Earth seemed to be failing in 1989. Atop the spread of pollution and deforestation loomed an ozone hole the size of a continent. Species were disappearing, and the global atmosphere was said to be warming. Then came the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, crystallizing the abuse of the environment. The toll of the oil spill on the wildlife of Prince William Sound was terrible and spectacular, on the order of a human catastrophe. People compared the Sound to Chernobyl, Bhopal, even Hiroshima. There was a widespread belief that the ecosystem was ruined, that the pristine Sound would not recover for decades, if ever. I went off to Alaska in May of '89 with a different attitude. I was incongruously optimistic about Prince William Sound. I believed in the life force. I believed that if an organism was assaulted and did not die, it would immediately strive to heal. The recovery would commence with the first clotting of the wound.
It helped that the killing wave had passed by the time I arrived. I surveyed the western Sound aboard a wildlife rescue vessel. Seven weeks after the accident, many beaches were smeared and intertidal life was choked, but there were no more dead birds or sea otters. They had been picked up, or eaten by scavengers, or washed from the Sound. The wildlife off the beaches appeared fit and healthy, their metabolisms fending off the hydrocarbons. Marine bacteria, the platelets hurrying to the cut, blossomed invisibly upon the oil. The Sound struck me as a superorganism coursing with energy. The sea flushed the straits, the streams fed the sea, the sun seared the stain. Petroleum was of the Earth, and the Earth was responding to it dynamically.
The disaster had a precedent in the recent past indeed, a coincidence crying out to be examined. The oil spill occurred on Good Friday, 1989. Twenty-five years earlier on Good Friday, a monstrous earthquake shook Prince William Sound. Its epicenter was exactly 25 miles from Bligh Reef, where the tanker grounded. The '64 earthquake literally upheaved the environment. Like the spill, it had acute effects that is, dramatic biological casualties in the short term and also chronic effects, subtle consequences over time. The quake's record was complete when I began to track the oil spill, and always in the back of my mind was wonder that the earlier disaster appeared never to have happened.
If the acute effects of the spill were severe but short-lived, the question in '89 was: How serious were the chronic effects going to be? What was the long-term hazard of the oil to the ecosystem? Five years have passed, though an eye-blink in environmental history, and I have returned a number of times. Five years is about the soonest juncture possible for making an evaluation. Without question the Sound is different than it would have been had the assault not taken place. But since the system is always changing anyway, as it reacts to environmental disturbances great and small, the Sound has accommodated this latest change as well. The spill altered its ecological spin, but not its ecological integrity, or not for long. The oil has yielded to competing intrusions, although the stain in spots is still there. The lesson gave me hope about the broader threats to the biosphere. Nature would recover if we would ease up a bit.
People are surprised when I say Prince William Sound isn't ruined. What came before, what would come again, is outside their frame of view. To be fair, it did not seem possible, not in the searing light of the initial mortalities, that the Sound could bounce back. I found it almost axiomatic that the sharper the distress over the acute effects, the deeper the doubts about environmental recovery.
I had the reassurance of the scientific perspective. Science is a mode of inquiry. It is a way of making sense of the world. Science differs from other modes (spiritual, philosophical, psychological) in demanding that the inquiry be systematic, that the trail to the unknown be blazed with replicative steps. Leaps of faith or of feeling are not permitted. I am most at home with this approach. It beats the others for clarity and content, but all the same the reader should be prepared for leaps.
Although most scientists were not apocalyptic about the Sound, their investigation suffered two handicaps. One was that uncertainty about the oil's effects predominated. Few of the results obtained were black and white. Second, much of the investigation was "litigation-sensitive," meaning that it was conducted under wraps. Even research that was public was subject to political pressures. Thus scientific interpretations were put out according to the biases of the studies' sponsors. The bias did not admit of the uncertainties. So science, as a method of inquiry, performed poorly in the Sound, and other modes gained by default.
My interest was in the nature of Prince William Sound and the diverse efforts to understand how the Sound and its creatures react to stress. My subject wasn't the Exxon Valdez per se. To underscore the difference, I will tell a story about the oil tanker.
During my first visit I saw the Exxon Valdez in Outside Bay on Naked Island. Emptied of her cargo, she was being cleaned and readied for towing to a shipyard in California. From the helicopter, I looked down on her broad red deck, symbol of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Three football fields long, half a football field wide, the tanker looked not as big as that because of the rock faces and conifers rising steeply around the bay.
I could not see inside her gashed hull. The poisonous oil had gone and done its worst to the Sound beyond. Now the Sound was within the tanker, and something strange had happened. Marine life was booming in the cargo holds. The divers made a videotape of it. The sequence inside Hold 3C, at the center of the tanker, illuminates a feeding frenzy. Fish of all sizes twist and snap at darting minnows. Some large fish swim upside down, possibly because they are oriented to the lights of the divers below. The camera passes through the fish and scans a jumble of protruding plates. Everything in the hold seems to be covered with a thick dust. A gloved hand, as in a housewife's slow-motion nightmare, brushes up white clouds from a surface. The water is clotted with organic matter.
Exxon invited scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to check out the bizarre phenomenon. The federal researchers happened to be working nearby, taking samples of the seawater, bottom sediments and marine life. Outside Bay was one of their stations for tracking the long-term damage of the oil spill.
The researchers came over readily, for Exxon and the government were still cooperating at the time on matters of science. Screening the tape aboard the tanker, the biologists were awed. The large fish included herring and salmon. William Gronlund, who was in charge of fish sampling for NOAA, wasn't able to identify the exact species from the monitor, so he and chief scientist Robert Clark asked if they might collect some. They were taken into Hold 3C.
