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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Prince William Sound, Five Years after Exxon Valdez

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Steve Heimel takes a look at the ecology of Prince William Sound on the fifth anniversary of the worst oil spill in US history. Exxon scientists claim bird and fish populations have recovered or were never in danger following the spill. Other scientists and Alaska residents say the Sound, its inhabitants, and its wildlife continue to feel the spill's effects.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Five years ago this month, the supertanker Exxon Valdez hit a ledge in Alaska's Prince William Sound and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. Within days, 1,200 miles of coastline had been ravaged. Thousands of birds and other animals had been killed, and the spill had permanently imprinted itself in American culture as one of our most infamous unnatural disasters. Today, we examine the legacy of the worst oil spill in US history from several perspectives. In our first report, Steve Heimel of the Alaska Public Radio Network examines the long-term impact on the ecology of Prince William Sound.

(Waves on the seacoast)

HEIMEL: Talk to 100 people who know Prince William Sound and you'll hear about 100 Prince William Sounds. It's so large that if you're in a sailboat, you have to plan on a trip of more than a week if you want to see more than a small part of it. If you're a kayaker like Ray Camissa, every cove is or was its own adventure.

CAMISSA: It's, uh - it's unique. No other place in the world is like it, and it's wonderful and beautiful, but I've seen changes. You know, everybody can tell you that the otter population has declined. You know, and you used to see rafts of 40 or 60 otters at a time, just laying together as the tide goes out, and they'd be floating together in the fog. They'd look like a mass of dead trees until they'd float right up on you. But those are gone; you don't see those rafts of otters any more. When the tide would come in against the glaciers there'd always be hundreds of seals piled up on the ice. And those seals aren't there like they used to be in the numbers. You used to have a lot of porpoise, and I don't see them any more.

HEIMEL: Anyone who knew Prince William Sound before the oil spill says it's different now. While logging plans and a booming fishery had already begun to change the Sound in 1989, the black wave of death from the tanker brought a transformation unlike anything anyone could imagine. Whipped by the storm into ribbons of toxic foam, the oil killed masses of animals outright, and many more by its lingering effects. Government researchers estimate, for instance, that the sea otter population where the oil hit went down by 35% in 2 years. Other marine mammals also suffered, as well as huge numbers of sea birds. The oil killed cormorants, gulls, kittie wakes, marbled marlets, but above all, murres. Far more than half the animals killed were murres, a diving bird that lives in dense colonies.

(Huge flock of birds calling)

HEIMEL: Hundreds of thousands of murres were killed. And while many survived, in some colonies, not enough to hold the group together to breed. US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Vernon Bird.

BIRD: There seems to be safety in numbers. A big cluster of murres seem to be able to defend against the gull or raven probably better than a single murre could. And they will sometimes abandon their egg, make it real susceptible to gull predation, but once everybody's laid, the birds that are incubating tend to sit real tight even if an airplane flies over lots of times or a predator.

HEIMEL: Murre colonies in the Barren Islands south of Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska had near-complete reproductive failure for at least 2 years. That's the government view. Scientists hired by the Exxon Corporation to research the same issue saw it very differently. Biologists John Wiens calls the idea that any colonies were in danger an exaggeration.

WIENS: That really wasn't the case at all. And their statements were really very premature. They came before any kind of carefully-planned studies had been conducted.

HEIMEL: Counts done by an Exxon-funded researcher in 1991 showed murres to be at about the same densities as ever in the stressed colonies. Government scientists say that report is flawed. But in any event, after looking at the latest surveys, Vernon Byrd concedes that common murres are now out of danger. The dispute over the murres illustrates a chronic problem with research on the spill's impact. From the very beginning it's been a big money game. The prospect of huge court judgments sent scientists out to look for damage or to look for proof of no damage. In 1991, Exxon settled the State and Federal Government's court cases for $900 million, but scientific damage assessments will still be critical to claims due to be taken to trial this summer by fishermen, natives, and others.

But now research money is getting scarce again. The trustee council of six Federal and State agency heads set up to administer the $900 million settlement has cut off a lot of research so it would have more money to invest in restoring and protecting the environment that sustains the wildlife that survives, buying up habitat threatened by logging and minimizing the impact of growing public use of the spill environment. Bob Spies is the trustee's chief scientific advisor.

SPIES: You know, we spent over $100 million in the scientific studies. That's a tremendous amount of resources. And I'm not sure the will is there to keep pursuing these things, pursuing these questions.

HEIMEL: Still, it appears that some of the research was shut down prematurely. The number of harlequin ducks, animals who spend their whole life cycle in the kinds of intertidal areas where the oil was trapped, fell unexpectedly last year, after the Council decided to stop funding annual duck surveys. Also last year, the herring run came back severely impaired by disease and in small numbers. This after the trustees had decided no herring damage could be connected to the spill, and had told scientists to close down their study. Now, correlations are being shown between herring damage and the spill. There are no pink salmon. The big money fish in Prince William Sound crashed disastrously last summer as well. Fishermen strongly believe the spill is responsible, although the links that scientists can make are tenuous. Head scientist Bob Spies and the trustees now say they're all in favor of continuing to pay to investigate those links.

For those who draw their livelihoods from Prince William Sound, the five years since the spill have been economically turbulent. There was massive spending in a cleanup effort and two years of very good fishing. But now the fishing has crashed, and tour operators worry that fifth anniversary publicity about the spill will make the public think Prince William Sound is a wasteland. Sail charter operator Nancy Lethcoe says it's nowhere near that simple.

LETHCOE: The spill was an overwhelming, traumatic impact on the Sound, but also on us. Whereas when our charter guests come, they don't have the memories, and they don't have the knowledge, and they have pure enjoyment of what they see. So the Sound is, is very, very much alive and living for them. And for us it's recovering, and as it's recovering we're recovering.

HEIMEL: In Alaska for Living on Earth, I'm Steve Heimel.



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