On March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez, captained by Joseph Hazelwood and bound for Long Beach, California, hit Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated minimum 10.8 million US gallons of crude oil. This disaster has been recorded as one of the largest spills in U.S. history and one of the largest ecological disasters.
For area wildlife, the timing could not have been worse. The spill occurred shortly before the phytoplankton blooms, the explosion of microscopic life that fuels marine life, and migration season. Thousands of migrating birds were headed toward the area en route to new seasonal destinations. In the spill's wake, hundreds of thousands of seabirds perished, along with thousands of marine mammals.
Despite the devastation, many experts were optimistic about the long-term prognosis for the area's fauna and flora. For example, Bruce Wing, a government biologist, assured the Anchorage Daily News a couple of weeks after the Valdez incident that the wildlife will "all come back. In a few years."
That was 1989. Today, 20 years later, the degree of recovery is a matter of considerable debate and litigation. Some scientists have concluded that the toxins from the oil spill have largely broken down and dispersed. Exxon has pointed to more than 350 scientific studies they funded that found no evidence of long-term effects.
But there are a host of other studies that find that toxins remain and are hindering ecosystem recovery. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (established 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) reports that a large number of species, including sea otters and Harlequin ducks, have yet to fully recover. And then there's the herring fishery.
Four years after the Exxon Valdez spill, the $12-million Pacific herring fishery collapsed, sending much of the local economy into a tailspin. While the cause is debated, there is evidence that the collapse was triggered years earlier by the spill itself. The fishery remains closed today.
Check out Valdez Science for more info.