The atmosphere was Stygian. The pair were lowered in a rubber skiff to the water. Their lanterns illuminated organisms rising and making so many circles on the surface that it looked like it was raining. They observed a floating oily matter, evidently oil loosened from the sides of the tank during cleaning. Paddling into the dark, Gronlund and Clark unfurled a gill net, surely the only fishermen ever to try their luck in the belly of an oil tanker, but they were not able to catch anything.
Clark estimated that the biota were four to 10 times richer than in the waters outside. He filled sample jars with jellyfish and the wriggling larvae of crustaceans and mollusks. From the videotape he deduced the presence of zooplankton, marine worms, bacterial mats and algae. Clark had studied oil spills for 20 years and never seen anything like this. But he considered that the tanker was sitting exposed to nutrient-rich water for two months. He theorized that bacteria and other tiny organisms, feeding and multiplying on the oil residues, had attracted bigger predators such as fish. The Exxon Valdez had become an aquarium, with a food chain in every tank.
Everyone understands the concept of the food chain, the littlest creatures connected to the largest in a dietary hierarchy. A familiar corollary is that poisons entering the food chain are passed upward, collecting and concentrating in the tissues of ever larger creatures until the compounds reach a destructive level. This scenario was invoked often by those fearing for the health of Prince William Sound. Yet here in the tanker was evidence of the opposite scenario: a cascade of biological enrichment due to the oil.
Which scenario was right? Oil as killer or oil as stimulus? Probably both. Probably the tanker environment was toxic at first (an acute effect of the oil), and subsequently it became productive (a chronic effect). Possibly this is what happened, but not definitely. When you looked below the surface, the Sound was full of uncertainty, full of odd surprises, and the Sound would not stand still.
In the spring of '89 the most knowledgeable scientists understood what would happen first the acute effects of the oil spill better than they understood what would happen over the long term. The question merged with that of marine pollution in general.
Since petroleum and petroleum-based products were major contributors to pollution, biologists had been studying hydrocarbons for years, both in the laboratory and in the field. The lab studies controlled tests on aquatic animals had nailed down the lethal ranges of hydrocarbons. The researchers also ascertained harmful, sublethal consequences from petroleum compounds in lesser concentrations. However, in field studies where equivalently low concentrations of oil were detected, the biological changes observed were usually no greater, no more frequent than the normal setbacks of natural variability.
The compounds in oil did not make for a particularly potent blend. With chemicals such as PCBs, more durable than hydrocarbons, real injuries to marine creatures could be distinguished. But as to the long-term effects of oil, the competition from natural stresses and diseases, which scientists call "noise," interfered with the harmful signal of the hydrocarbons and made understanding difficult.
After the oil spill, scientists in the Exxon camp pointed out the "margin of safety" for fish. No fish were known to have died outright, except a handful of rockfish, and as far as chronic effects were concerned, there was a thousandfold gap between the levels of harmful petroleum compounds measured in the water of the Sound and the concentrations known to be adverse to fish in the lab. That was one margin of safety. Another was the poor correlation between lab and field effects even if the spill's concentrations had been found to be 1,000 times higher. This argument was somewhat less persuasive, having as much to do with the problems of measuring changes as with changes themselves.
The damage assessors for the government circumvented Exxon's margins of safety. They homed in on hot spots in the Sound, areas of the ecosystem where oil concentrations were most pronounced and where organisms would suffer the greatest exposure doses not intense enough to kill them, necessarily, but constant enough to injure them.
For example, although the water in general had low and transient levels of toxic hydrocarbons, the gravel in some of the streams was strongly and persistently contaminated. Much effort was therefore put into measuring the damages to pink salmon eggs. Another targeted fish was the Pacific herring, because some spawned in oily shallows. In addition, it was proposed that the fry of salmon and herring acquired hydrocarbons not only through their gills in the near-shore waters, but also by ingesting oil droplets, in which case their exposures might be far higher. Government researchers confirmed not only that some of the pink salmon fry had ingested oil, but also that fry in the spill zone were slower-growing and smaller than the fry caught off uncontaminated shores. Among the mammals and birds, the river otters and the harlequin ducks foraged along oiled shorelines, and so merited long-term investigations. The most critical area was held to be the "bathtub ring" that the spill left upon the Sound, and the fertile nursery grounds just offshore of it.
In other words, the government, bridging the gap between field and lab conditions, measured effects in particular animals and at sensitive stages of development, according to patterns of injury that had been established in experiments.
But there was a third margin of safety Exxon did not fail to note it and that is the difference between effects on individuals and effects on populations. The field biologists in Alaska were accustomed to looking at the big picture, such as how disturbances change the abundance and diversity of wildlife populations, but they didn't know much about toxicology, which examines individuals. The investigators of the spill had to do a lot of reading in a hurry, and they lost sight of the forest for the toxicological trees. Not many biologists, let alone fishermen, Natives or others of the worried public, appreciated the distance between the two frames of investigation. Years later, when all was said and done, the spill researchers were able to demonstrate a connection between oil injuries and population damage in only two species, the sea otters and the murres (a seabird). Neither case depended on the oil's bathtub ring, nor on a chronic toxic stress. Rather, the damage that was reported reflected the high mortality of the first few weeks.
In general, people were made afraid about the long-term ramifications of the oil spill because of the considerable weight of academic references that were cited. These were selections from the record of prior spills and of experiments with hydrocarbons. But I don't wish to imply that people were innocently passive and misled. In fact, we tend to adopt and retain those scientific explications that appeal to pre-existent beliefs. "We hear and apprehend only what we already half know," was how Thoreau put it. Here what we half-knew about oil was half-wrong.
