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Remembering Exxon Valdez
Twenty-five years ago, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Eleven million gallons of oil contaminated over 11,000 square miles of ocean and shoreline. In just the first few days, the death toll was enormous. Around 250 bald eagles, 22 orcas, 300 seals, 3,500 sea otters, countless fish and marine species, and as many as 250,000 seabirds all succumbed to the oil’s effects.
The spill seeped into every facet of the ecosystem, attacking animals from both the inside and out. Though it was initially thought that the oil spill would only have a short term impact on the ecosystem, its effects continue to be felt to this day.
As Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation puts it, “The impacts of oil spills continue long after the TV cameras have gone home. It is still possible to find oil on the shores of Prince William Sound that is nearly as toxic as it was a quarter-century ago.”
All of this raises the question of just how far the oily tide has receded. The recovery effort has produced some decidedly mixed results among some of North America’s most iconic creatures:
1. Pacific Herring
Hallmark of the fishing industry, the herring of Prince William Sound remain badly damaged by the spill. In 1993 the population collapsed, and it has not recovered since. Even the reason for their low numbers remains badly understood, and it’s not certain whether the herring will ever rebound.
2. Killer Whales
Two pods of killer whale call Prince William Sound home. Both were hit hard by Exxon Valdez, and many mature orcas died in the following years. Slow to reproduce under normal circumstances, these losses have been hard to replace. One population that dwells in the Sound through the year has been slowly growing in number. Sadly the other more mobile pod still shows no signs of recovering.
3. Bald Eagles
One of the major successes thus far has been the bald eagle. In spite of their losses, by 1995 the eagle’s population had rebounded to pre spill levels.
4. Harbor Seals
The harbor seals of Prince William Sound had been struggling with declining prey before Exxon Valdez, but the resident population has since recovered. By 2005 the seal’s numbers were growing again, and the species is considered on the mend.
5. Sea Otters
The most recently recovered species, the numbers and quality of life for sea otters in the Sound finally returned to normal within the past year. In addition to the dangers of swimming through the oil, the sea otters suffered internal damage when they consumed oil tainted clams and other prey. Fortunately oil levels in these species dropped to a “safer” level for the otters.
As for the human race, 25 years on we do not seem to have learned our lessons well. In Galveston Bay, a ship carrying thick, sticky oil collided with another boat and spilled may have spilled as much as 168,000 gallons into the Bay. At the height of the season for migratory birds, the timing could not be worse.
Four years after Deepwater Horizon and 25 years after Exxon Valdez, it is time we commemorate these disasters by taking a step away from oil and other fossil fuels. We need to invest in a cleaner, greener future for energy if we want to ever break this cycle of ecological destruction and cleanup.