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Four Years after the Great Alaskan Oil Spill


Three weeks after the ruptured tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into pristine Alaskan water, I stood on one of the oiled beaches with my boots deep in opaque brown glop.

Dante's Hell came to mind. Hundreds of cleanup workers hired by Exxon (the number eventually reached 11,000) emerged and disappeared through jets of steaming water. Life had been smothered. Birds that the workers pulled from the mess could have been bundles of sticks. The sulfurous stench was sickening, overwhelming.

A year later I flew back to the same shore. The Exxon people showed off the beach proudly. Smooth, clean rock stretched for hundreds of feet in both directions. Oil indeed lingered in scattered patches that I might have missed on my own. In some areas of gravel a boot heel or a shovel uncovered shale that left a light brown slick. But . . . compared to what it was?

A year later I joined a crew to seine for herring, aboard a boat located within sight of Bligh Reef where the tanker had struck. This had been the first fishery to be closed by the spill. Snowy mountains around us gleamed against the blue sky, reaffirming the wondrous beauty of the sound. We made a bumper haul, 212 tons, a column of fish about 20 feet across on the surface and 18 feet straight to the bottom. By midnight, 11 hours after making the set, enough tenders had come alongside with suction hoses to take the last of our fish. Overhead the northern lights flickered in great ribbons across the entire sky. We stretched and yelled. The first fishery after the big spill had made it.

The herring, some of which had swum through oiled waters the year before, poured back everywhere, as later in the season did healthy pink and sockeye salmon into areas similarly compromised by oil. Had nature really given us such a second chance?

Four years have now passed since the spill. Data now being released allow a new assessment of its long-term effects.

Exxon remains upbeat. Its annual report last year declared: "Exxon's massive cleanup effort,together with natural recovery processes, has left shorelines essentially clean and restored. Fish harvests are at or near record levels. Spill-impacted wildlife is abundant and thriving."

They have a different assessment in Cordova, the fishing town of Prince William Sound most affected by the spill. Fishermen here remain bitter over what they consider Exxon's inadequacy to clean and reimburse. "There has been significant damage to both herring and salmon resources," Cordova fisherman Ken Adams told me last winter. "The crap that oil people state, that everything is great, is in fact another lie."

Both parties can claim to tell a version of the truth.

The data now being released and evaluated reveal a host of disturb-ing long-term consequences. It appears that the herring and salmon that swam through the oil have lost much of their reproductive capacity, a fact that Cordova fishermen now see directly in their nets.

A document released by the Exxon Valdez oil spill trustees reports that survival to adulthood of pink salmon fry released from a hatchery located in the middle of a heavily oiled area has been half that of a hatchery located outside the spill area. Of wild pink salmon in Prince William Sound: "Egg mortality has generally increased. In 1991 there was a 40 to 50 percent egg mortality in oiled streams [compared to] about an 18 percent mortality in unoiled streams."

The report also declared that residual oil continues to seep from some of the previously oiled beaches. Thus: "Eggs and larvae of wild populations continue to be exposed to oil in intertidal gravel in some areas."

John Sandor, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, told the House Merchant Marine Committee in March that while the beaches are dramatically cleaner, "subsurface oil continues to persist and is a source of continuing exposure for intertidal organisms."

More insidious: "Significant pockets of fresh oil also persist under mussel beds which were not cleaned in 1989 because of damage that cleanup would have done to the mussel beds. This oil . . . now appears to be entering the food chain through the mussels and slowing the recovery of several species" which feed on the mussels.

Whatever the abundance of herring during the first season after the spill, the stocks have been undermined, according to Dr. Charles Peterson of University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences, a peer reviewer of the damage-assessment studies. He told the congressional panel that the production of herring eggs in Prince William Sound the year of the spill (1989) had been one of the heaviest on record, but that the return of this year-class in 1992 as first-time adult spawners was one of the lowest in history.

Commercially valuable herring is also a critical prey resource for over 40 predator species including salmon, seals, sea lions, porpoises and birds including gulls, puffins and murres. "Consequently," said Dr. Peterson, "The probable year-class vTC failure of what would have otherwise been one of the dominant year- classes of herring, feeding consumer populations for many years to come, denotes a substantial reduction in food abundance for the broad sweep of pelagic predators. This is likely to produce population declines [even in] top-level carnivores such as killer whales."

Stocks of sockeye salmon which did not encounter oil directly have suffered an ironic side effect. The state closed salmon fisheries in waters where the lightest slick had occurred, to avert any consumer suspicion that Alaskan fish might be contaminated. So many sockeyes thus escaped into their spawning waters that too many eggs were hatched the following spring. The waters lacked nutrients to feed them all, so most of the larvae died. When the few survivors of that year-class return to spawn, state biologists will need to save them all in order to build up the stocks, leaving none for fishermen. This protection will probably continue for several multi-year generations.

Among birds, the oil hit murres so hard that entire colonies may become extinct, according to Dr. Peterson. Sixty percent were killed outright in certain breeding colonies while the survivors have thus far "suffered complete reproductive failure." Reproductive failure has also decimated other bird species including harlequin ducks.

Yet nature might still restore, if man can prevent further spills. Exxon's upbeat statements are at least partially right. Within the huge state of Alaska, even within Prince William Sound itself, there are stocks of birds, fish and marine mammals that the spill and its aftermath left unaffected.

While waiting to set our nets for herring in Prince William sound a year after the spill, I watched with my skipper, Virgil Carroll, as distant loaded tankers as long and thin as pencils cruised down the channel. "Ain't no way you're goin' to do without that oil," he declared philosophically. No one promised easy choices.

William McCloskey has served with the Coast Guard and worked as a fisherman in Alaska. His latest book about commercial fishing, "Deep Pacific," includes chapters on the Valdez spill.

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