It gets back to the general issue of chemicals in the environment. It seemed to me that the pendulum of concern, aroused a generation ago when Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring," had swung too far by 1989. Just because a chemical could be measured in its parts per thousand or million didn't mean it was having a measurable effect. "There are many causes of sublethal abnormalities in marine life," observed Jonthan Houghton, a biological consultant to NOAA. "Should the public care if one out of a thousand barnacles has an abnormal chromosome because of the oil, as long as the population of barnacles isn't affected?"
The damage assessors smiled upon studies that could show monetary losses from the spill. Under the law a killed eagle or starfish had a dollar value representing the compensation to the public for their losses, but in the absence of a market for eagles or starfish, their worth was problematic. Economists consider the value of wildlife to be a "passive use" by the public. To set a figure on the value of passive use, pollsters ask people in Ohio such questions as, "How much is it worth to you just knowing that beaches in Alaska are unspoiled? How much would you personally pay to prevent another oil spill from killing eagles in Prince William Sound?" The responses are subjective at best, off the wall at worst, and at any rate highly unscientific, being hypotheses that are never tested. But reckonings of lost value make sense for natural resources that are exploited regularly. Thus, in Prince William Sound there was no better test case of loss than the pink salmon.
Commercial fishing is the largest private employer in Alaska. The oil industry may earn the state more revenue, and government overall employs more people, but fishing for salmon is the prototypical Alaska livelihood. Many Alaska communities are dependent on it, including Cordova in the Sound. Thanks to the value of its salmon landings, in excess of $50 million per year, little Cordova (population 2,500) was in the top 10 of U.S. fishing ports at the time of the spill.
There were no outright salmon kills after the oil spill, no carcasses to total up and value, but several generations of pink salmon were exposed to the oil. The NRDA Natural Resource Damage Assessment managers thought that the prospects for tracking the disturbance were good. Salmon reveal themselves more than any other pelagic fish, because they can be counted when they return to their natal streams to spawn. In a small way, the invisible population of the Gulf of Alaska is captured in the veins of the Sound. By foot and aerial surveys, and by automatic sonar counters in the streams, state biologists have recorded the spawning runs of salmon for more than 30 years. With the catch totals recorded too, a reliable idea of the population was in place.
Although all five species of Pacific salmon occur in Prince William Sound the other four are the red (a.k.a. sockeye), silver (coho), king (chinook) and chum (dog) the terrain greatly favors the pink salmon, or humpback. It is the smallest of the five. Whereas elsewhere in Alaska the larger species make heroic migrations of hundreds and even thousands of miles up broad rivers, the pink salmon uses modest streams near the sea. The Sound has hundreds of such streams, most of them extending a short way from the waterline to impassable mountain falls. The spawning area is so limited that over half the pinks lay their eggs in the intertidal zone.
From late June until early fall the pinks swarm into the Sound. They are about two feet in length and weigh up to four pounds. Their bright silver coloration darkens to black-olive and their bodies deform as they approach the climax of their lives. The male develops a wickedly hooked jaw and a pronounced hump (hence humpback; pink refers to the flesh color). If they are to be harvested it should be done before they get into the streams, for the fish wear out all at once, like the fabled one-horse shay.
In the gravel of the shallows the female digs a nest with her tail and begins depositing eggs. Hovering close by, the snaggle-toothed male squeezes out milt (sperm) and fertilizes the eggs. Then the female covers the nest and starts on a new one. Eventually she releases about 2,000 eggs. The salmon mill about for another week or two, sluggish prey for eagles and bears, their skins shedding and fins rotting and teeth falling out, until finally they turn white bellies upward.
Over the course of the winter the embryos hatch and turn into alevins, which are larvae nourished by attached yolk sacs. In a bad year, 90 percent of the eggs and alevins perish. They are dislodged by later spawners, gobbled up by trout and sculpins, washed out by heavy rains, desiccated when streams slacken in dry weather, frozen if low flows are accompanied by a cold winter. In the spring the surviving fry wriggle up through the gravel and are swept by the flowing water into the Sound.
The heaviest emergence takes place at night, so that the juveniles have a better chance of eluding predators. The big-eyed silvery fingerlings are about an inch and a half long. The first weeks are the most critical, not only because the fry are most vulnerable then to other fish and seabirds, but also because they need the zooplankton to grow, and the timing of the zooplankton bloom may not match the period of their greatest needs.
Schools of fry linger in the bays and coves of the Sound. In deeper waters as the summer progresses, they acclimatize to the conditions of the ocean. In the fall the six-inch salmon, now called smolts, head out to the Gulf and to the North Pacific. The pink salmon has just a two-year life cycle, the briefest of the five Pacific species. By the following summer they are fully grown and back in their home streams, whence the cycle begins anew.
It is a vicissitudinous life for the humpback. Their survival rate in the marine environment is even lower than the egg survival in the streams, about 2 percent. It works out that two adults return for every 1,000 eggs spawned.
Let us relate these vicissitudes to the events of 1989. The intertidal portions of many streams were hit by the oil spill just before the salmon fry emerged. Those juveniles, which were the salmon of the 1988 brood-year (the designation indicates when the fish were hatched), were exposed to oil in the sediments and subsequently in the water offshore. A few months later the adults of the 1987 brood-year came back and spawned in contaminated gravel. Although their abundance could not have been affected by the spill, their breeding may well have been. Their eggs and fry, of the 1989 brood-year, were exposed. I have to defer questions about what hydrocarbon exposure actually entails. The point for now is that if pink salmon populations were going to be disrupted, it would not be in the year of the spill. The effects would likely show up in the brood-year fish most affected that is, not until 1990 and 1991.
