Disaster struck 30 years ago on 24 March 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, a charted rocky area outside the designated shipping lane at the mouth of Valdez Arm in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil from the Prudhoe Bay, which was scattered by wind and waves over some 1,300 miles of coastline. At the time, it was the worst maritime oil spill in U.S. waters, only surpassed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The impact was immediate and dramatic, with oil-drenched wildlife appearing on the front pages and nightly news of major and minor media outlets. The death toll for marine mammals, birds, fish, and other marine life will never be known with accuracy, but estimates were in the hundreds of thousands for birds and marine mammals alone. The impacts on commercial fishing and tourism were devastating.
Research into the oil spill’s ramifications for wildlife began with documenting the magnitude of mortality, before it transitioned into measuring the status and recovery of resident and migratory populations. The spill spawned an enormous amount of research, and ABR conducted studies for both ExxonMobil and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a consortium of State and Federal agencies. ABR designed a number of studies evaluating the recovery status of bird and marine mammal populations, as well as studies evaluating foraging patterns and the population status of sea otters, studies investigating effects on reproductive success of Bald Eagles and Black Oystercatchers, and studies of special-status species, such as Kittlitz’s Murrelets and Harlequin Ducks. These studies continued off and on through the mid-2000s and resulted in ABR scientists producing >20 peer-reviewed publications on the recovery status of the marine bird community in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula, and on factors affecting the recovery of sea otters in the center of their range in Prince William Sound.
Although there was some disagreement among scientists about the definition and timing of recovery for the many species harmed by the 1989 disaster, all could agree the 1989 spill was a human-caused ecological catastrophe that cannot be allowed to happen in the future. On this 30th anniversary, we should remind ourselves of the painful losses Alaska endured in Prince William Sound and redouble our efforts to protect our oceans, coastlines, and wildlife for future generations to enjoy.
Click here for a list of some of ABR's EVOS Publications