Toll on wildlife worse than expected from Exxon Valdez spill, scientists say

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In the genes of fish, in the brains of birds and the livers and kidneys of sea otters, the Exxon Valdez oil spill played havoc. Finally, scientists can talk about it.

Herring were born as mutants with twisted spines and deformed jaws.


Harlequin ducks quit reproducing.

Murres began nesting a month late, meaning their immature offspring are being swept off their cliff-side nests and washed away by the early winter storms.


Perfectly preserved, toxic, crude oil remains trapped under mussel beds, in some places more than a half-foot deep.

And still unexplained is: Did the spill have anything to do with the disappearance of 13 of the 36 killer whales in Prince William Sound?

Scientists have been prohibited from discussing these and other findings for the past four years because of the federal and state governments' lawsuits against Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

But with these suits recently settled, they are now free to talk.

In a special edition of "Alaska Wildlife," published by the state Department of Fish and Game this month, many of the findings are spelled out. And today, nearly 500 scientists and lawyers from across the country will gather at the first public forum on the spill.

The first day of the four-day symposium at the Egan Civic and Convention Center is open to the public and is designed as an overview of the spill's impact.

The next three days of seminars are more technical and geared for scientists. More than 100 papers will be presented.

"This is it," said state biologist Sam Patten. "Everybody is going to put their cards on the table. Everything is going to come out."


Though invited, Exxon scientists won't be there. An Exxon spokesman said last fall that company scientists will present their work at a conference this spring in Atlanta.

The governments' chief spill scientist, Robert Spies, said Exxon might not agree with some of the governments' findings.

"You are always going to get different stories," said Mr. Spies. "The resource people are going to paint a black picture; Exxon will paint a white picture."

It appears most of the harm was short term; not a single species was lost because of the spill. Most scientists said they expect all the species to recover and genetic damage to be mitigated within a few generations, leaving the spill just a blip in the Sound's evolution.

Fishermen and environmentalists still have lawsuits pending against Exxon for the damage caused when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, dumping 11 million gallons of oil into the Sound. And some of the scientists' findings may end up as evidence in court.

For months after the spill, biologists and Exxon officials said repeatedly that fish and shellfish were not in harm's way because oil floats and the fish could easily swim away.


That was not always the case.

Spawning fish and oil met in the inter-tidal areas, producing mutant herring larvae and club-tailed wild pink salmon.

Oil experts were surprised as evidence began to accumulate about the depth at which the oil sediments were being washed down underwater slopes, eventually reaching 60 to 700 feet below sea level and into crab, shrimp and rockfish habitat.

But biologists also point out that long before the oil got there, commercial fishing had been taking an undocumented toll on these species.

Roughly 36,000 bird carcasses were found, and scientists estimate that 300,000 to 645,000 birds were killed in the first months after the spill.