The biologists taking part in the NRDA studies did not wait for the runs to come in. In the summer of '89, Fish and Game personnel were hard at work throughout the western Sound. They counted spawners, dug up eggs and alevins, analyzed tissues and began to correlate their findings with the levels of oiling in the habitat. They found evidence of injury, which they used to make projections about the ensuing returns. Their data was kept secret. Now and then bureaucrats who were privy dropped dark hints, which were meant to counter Exxon's rosy pronouncements for the company too had biologists probing the Sound but the statements on either side had little value.
In the end, the salmon runs were not affected, at least not that could be determined. Why not? Too much noise. The returns in fact went up sharply for the two years after 1989. Any signal of the oil spill was swamped. The returns broke all catch records and then fell just as sharply in '92 and '93.
The pattern should not have been surprising. Fish and Game's graph of the returns since 1960 shows erratic highs and lows, good years zigzagging to bad. The number of pink salmon estimated to have returned to the streams of the Sound has bounced between 1 million and 20 million fish. The disturbances responsible for this lack of consistency include the '64 earthquake, the changeable ocean temperatures, the phasing of the zooplankton, the pressure of fishing itself and the extraordinary rise of aquaculture, any one of which, probably, has exceeded the oil spill in impact.
Salmon canneries have operated in Prince William Sound since 1889, but prior to statehood in 1959 the record-keeping was poor. The territorial fishery was no doubt overexploited. The postwar period is recalled today as the era of Big Fish. Large commercial processors based in the Lower 48 owned the boats, hired the fishermen and took their fill of the salmon. In the Sound any return greater than 5 million pinks was considered a very good year.
The Department of Fish and Game tightened the regulation in the '60s. Creek robbing, the practice of intercepting spawners in front of the stream mouth, was stopped. Streams were assigned "escapement goals," a set number of fish that would be allowed to escape the nets and lay eggs for the future. In the '70s the number of fishermen was restricted. Permits were granted to the active gillnetters and seiners. Like New York City taxi medallions, the permits could be bought and sold but not increased. Yet in spite of the protective measures, salmon did not gain in the Sound on the contrary.
The earthquake was the most obvious delimiting factor. The earthquake had attacked the salmon in their spawning beds. In the spring of '64, millions of alevins were crushed in the shock-shifted gravel, or scoured away by the tsunamis, or suffocated under layers of silt. The adults returning a few months later were confronted by a radically different habitat. Except at Perry Island and a few other places in the Sound, the breeding areas for salmon had either been uplifted or depressed. A number of creeks, blocked by uplifted sediments, had simply disappeared, the water filtering to the sea underground. Other streams had cut temporary channels, which moved or caved in after the run, leaving salmon eggs high and dry. The downthrust streams maintained their original courses, but trees killed by salt water obstructed many of them. On both the depressed and raised shores, the prime permeable gravels of the intertidal zone were replaced by silty, unstable sediments that took years to sort out.
Biologists estimated that in 1964 about a quarter of the Sound's pinks nested in intertidal areas where alevins could not survive. Montague Island, where upheavals were greatest, lost the most fish. In September of '64 biologists set stakes in the new spawning sections of a newly carved stream. A year later they could not find the stakes. They discovered that the stream had shifted 100 yards away and was barren of eggs. A run of some 700,000 fish on the Island prior to the quake dropped to 20,000 at the end of the decade. It has never come back.
Fish and Game tried to speed the recovery of 30 streams in the Sound, by clearing logjams and regrading channels. The effort was minor, given that 150 prime producing streams had been damaged, and it did not halt the population decline. In eight of the 10 years following the earthquake the runs were less than 5 million. The seine fishery was curtailed, and then closed altogether in '72 and '74. The especially dismal returns of those two years were direct echoes of the failed spawn of 1964.
Yet biologists were puzzled that things should be worse 10 years after the quake. Now that stream beds had finally stabilized, salmon habitat in the Sound had actually increased. The majority of streams, in being uplifted, gained length on the widened shore. Escapement goals were being met; fry were being produced in sufficient quantity to bolster populations. Scientists were obligated to look beyond the Sound, for runs were down elsewhere in Alaska as well. They talked about poor ocean-survival conditions, which was a tautology (salmon weren't surviving because they weren't surviving), indicating how little they understood the adult phase of the fish's two-year cycle.
In hindsight, two forces appear to have impinged on the pinks in the North Pacific. Foreign fishing fleets began using long driftnets in the '70s, and intercepted an unknown but possibly large number of Alaska salmon. Second was the cycle of the ocean's temperature, as per Tom Royer's model. University of Alaska oceanographer Thomas Royer has proposed that every 15 to 25 years Gulf of Alaska undergoes a two-degree Centigrade shift from cold to warm and back again. The cooling trend of the '70s may have caused adverse conditions for fin fish such as salmon. Ted Cooney, Royer's colleague at the university's Institute of Marine Science, has explored a similar idea. He has made links between the springtime water temperature. The timing of the zooplankton bloom, the emergence of the salmon fry and the strength of the return the following year.
In 1979 the fishery abruptly turned around. The commercial catch tripled and quadrupled averaging over 15 million salmon through the mid-'80s. Perhaps it was because the high-seas fishery was brought under control, and|or ocean temperatures averaged slightly warmer. Meanwhile something else had changed, easing the urgency of such questions. The wild salmon were being supplemented with fish spawned in hatcheries.
Representing four of the Sound's five hatcheries, the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. is the largest salmon ranching operation in North America. As opposed to salmon farms, which rear fish to maturity in submerged pens, like cattle in feedlots, salmon ranches let their fry go after hatching. The co-founder of PWSAC (universally referred to as "Pizz-wack") was a courtly German-American named Armin Koernig. I talked with him over lunch one day in Cordova.
