen increases in the AB pod over the past couple of years, there's still no assurance that they will recover to pre-spill numbers."
If approved by the trustee council at its June 11 meeting, the list would rate nine resources as recovered. New additions would be the AB pod of killer whales, pink salmon, common murres, sockeye salmon, black oystercatcher, subtidal communities and archaeological resources.
But the list would still rate 21 resources - including harbor seals, sea otters and several species of birds and fish - as not improving, making progress or "recovery unknown."
The issue isn't just semantics. The status of creatures and habitats can influence research funding and serve as a starting point for people trying to educate themselves on the spill's effects.