It took a few hours for the Selendang Ayu to spill thousands of gallons of oil into a remote Alaska bay. The effects could linger for years. The immediate damage has already become...

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It took a few hours for the Selendang Ayu to spill thousands of gallons of oil into a remote Alaska bay.

The effects could linger for years.

The immediate damage has already become apparent, as biologists tell of at least one sea otter and various birds swimming amid oil and thick goo along the western side of Unalaska Island.

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But the toll of oil lingering amid rocks or settling on the sea bed could prove much harder to gauge, measured in damage to otters’ livers and subtle survival problems for fish.

“Long-term effects is kind of a black box,” said Jeep Rice, a biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau. He has spent much of his career studying the effect of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

For those plotting ways to reclaim oil that has spilled from the Selendang Ayu as well as the larger amount still aboard the freighter, the biggest concerns are sea otters and marine birds.

The oil can rob otters and birds of insulation by matting-down fur and feathers, potentially lethal in the harsh Bering Sea winter. When the animals try to clean themselves off, they might swallow the oil.

The problem could be made worse by the type of oil, known as “bunker C,” which is particularly sticky.

“I’m sure if I were a bird or an otter and got some on my feathers it would be almost impossible to clean off,” said Rice, who dealt with bunker C oil during a 1997 spill on the island.

Spill observers in aircraft have reported seeing one otter in the oil and five birds, including three cormorants and a harlequin duck, said Leslie Pearson, emergency response program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. She expected that number could climb once biologists walk the shoreline fouled by the spill.

The area around Skan Bay, where the broken freighter sits, is home to Steller’s sea lions, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Sea otters also live there.

The most vulnerable birds include crested auklets, murres, cormorants, bald eagles, ravens and several sea ducks, including eiders, mergansers, black and surf scoters, and harlequins, said Greg Siekaniec, manager for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Unalaska Island.

Salmon present another concern because they spawn into streams that flow from nearby lakes into the bays. No salmon are spawning now.

But if oil reaches the salmon eggs, it could taint them with toxins or smother them, said Mark Carls, a fishery biologist at the Auke Bay Laboratory.

Cleaning up bunker C oil is easier in some ways because it is less likely to soak into sand or gravel than more fluid crude oil. But the oil that’s not cleaned up can stay in the environment for years. Alaska’s Prince William Sound has become the world’s largest laboratory for the study of the long-term effects of oil spills, courtesy of the 11-million-gallon Valdez spill. And disputes continue about how long that damage persisted.

Studies there found that oil-spill deposits continued to leach toxic chemicals into the environment for years. Even at minute levels, those toxins can impair the development of fish embryos, Carls said.

There’s also evidence the toxins show up in animals that forage along the intertidal zone — the area of shoreline inundated by tides, home to abundant food sources such as clams and mussels.

Tissue samples from otters’ livers and harlequin ducks from Prince William Sound still bear signs of toxic exposure, Carls said.

Otter populations in the hardest-hit areas have rebounded slower, or not at all, compared to parts of the sound that largely escaped the spill, Rice said.

But the fallout from these problems can be subtle. Some animals may have a slightly harder time surviving or reproducing. But the effects on an entire population can often be difficult to measure, and are disputed even in the closely watched Prince William Sound, Rice said.

The 1997 bunker C spill from an errant freighter that grounded near the town of Unalaska killed an estimated 2,000 seabirds, spilled oil into a lake with salmon eggs and forced the temporary closure of mussel beds used by locals, Pearson said.

The mussel beds were declared safe in early 1998, Pearson said.

But Sharon Svarny-Livingston, environmental coordinator for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, waited six years before eating the blue mussels, worried the toxin levels were still too high. She still discovers tar balls on the beach left from the spill.

Last year, she finally went to the beach for a picnic, just like she did before the accident. She cooked the blue mussels in sea water over an open fire.

“It felt very, very good,” she said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com