23 years ago today, on March 24, 1989, the single-hulled oil tanker Exxon Valdez, en route from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles, California, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Within hours of the grounding, the 987-foot vessel spilled approximately 11 million gallons (257,000 barrels) of Prudhoe Bay Crude, making it the largest spill ever in U.S. waters until the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. The oil would eventually contaminate over 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean, ultimately killing an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Although the Exxon Valdez spill is not the largest in terms of total volume spilled, the large spill area, remote location, and abundance of wildlife in the region combined to make it an environmental disaster far beyond the scope of larger spills. Needless to say this tragedy severely tested our nation’s oil spill preparedness and disaster response capabilities. At the height of the response, more than 11,000 personnel, 1,400 vessels and nearly 100 aircraft were involved in the cleanup. It took more than four summers before the cleanup effort was called off.
The impact of that reckless and negligent act has been far-reaching and long-lasting, not only environmentally, but also socially and economically – especially for those living and working in the spill area. Despite the fact that many areas affected by the spill have returned to their previous, pristine state, some species and wildlife habitats are still years away from full recovery. Some of the very beaches where first responders set foot decades ago remain toxic and are still contaminated with troubling levels of subsurface oil. The reality is that long-term ecological impacts of the disaster still may not be known for years to come. Environmental assessments and effects monitoring by state and Federal agencies continue on to this day.
As the Exxon Valdez disaster made so painfully clear, the single greatest threat to the sea otter is an oil spill. One large oil spill in central California could be catastrophic, with the potential of driving the entire southern sea otter population into extinction. It’s shameful that it takes an environmental disaster of this magnitude to remind us of our dependency on our natural world (and oil), our moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth and its resources, and the irreparable harm we can inflict upon it when we become careless and complacent. We can do better. We have to do better.
It is in that spirit that we welcome you today to seaotters.com.
Seaotters.com Founder and Principal