The craggy beaches and tide pools of Tatoosh Island bear no visible scars from the oil slick that soiled much of Washington’s Olympic coast six years ago.
Thousands of sea birds once again mass on the wild island each spring, rearing their broods in its wind-scoured nooks and thickets of salmonberry. Harbor seals and the occasional otter glide through the kelp and bask on the rocks.
Nature, it seems, has erased much of the damage wrought by one of the worst spills in the state’s history.
Now, it’s man’s turn.
With $5.2 million from the companies responsible for the spill, a small group of lawyers, bureaucrats and biologists hope to figure out how to further heal the ecological injuries caused by the oil. Their mantra is restoration: an ambiguous concept that demands replacement of each creature, each ecosystem destroyed in the spill.
They’re finding it a difficult goal to define, let alone achieve.
“Restoration is a funky word,” said Denise Dailey, a biologist for the Makah Tribe.
“It’s not like we’re dealing with a house. We know how to restore houses. But how do you restore sea birds?” she asked, with a shrug. “I’m just scratching my head.”
So are many others.
“We spent almost three years in negotiations to get the money, and we thought that was the hard part,” said Dick Logan of the Washington Department of Ecology. “We were wrong. The hard part is figuring out how to spend it wisely.”
There are few places to turn for advice. Oil spill restoration is a fledgling field, with scant success stories. Only after the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 were state and federal laws changed, making it easier to get shippers to pay for spill-related damages. The money from judgments and settlements has been coming for several years now, but the science hasn’t kept pace.
With so much money on the table, strong disagreements have split the group in charge of doling it out.
Some are pushing for quick action and hands-on projects, like coaxing birds to colonize abandoned nest sites, or devising ways to shield them from eagles and other predators.
Others advocate more basic research, to sort out the way animals interact with each other and their ecosystems. Without those studies, they say, it’s impossible to know what it will take to help boost populations.
A third camp believes the money should be used to purchase and protect a swath of coastal forest or part of a river drainage - a sure-fire way to help wildlife.
Clallam County officials want the money to build a salmon hatchery. And a few folks even have suggested returning the cash to the shipping companies, since most of the damage from the spill appears to have repaired itself naturally.
“It’s tremendously controversial, because a lot of money is at stake.” said Julia Parrish, a University of Washington zoology professor who studies the birds on Tatoosh Island.
Parrish was on the island on July 22, 1991.
Twenty-five miles away, near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a Chinese freighter plowed into the Japanese fishing boat Tenyo Maru. The fishing boat sank, killing a crew member and spilling more than 100,000 gallons of fuel oil.
Oil spread along beaches as far south as the Oregon border. Workers sopped up more than 1 million pounds of oily debris - including thousands of dead birds. Scientists estimate up to 25,000 sea birds may have perished in the spill.
The bulk of the dead birds that washed up on the Olympic beaches were a species called common murres, so that’s where most of the restoration work must focus. Kelp beds - rich shelters for small fish, sea urchins and sea otters - also were hit hard and will get some attention, too.
Tatoosh Island, home to the state’s only known breeding colony of common murres (rhymes with furs), was ground zero for the spill. The 2.5-acre rock and the birds that live on it also lie at the heart of the debate over restoration.
The northwestern-most point of the state, Tatoosh Island was a Coast Guard station for decades until the federal government returned it to the Makah Tribe in 1982.
Parrish and her co-workers have studied the murres for six years. About the size of a small duck, common murres are the champion crowders of the bird world. They pack themselves together on their breeding grounds like passengers on a Tokyo subway.
Parrish watched the population dip after the oil spill and tracked its gradual recovery. The number of birds fluctuates widely from year to year, ranging up to 10,000 in good season. The Tatoosh colony appears healthy but isn’t exactly booming, Parrish said.
In Oregon, thousands of murres have starved to death during the past two years, perhaps because El Nino currents have made the water too warm for the fish they eat. Washington’s birds don’t appear to be going hungry, but are losing eggs and chicks to predators. And the state’s overall murre population has been dropping steadily since the mid-1980s, with many former nest islands now completely abandoned.
On Tatoosh, bald eagles are the murre’s main nemesis. When the big raptors fly overhead, the nervous murres leap into the water. That leaves their eggs and chicks defenseless against gulls and the eagles.
Over the past few years, Parrish has experimented with what she calls “silk forests” - fake leaves nailed to wooden stakes to form a canopy. The phony forest seems to provide enough cover to make the birds less fearful of eagles and less likely to dive off their nests.
By expanding the silk forest, it may be possible to increase the murres’ chances of raising chicks, Parrish said.
Even more intriguing is a technique she calls “fooling the birds.” By planting decoys on islands with no nesting murres, it may be possible to lure the birds back, some biologists believe.
There are fewer ideas for restoring kelp beds, but it may be possible to scatter boulders on the sea floor to give the plants a place to take hold, scientists say.
Many are skeptical that such projects will work.
In Alaska, where Exxon paid $900 million to repair oil spill damage, very little of the money is being spent on projects to manipulate animals or plants. The bulk of the cash is being used to buy land, to prevent logging or development.
“The general philosophy is that the best, long-term solution is to keep wildlife habitat healthy, so the species will be able to return,” said Joe Hunt, spokesman for Alaska’s trustee council.
Once you begin to meddle with natural systems, it’s easy to make a mistake that actually could harm the creatures you’re trying to help - or have other unintended consequences, said Fred Felleman, Seattle representative of the environmental group Ocean Advocates.
“People want to believe they can fix an injured ecosystem like they can fix a broken-down car,” he said. “But even if we had all the money in the world, we don’t know how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he said.
Felleman has been urging the trustees to pool their $5 million with money from conservation groups or foundations and buy some of the few remaining patches of old-growth forest on the Olympic Peninsula.
Some sea birds nest in old growth. And unlogged forests buffer the marine environment, preventing sediment from choking kelp beds, Felleman argues. The ecosystem as a whole would benefit - and at the very least, no harm would be done.
But $5 million won’t buy much old growth, many of the trustees point out. And there’s no need to buy offshore islands for the sea birds, because they’re already protected.
Parrish and other biologists would like to see a chunk of the restoration money spent on basic studies. Without a better understanding of what’s controlling the numbers of murres, restoration may be a waste of time and money.