Photo: Twenty years later: Have ecosystems recovered from Exxon Valdez?

Oiled sea otter in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdes spill. (Credit: Arlis Reference via Flickr)

By Carin Bondar

We are at the two-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, and some recent accounts paint a pretty bleak picture of the state of the Gulf of Mexico. The immediate impacts on what "matters most" to humans (e.g., fisheries) are plentiful. Tainted seafood, carcinogenic compounds and blackened beaches have all had negative impacts on fisheries and human health in the region. But what about basic biology? Will the ecosystems of the Gulf ever resemble their former selves? Although comprehensive reports for ecosystem damage are still forthcoming, the long-term effects from the last major oil spill (which was much smaller than the BP spill and in a much more contained area) don't provide much assurance.

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The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound on March 23, 1989, made worldwide headlines for its immediate impact on wildlife. More than 40 million litres of oil spilled into the remote sound, devastating populations of mammals, fish, birds and invertebrates. Despite the fact that it's been over two decades, many ecosystems have not recovered. A report from February 2012 highlights the fact that negative effects of the Exxon Valdez spill remain devastatingly clear. Sea otters and other near-shore dwelling organisms have yet to show solid evidence of population recovery1. Residual oil continues to accumulate in sheltered bays and shorelines, which is where many bird and otter species find their food. Sea otters excavate foraging pits to find their main sustenance, clams. In disturbing the sediments, the otters release oil that continues to linger there, increasing their exposure to carcinogens. Oil clings to their fur and is ingested during grooming. In addition, the clams themselves are a veritable sink for carcinogens in the sediments, so otters are experiencing oil exposure on multiple levels.

Research on otter populations in the Knight Island Archipelago2 shows that there is temporal variation in the oil-exposure potential, which provides further clues as to why populations are not recovering. Exposure is greatest during the late spring when female otters remain close to the shore to give birth. Small pups are born into an environment that is contaminated with Exxon oil, which is certainly contributing to the lack of recovery of the species as a whole. Newborn pups have few mechanisms to avoid or dispense of the oil — they are sitting ducks.

More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, humans in the western world have yet to curb their gas-guzzling ways. Part of me thinks that this is because Prince William Sound is so remote. It's easy for us to forget about the damaging oil when it's in a far-away place that most of us have not or will not ever experience first-hand. The Gulf oil spill is completely different — the spill was over 17 times greater than the Exxon spill, and the oil is in an area that millions of people see, feel, smell, taste and touch daily. Maybe in some odd way this is a good thing. Perhaps having a massive oil spill in our own backyard is what it will take for people to realize that blame for an oil spill should not just go to BP or Exxon, but to all of us.

1 Monson DH, Doak DF, Ballachey BE, Bodkin JL (2011) Could residual oil from the Exxon Valdez spill create a long-term population 'sink' for sea otters in Alaska? Ecological Applications 21:2917-2932

2 Bodkin JL, Ballachey BE, Coletti HA, Esslinger GG, Kloecker KA, Rice SD, Reed JA, Monson DH (2012) Long term effects of the 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill: sea otter foraging in the intertidal as a pathway of exposure to lingering oil. Marine Ecology Progress Series 447: 273-287.

May 2, 2012

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May 02, 2012
6:51 PM

It's troubling that so many of us understand the implications of this, yet feel so powerless that change seems impossible.

I don't think it's a logical conclusion that there is no safe yet economically sound alternative to our current path yet somehow we don't seem to be able to get on another track. The lack of will to pursue such a goal is astounding.

May 03, 2012
9:39 AM

Hi John,

I agree, at times it seems like a lost cause — but it's the great work of foundations like DSF and others to get the word out that will make a difference. That, and perhaps another federal election…

May 08, 2012
2:28 PM

Hi Carin,

I hoped not to sound too discouraged, more disappointed, and disillusioned by the fact that the great educational efforts by the DSF, and others, while reaching people, are not having greater effect when they should be.

I think pursuing a magic moment when a political election unites everyone around the environmental cause is an impossible challenge. The economy will take precedence because most of humanity is convinced of the primacy of human want and that technology will always be able to supply it while controlling the environment.

My one ray of hope, is that humanity can be convinced the one special want that it has been blindly searching for all along can be fulfilled in a far less destructive way.

Utopias all have their strings attached, and the one I'm thinking of is no exception. I know that we can live comfortably having all we need and with more freedom for individual pursuits by living in a way that doesn't damage the environment. In exchange we give up our lifelong debts, and, the ability to purchase those things which the environment is becoming ever less able to support. A fair and equitable trade I think.

The economy as we know it today has been geared to corporations selling things they want to make rather than things we truly need for a long time. More recently the finance driven economy has specialized in making money with out making any product at all. This crazy setup has many of us perpetually engaged in unnecessary and environmentally harmful pursuits to service debts incurred to pay for things that are either unnecessary (cars) or terribly overpriced (homes).

I'm interested in seeing if we can as individuals with help from organizations like the DSF gain control over our lives using selected technology and scientific knowledge so we can get off the treadmill of material pursuit/ debt and onto an environmentally healthy more self directed lifestyle free for other pursuits.

May 10, 2012
12:08 PM

Yes, we are all guilty of over consumption of petrloleum.. The technolgy of alternative fuels was here 100 years ago, Electric Baker car one example.. But who is greedy and not efficient will have to clean the reprecautions of over use… Accountibility for hasty hurried, and convenience, society is learning the aftermath, mother nature has its recovery time, this is the entropy of deeds. Who is accountable to those who suffered, dont animals deserve protection from our pollution, dont our children deserve education from industry mistakes?

May 10, 2012
2:11 PM

Could not have said it better myself John! Actually I think that the DSF is very interested in going in some of the directions you mention. Information is absolutely critical, rather than simply being told what we should or should not need. The BC Hydro smart meters are another good example here — I feel that those against them are misinformed.

I'm working on another article right now about the economics of the BP oil spill. The job loss and fisheries collapses are absolutely astounding. I hope you'll stay tuned :)

Feb 21, 2013
8:03 AM

I love Sea Otters!

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