Koernig immigrated to Alaska the year before the earthquake. He said he felt desperate he and his fellow fishermen as the salmon runs deteriorated. At the nadir in the early '70s, a rival industry loomed, for oil had been discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope. The fishermen feared a spill and sued to block the pipeline to Valdez, but they were overruled. "In the winters, when we couldn't fish," Koernig recalled, "we sat around wondering what to do. Were we going to sell out and go work for the oil companies?"
Aquaculture in theory would stabilize the supply of fish. Koernig knew nothing of fish culture, but he undertook to learn. He joined with Wally Noerenberg, who had just retired as commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game. Backed by contributions from other Cordovans, the two convinced the state to assist in starting a hatchery in the Sound. "We were just a bunch of orangutan fishermen," Koernig said proudly. Indirectly the oil industry helped, too, by providing tax and royalty payments that the state used for new programs. In 1975 the first PWSAC fry were released from what is now the Armin F. Koernig Hatchery on Sawmill Bay in the southwestern Sound.
The facility doesn't look as though anything high-tech is going on. It occupies the site of a salmon cannery that went under due to the poor runs. Isolated at the far end of the bay, its weathered docks, sheds and staff dormitory call to mind a sailing camp that has gone slightly to seed. The gadgetry is out of sight in the main basement. The shiny metal incubation trays are stacked six deep in large rooms, and there are crisscrossing pipes and troughs leading to the outside. On a level below the incubation area, an enclosed stream flows. The freshwater is piped from a lake just above the hatchery. The salmon are bonded to the subtle but individual chemical characteristics of this water.
The progenitors of the first AFK fry were wild fish seized before they could reach streams elsewhere in the Sound. The trick was to imprint their eggs with the new water so that the next generation would lock on and return to it.
The procedures are the same for both start-up fish and the subsequent brood stock. First the eggs are stripped from females and put into buckets. The milt is squeezed out of males directly into the buckets. A freshwater rinse mixes eggs and milt, and fertilization occurs. Next the fertilized eggs are put into the incubator trays, which are boxes with a 3-inch substrate of plastic pellets on the bottom. Called saddles because of their shape, the pellets are akin to the gravel of a creek bed. Water flows through the trays, from the top row of stacks to the bottom, at the rate of 15 gallons a minute.
For four to five months the embryos bathe in the flow on top of the saddles. But when they hatch as alevins in December, they wriggle down into the substrate, insulating themselves from the buffeting of the water. The rooms are kept dark; workers wear headlamps. The reason is that the alevins should expend as little energy as possible, since the yolk sacs are their only sustenance.
Cued by the rising temperature of the water, the fry emerge from the saddles in March. Their progress is pretty much left to them. The fish swim with the flow through the linked trays. They enter chutes laced with salt water, the hatchery equivalent of an intertidal zone, and eventually are channeled into holding pens in the harbor. About one in 1,000 is briefly intercepted for tagging. A minuscule copper wire, coded to indicate the salmon's origin, is injected into its nose. An unneeded fin is clipped from the tagged fish in order to distinguish it in the future.
Seven to 8 million per pen, weighing about a hundredth of an ounce apiece, the fry live on commercial fish food for several weeks. PWSAC biologists determine when the spring zooplankton bloom is peaking, and then they turn loose the fry. The releases are made at night, to try to foil predators. In recent years an average of 120 million fingerlings have fanned out from the hatchery. The juveniles take their chances in the Sound and then in the Gulf with the wild stocks, and the survivors come back as adults.
AFK averages returns of around 5 million fish, the equivalent of the entire run of the Sound before aquaculture. For weeks a crush of pinks fights to attain a small stream tumbling out of the lake. Historically no salmon could breed here because a waterfall makes an impassable barrier. Even if the stream were accessible, there are many too many fish to fit in it. The mating bower is a facade, scented and hung with seine nets.
The actuarial advantages of aquaculture are these: Whereas only 10 percent of the eggs in the streams make it to the fry stage, the PWSAC success rate is over 90 percent. Whereas only 2 percent of wild fry return, the PWSAC success rate has been 5 per cent. People dismissed Armin Koernig when he predicted in the mid-'70s that the hatchery system would produce runs of 15 and 20 million fish within a decade, but those numbers came to pass and more.
Pink salmon boomed in the Sound in the '80s. As if responding to the competition, the wild stocks multiplied and stayed ahead of the growing hatchery returns until 1987. In 1988 the ratio changed sharply in favor of aquaculture, and irreversibly, it would now appear. Wild runs plummeted to less than 9 million, the lowest since 1974, while hatchery returns topped 11 million. The decline was attributed in part to severe flooding in the fall of '86, which dislodged eggs from the streams. But with salmon prices high in '88, fishermen were able to exploit the fruits of the hatcheries. They had exciting proof that science could insulate the fishery from the swings of natural variability.
In 1989 the wild pinks numbered 6.6 million, considerably less than forecast. But the hatchery runs topped 17 million, a new record. The fishing that summer was unprecedented in another respect, but this latest disturbance affected the fishermen more than the salmon.
A little fishing vessel steamed into West Twin Bay on Perry Island. The boat was the Skin Deep. Kelly and Cece were right on time to pick me up.
In the spring of '89 the Skin Deep belonged to the Prince William Sound Wildlife Rescue Fleet, a group of fishermen mobilized in response to the spill. Kelly Carlisle, Cece Crowe and Barbara Logan worked very hard. They saved some animals but mainly collected carcasses. By the time I joined them on the boat in the middle of May, there wasn't anything more to do but to log the sightings of wildlife. I won't tell of the time I had aboard, because it was so askew from the angst prevailing about the disaster. Let me quote nature writer Jolin Burroughs, who wrote in 1899 when he first experienced Prince William Sound: "We were afloat in an enchanted circle; we sailed over magic seas under magic skies; we played hide and seek with winter in lucid sunshine over blue and emerald waters all the conditions, around, above, below us were most fortunate."
