OUT: Exxon Valdez spill effects felt 20 years after

When the Exxon Valdez smashed in to Bligh Reef in the Gulf of Alaska on March 24, 1989 and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, many species of wildlife were decimated.

While many are showing signs of returning to normal populations levels, several bird species have not yet recovered, and the status of five others remains unknown.

“Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez spill, oil still poses a grave threat to marine birds,” said Dr. Michael Fry, American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Conservation Advocacy.

“American Bird Conservancy would like to see an acceleration of the phase out of single-hulled tankers in the U.S. which are allowed until 2015.”

“A similar requirement for double-hulled tankers needs to be made globally to protect birds and other wildlife from future spills. Additional marine reserves and no-go zones for tankers during sensitive breeding and staging seasons should also be implemented to protect the most vulnerable species.”

The Exxon Valdez Trustee Council has found that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment to this day in places, and is nearly as toxic as it was when the spill occurred.

At the rate this oil is dissipating it will take decades or perhaps even centuries to disappear entirely.

The Trustee Council was formed as part of the court settlement between the Exxon corporation and the governments of the United States and Alaska to oversee the sound’s restoration.

“Analysis of the oil spills’ impacts found that a significant portion of several species’ populations were killed, including 5-10 percent of the world’s Kittlitz’s Murrelet population and 6-12 percent of the area’s population of the Marbled Murrelet,” said Dr. Fry. “We are concerned about a number of the bird species harmed in the catastrophe such as the Kittlitz’s Murrelet whose population has yet to rebound.”

Kittlitz’s Murrelet, a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, declined 99 percent from 1972 to 2004. Prior to the spill, the rate of decline was 18 percent per year, but since 1989 that rate has increased to 31 percent.”

The growing impact of global warming in the Arctic and the melting of glaciers, partially caused by the burning of oil and other fossil fuels, may also be a factor in this decline.

Monitoring of bird species has found that the Pigeon Guillemot is not recovering in the spill area and that populations have been steadily declining throughout the Sound since the spill.

Similarly, the Marbled Murrelet has not met the recovery objective of an increasing or stable population.

Oil is very toxic to birds, and water birds such as murrelets are particularly susceptible to harm because they come into direct contact with the oil floating on the surface of the water.

Once feathers become oiled, they lose their insulating properties and the birds freeze to death, or are poisoned when they try to clean it off.

Research has found that Harlequin Ducks and Black Oystercatchers also suffered from chronic injury related to long-term exposure to lingering oil that remains in the area.

It was a huge spill, but a host of other factors — its proximity to the shore, stormy weather with high winds, and delays in starting clean-up efforts — all combined to make it one of America’s most notorious environmental disasters.

Four years after the spill, the $12-million Pacific herring fishery collapsed, sending much of the local economy into a tailspin. Evidence suggests the fishery collapse, which still hasn’t recovered today, was triggered by the spill.


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