Exxon Valdez oil-spill recovery still is work in progress, 20 years later
Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, pockets of oil — an estimated 16,000 gallons — remain buried in small portions of the intertidal zone. And herring, a cornerstone species of Prince William Sound's ecosystem, is one of two species "not recovering." The herring population's failure to rebound has emerged as among the most perplexing ecological mysteries of the spill's legacy.
Seattle Times staff reporter
How they fared
Status of some species since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill:
Considered recovered: Bald eagles, pink salmon, harbor seals, common loons and common murres.
Considered recovering: Killer whales, clams, harlequin ducks and black oystercatchers.
Considered not recovering: Pacific herring, pigeon guillemots
Recovery unknown: Marble murrelets
For a full list and other information, see www.evostc.state.ak.us
Source: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council
Video | NOAA uncovers oil from Exxon Valdez in 2004
Twenty years ago, Cordova fisherman John Renner was poised for the spring herring harvest in Prince William Sound. He had a 50-foot seiner packed with nets and fuel, and the galley loaded with deer, moose and other fixings to feed his four-person crew for up to a month.
Each day, he monitored reports from state biologists for word that the herring's sac roe -- a fish-egg delicacy in Japan -- had ripened.
"The herring fishery was the pinnacle of seining," Renner said. "It was the Super Bowl of fishing. The best, most competitive guys."
The harvest was canceled after the Exxon Valdez ran aground March 24, 1989, on Bligh Reef, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil -- enough crude to fill 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Instead of netting herring, Renner spent the spring picking up dead birds off the beach and running a shuttle service for the gargantuan cleanup effort.
Today, on the 20th anniversary of the largest oil spill in the nation's history, Renner again will be on shore during the spring harvest due to a prolonged collapse of the herring stock.
The plight of the herring underscores how much of the Prince William Sound recovery remains a work in progress.
Visitors can see spectacular, unspoiled vistas of islands surrounded by blue-green waters and mountain-rimmed fjords. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council lists nine species -- including bald eagles, loons and cormorants -- as fully recovered from the disaster.
But pockets of oil -- an estimated 16,000 gallons, according to federal researchers -- remain buried in small portions of the intertidal zone hard hit by the spill. Seven distinct species, including sea otters, killer whales and clams, still are considered to be "recovering" from the initial effects of the oil.
And herring, a cornerstone species of the Sound's ecosystem, is one of two species considered as "not recovering" by the council, the joint federal-state group established to oversee restoration.
The herring population's failure to rebound has emerged as among the most perplexing ecological mysteries of the spill's legacy.
Herring are a prime source of protein for marine mammals, birds and many fish. They also were a major source of income for Renner and other fishermen.
Just after the spill, fishermen enjoyed three years of booming harvests collectively worth more than $20 million. Then, in 1993, the herring population nose dived.
Plenty of studies about Prince William Sound herring have been done. But like so much of the science in the spill's aftermath, the research has been marked by dueling findings.
Exxon Mobil officials cite scientific studies, many funded by the company, that discount the notion that the spill triggered the collapse of herring stocks or their current decline.
Others scientists conclude the oil spill harmed some salmon during the spill, setting the stage for the 1993 collapse. Even among these researchers, there is debate about how that happened, and why herring stocks remain so depleted.
Some studies have concluded that the crude oil took an initial toll on herring populations by tainting newly hatched herring, and killing or sickening adult fish as they swam to the surface to refill their air bladder.
The weakened stocks were vulnerable to disease and possibly overfishing during several years of harvests that followed the spill, according to Richard Thorne of the Prince William Sound Science Center.
Once populations plunged, some scientists noted a new development: an influx into the sound of humpback whales, a predator that has feasted on remaining herring stocks and possibly kept them at low levels.
"We call that the predator pit," Thorne said.
Others theorize that climate change may have played a role, making it harder for herring to survive in the food-short winter months.
For Renner, the herring's plight festers painfully in his mind, particularly in the spring.
Renner, 53, a Seattle native, moved to Cordova in 1980. He eventually joined three herring fisheries each year, including a complicated harvest that involved herding the fish into floating net pens to lay their eggs on kelp strands.
The year after the spill, Renner concluded that something was seriously wrong with the herring inside these pens. Instead of laying their roe in flat sheets across the kelp, the herring deposited the eggs in weird little towers.
In 1991, Renner noticed that some of the herring ring never spawned at all. He cut them open, and found they appeared to have reabsorbed the eggs.
"I had never seen anything like it and was horrified," Renner said.
A few years after the 1993 crash, there was hope that the herring populations were on the mend. State officials allowed three years of small commercial harvests that ended in 1998 when the herring populations plummeted again.
There have been no herring harvests in the past decade, leaving Prince William Sound fishermen dependent on the vagaries of salmon fishing.
Even when salmon runs have been strong, prices for pinks were often at rock-bottom levels. Many fishermen had financial problems as they struggled to pay off debts for boats and harvest permits.
Renner says his finances probably will require him to fish for many years to come. He is in Bellingham this spring, modifying a salmon boat to make it easier to stow the harvest as he gets older.
Prince William Sound fishermen are benefiting from a new infusion of cash.
After a Supreme Court decision last fall, Renner and other fishermen in recent weeks have begun to receive delayed, and much-reduced, punitive-damage payments from Exxon Mobil.
A few fishermen have received checks of several hundred thousand dollars or more, and Renner expects to receive checks totaling more than $100,000. But more than 100 fishermen risk having all or part of their checks claimed by the state of Alaska to pay down debt for permit loans. Most of this money was borrowed after the spill.
"Basically, this would leave me with nothing," said John Platt, a Cordova fishermen. He calculates that, after back interest is tallied, he will owe more than $400,000 to the state.
As the 20th anniversary of the spill arrives, hopes are fading for a natural recovery of herring.
There are proposals to build a herring hatchery, but some fear that could introduce more disease. Other proposals would try to create physical barriers that would exclude whales from key spawning bays, or add feed to the bays to boost herring survival.
So now there are plans for more studies.
"We're not going to consider Prince William Sound recovered until the herring are recovered," said Jeep Rice, a federal scientist who has spent the past 20 years studying the spill's impact.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
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