Now it was August. Back for my second tour in the Sound, I was happy to see my friends again. Kelly Carlisle, the skipper and owner, was in his early 40s, with rumpled hair, a straight-as-an-arrow nose and sailor's crinkles around the eyes. Cece Crowe, the first mate, was a woman not long out of college, round-cheeked and blond. Carlisle made his living from shrimp, which he caught in pots in the Sound. On the spit of the bay one place that according to my map had gone neither up nor down in 1964 we sauteed some shrimp for lunch.
From Perry Island the Skin Deep headed north toward College Fjord. Carlisle planned to fill his fish hold with ice chunks calved from the glaciers. He had outfitted the boat with a fancy new autopilot, a plum from his Exxon earnings with the rescue fleet. It freed him from the wheel, and he was able to join Cece and me at the rail, where we watched in awe as the pink salmon flooded into the hatchery at Esther Island.
PWSAC's Wally Noerenberg Hatchery, newer and larger than Koernig Hatchery, is similar in being situated at the base of a captive waterfall. A lake above guarantees a steady supply of fresh water. How millions of salmon navigate from the northern Pacific back to this particular trickle is not known. Doubtless they pick up the chemical path by which they left, oriented by the currents, perhaps, or by regional magnetic patterns. Scientists have studied the brains of migrating salmon. At the ends of their lives the fish are so bent on olfactory homing that other cerebral functions are nearly shut down.
Nearing Esther, we saw splashes on the green-gray water in front of the entrance to Lake Bay. Two seine boats contracted to PWSAC were harvesting fish inside a line of boom. A large tender stood by to receive them. The nonprofit corporation keeps a percentage of the hatchery production for itself, to recover operating costs and to obtain brood stock. The rest is the common property of fishermen.
When we got closer, we could see silvery glints in the air. The salmon were leaping from the water. Fish were rounding the bend of the island, hugging the shore, coming directly toward us now, thousands of them, streaming in a file no wider than 50 yards, like geese following a trail of corn.
Kelly cut the engine and we drifted into the line of migration. So many were jumping around the boat that I took a dipnet and leaned over the side, certain I could snare us dinner. The salmon threw themselves upward, twisted their backs and loudly smacked down, but a spark of self-preservation must have persisted in their addled brains, because none came within my reach.
Kelly said he thought that only the female humpies jumped, and that in crashing onto their sides they were trying to loosen the egg sacs in their bellies. (A PWSAC biologist, demurring, said a more likely explanation was that the salmon were trying to shake off a parasite.) We got under way again, angling away from the shore. Behind us the flinging, flying forms were backlit against the sky. For a moment I felt I was at a carnival, looking down a shooting gallery that had fish cutouts for targets the targets were popping up and down, 20 and 30 at a time, to the beat of a crazy calliope. For every fish heaving itself into view, 500 were unseen below.
The strangest thing about the scene was the absence of fishing boats. Over three days during the week before, the fleet had taken half a million fish here. The PWSAC seiners, behind their protective boom, were still hauling up salmon like gangbusters. Yet the area just outside, where the common property fishery took place, was closed because of oil.
Late on July 8, a sheen about a half mile long had appeared near the shore of Esther. Nets of several boats were tainted. James Brady, the chief management biologist for Fish and Game in Cordova, invoked what was called the zero-tolerance policy. To maintain the buyers' confidence in the product, the state had decided when the season began that any hint of oil in a particular fishing district would result immediately in its closure.
Stressed out from four months of dealing with the spill, which had already shut the southwestern districts and denied them their share of the AFK run, the fishermen boiled over in frustration. Several hundred were idled in Cordova, while several hundred others were out working the cleanup another source of anger, for the men who had hired their boats out to Exxon were making a lot more money than the men who had decided to fish. I sat in on a meeting at the high school gym. James Brady and the state were berated for inconsistent management, PWSAC was berated for taking all the fish and Exxon was berated for everything else.
Stories rippled through town about mystery sheens in the Sound. They were like UFO sightings. Outside the Fish and Game building, Brady stood in a knot of fishermen, parrying heated questions. Someone arrived with a report from Valdez about two chum salmon: Oil had contaminated their flesh. This would be a first. Brady hurriedly dispatched an assistant to check it out. It was hydraulic fluid from a fishing boat.
Hatchery humpies were flowing into the northern Sound at 200,000 a day, milling about uncaught, their flesh going soft. After two weeks of monitoring, the Esther district was declared safe to reopen. Two million pinks were taken in 12 hours on Aug. 14. One net contained 25,000 fish. Cheek to jowl in the salmon, the seiners complained about combat fishing, compared themselves to rats in a cage. Aquaculture's down side is that it reduces the importance of skill. The fisherman used to have to second-guess the salmon, setting his nets where intuition and experience told him the fish would be running.
Undeniably, the Alaska fishermen endured pain and suffering because of the spill in their unspoiled Sound. Many lost income and justly filed claims against the oil company. But within the Sound at least, the spill did not prevent the salmon from being caught. The spill delayed the catch in the Sound, to be sure, and salmon quality was therefore not as good. But because the pinks of '89 were preponderantly hatchery fish, they passed through the restricted zones and were netted in the sanctuaries of the four facilities. The run in the closed southwestern district was poor, as it happened. Because of escapement targets, only about 125,000 pinks made it into the streams that should have been caught.
Fish and Game's zero-tolerance policy seemed to have worked, for the canneries processed the catch and the public accepted the product as untainted. Ironically, it was never proved that the sheen that grounded the fleet in late July originated from the oil spill. Tests by a NOAA lab showed the sheen samples not to be crude oil, but either bilge oil or diesel fuel. A state lab's analysis was inconclusive. As James Brady said, "People started seeing things with a new set of eyes that summer." He said fish processors in Alaska never before had a zero-tolerance for oil.
The next year, 1990, all were grateful that fishing in the Sound was unimpeded. The normal regulations applied, save for a few small areas off oily beaches that were closed. The 1989 fry, having encountered the spill on their way out, now poured in as adults. The numbers were staggering: 31.8 million yet another record returned to the hatcheries, plus 14.5 million wild fish to the streams. In August, with the hauls averaging 2 million a day, the processors couldn't handle any more. PWSAC had trouble selling the salmon it needed to cover its costs. Humpies built up again in front of the hatcheries, only this time the sated fleet wasn't interested. Fish and Game had to twist the fishermen's arms to come scoop up the excess production.
Overall it was twice the return of 1989. Exxon exulted, and the NRDA managers bit their tongues. Pressed for an explanation, officials speculated that the run might have been even greater without the oil spill.
Behind the scenes, Fish and Game commissioned a study to estimate the lost fish. Researcher Hal Geiger, extrapolating from the injuries to eggs and fry in 1989, made a case that 2 million additional salmon should have returned to the streams in '90, and an untold number more to the hatcheries. Geiger's report also noted that 1989 was a unique year for the propagation of pink salmon, "a year of excellent environmental conditions that may have strongly counteracted the effects of the oil."
I mentioned Ted Cooney's work relating the strength of a run to the water temperatures and zooplankton of the prior year. Cooney and his colleagues have recorded the springtime bloom and abundance of copepods a tiny drifting crustacean around the AFK hatchery for more than a decade. He has devised a concept he calls a food-day. Food-days are calculated by multiplying the average daily concentrations of zooplankton in the water by the number of days the bloom lasts. The higher the number, the more the salmon fry have available to eat. Cooney found that food-days fluctuated widely between years, by as much as a factor of 5. His other key variable, surface water temperature, appeared to influence the timing of the emergence of the fry. Cooney melded the information into a mathematical expression which he used to predict the size of the following year's run of the wild stocks.
The model was too simple to be surefire. When Cooney backtested it using the existent data of the '80s, the linkage heId up only two years out of three. But his model forecast the returns more successfully than Fish and Game was able to do. Traditionally the department has based its projections on the number of alevins sampled in the stream beds during the winter, and not on the marine conditions during the spring.
During the spring of 1989, there was concern that the zooplankton may have been damaged. Cooney and his associates at the Institute of Marine Science were out measuring plankton stocks during April while the crude was still on the water. Their findings were kept secret. But I heard anecdotal reports of a huge bloom, in both the oiled and unoiled parts of the Sound. One scientist joked that the copepods were so big he worried they'd eat the fry, not the other way around. Ted Cooney's private calculation of food-days indicated the second-strongest zooplankton bloom of the decade. His model predicted the excellent wild run of 1990. Too bad it wasn't publicized. Some of the fishermen might have slept easier.
Now we come to 1991. The '89 brood-year fish returned strongly. The threat facing fishermen in '91 was not environmental but economic. Falling prices were undermining the success of the hatcheries. Alaska salmon lost ground to farmed fish from Norway, Chile, Canada and even Maine. Japan, the world's largest consumer, wasn't paying what it used to for red salmon, the preferred species. The pink salmon was the least-favored and cheapest, bony and delicate when compared to the others, and thus condemned to the can in the absence of a better marketing idea.
Before the opening of the '91 season two of Cordova's four processing facilities went bankrupt. Warehouses were still full of last year's product. The price processors offered for pinks was 12 to 15 cents a pound, down from 30 cents the year before and 79 cents in '88. For several days the seine fleet protested the low prices by refusing to leave port. Then the majority of salmon returned late, guaranteeing an unmanageable glut in August. Wild runs in the Sound were over 9 million, hatchery returns 31 million. By summer's end it was no longer a matter of selling salmon so much as getting rid of them.
Sawmill Bay, which fishermen had boomed off and saved from the oil spill two years before, was tinted brown from an unwanted writhing mass of fish. It was calamitous. They could not be left there to rot. The governor had the idea to make a gift of seafood to the Soviet Union. But who would pay for the canning? Exxon, having committed an environmental molestation that the governor need not mention, was tapped and cheerfully contributed $2 million.
So the Russians, and the poor in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and the sled dogs of the '92 Iditarod race, received over a million PWSAC fish. The less suitable salmon, over 2.5 million in all, were netted from the hatcheries, hauled to the open waters of the Sound and dumped like garbage.
Aquaculture was now perceived as a mixed blessing. Biological questions were raised that hadn't seemed important before. The hatchery fingerlings came out of their chutes bigger and stronger, pegged to the zooplankton, more fit than their wild cousins to elude predators. What was the danger to the carrying capacity of the Sound, with a half billion extra fry to feed? Or to the Gulf, now supporting pinks from hatcheries beyond the Sound? Alaska pink salmon numbered 120 million in 1991, 10 times the catch of 1975. What might the hatchery fish be doing to the genetic diversity of the wild stocks? For it was discovered that some of the PWSAC fish, when they came back, were straying into the streams. To critics the cultured fish were becoming an ecological disturbance, not an enhancement.
The prices for salmon did not improve in 1992. And in '92 the returns to the Sound plummeted: the wild pinks to 2.2 million, the hatchery run to below 8 million, the total making the lowest return since aquaculture started. The 1993 returns were even worse crashing to a total of some 8 million pink salmon, a level not seen since the '70s. The salmon were undersized to boot. Fishing, always a boom-and-bust enterprise, squeezed the weaker fishermen out of business. It was no consolation that Royer's Gulf temperature, inching downward from its '8Os highs, might be contributing to the problem, or that Cooney's food-days, calculated for each year prior, had warned of the failures to come.
Cordova believed the oil spill must somehow be at fault. In August of '93 the fleet took out its frustration on the pipeline. Sixty boats of fishermen blockaded tanker traffic at Valdez. I remember the men first threatening to do this in the summer of 1989. After a two-day protest, the Secretary of the Interior persuaded the fishermen to back off. The government committed more money to study the problem with the fishery in Prince William Sound.
Scientifically, this was a tall order. What exactly was the problem? The fish most exposed to oil had come back strong in '90 and '91. By '92 the oil was purged from the sediments of the Sound except in a few places. The hydrocarbons still in the environment could have had no bearing on the production of hatchery fry, yet hatchery returns fell apace with the native runs.
To be sure, Fish and Game measured injuries to eggs in the oiled streams in '89, '90 and '91. Biologists dug them up after the runs and found a greater number of inviable embryos in the oiled streams than they did in the unoiled streams. The trouble was, the difference in survival never showed up the following spring, when the emergent fry were counted. Natural losses over the winter had evened the score. So where beds had been contaminated, the disturbance at one stage (eggs) was distinct, but its echo had vanished at the next stage (hatchlings) vanished at least from the hearing of statistics. Hence a discrepancy in the terms of the numbers of returning adults would be impossible to measure.
Another confounding fact was that the worst year for egg deaths was not the fall of 1989 as would be expected, nor even 1990, but rather 1991, following two and a half years of constant flushing. When the difference in egg survival persisted in 92 and 93, the peer reviewers for the salmon studies wondered whether the baseline conditions of the two sets of streams had been different to start with. It might be that a stream's orientation to weather and waves had a greater influence on egg survival than the degree of contamination.
"Apparent functional sterililty," countered Fish and Game biologists, advancing an interesting new hypothesis: There may have been genetic damage to the hatchlings that survived their exposure to the hydrocarbons. The scenario was that the 89 brood-year salmon, though plentiful when they came back to the streams in 91, laid an unnaturally high proportion of inviable eggs. The same may have happened to the progeny of the 90 brood-year.
The idea needed testing. So the NOAA laboratory at Auke Bay set up an experiment, an attempt to replicate the field conditions. Salmon embryos were to be stressed with oil, raised to maturity and then bred. Would their sexual productivity be less than that of a control group? The results won't be known for several years. In the meantime the lawyers could freely speculate; but the chief scientist for damage assessment and the peer reviewers did not believe there was evidence for population damage in pink salmon. Runs had been as poor in the past, and oil not an issue.
What exactly was the problem? On the one hand, we have a creature designed to persist in the face of fearsome losses. From a thousand eggs, a thousand chances in the wild, only one or two successes result, one or two chances to extend life to the next generation of salmon, and yet such long odds seem enough to maintain the species. On the other hand, we have a disturbance, an oil spill, whose effects were probably no greater and probably a good deal less than the winnowings of other disturbances. How many of those 999 fruitless salmon were knocked out by petroleum and therefore not by ice, sun, flood, earthquake, disease, kittiwake, killer whale, etc.?
Nature was like a juggler, a slew of balls in the air. One ball was black. Did it matter which one?
High summer, 1989, and fall coming fast. The first spill-year ebbed. I spent my days in my rooms in Cordova, writing about Valdez. The weather over Lake Eyak got wetter. With the September storms, the greenish water flowing into the lake from behind the mountains was blown toward my shore, a band of green pearl, bled from far glaciers, unmixed with darker depths.
The singer John Denver toured the Sound and afterward gave a free concert in Cordova. The singer was accompanied by the head of a national environmental group who had been making hay with the spill all summer. On breaking into "Take Me Home, Country Roads," Denver said to us, with evident emotion, "Earth is very fragile, and worthy of our greatest attention and love."
Fragile is one thing Earth is not; nor is life on Earth fragile. Life on Earth has weathered meteor bombardments, climate reversals and regular crises of extinction. Individual human beings are fragile, however. We humans project our tenderness onto Earth and then appoint ourselves as stewards of the endangered world. Stephen Jay Gould calls it "the old sin of pride and exaggerated self-importance." He goes on: "We are among millions of species, stewards of nothing. By what argument could we, arising just a geological microsecond ago, become responsible for the affairs of a world 4.5 billion years old, teeming with life that has been evolving and diversifying for at least three quarters of that immense span? Nature does not exist for us, had no idea we were coming, and doesn't give a damn about us."
But Gould does believe in taking care of the Earth, a sort of environmental tough love necessary for the preservation of the human race. Nuclear war, ozone holes and global warming will hurt mankind first and foremost. To me it is the fear of death, never far below the motivations of the human spirit, that elevates the environmental rationale to a moral imperative. A dose of geological history, a short course in ecological disequilibrium, help to steel one for the inevitable. Meanwhile, we should do what we can for nature, within nature.
The anthropocentric instinct to keep our world whole around us, to preserve the delicate and balanced nature that we perceive, impels us, whenever we break the world somehow, to try to put it back together just as it was. We don't have the ability. At a conference in Anchorage on post-spill restoration, a marine ecologist named John Teal, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spoke in favor of the hands-off approach. "I think there is a great hope for Prince William Sound, particularly if we are not too arrogant about what we can do," Teal said. "I think nature, particularly nature in the oceans, is much more capable of doing restoration than we are."
Teal was in the minority in 1989. The majority of voices cried for an aggressive response. "Everyone's goals are the same," said a government official, "to restore Prince William Sound to its original splendor."
From the book "Degrees of Disaster Prince William Sound: How Nature Reels and Rebounds," by Jeff Wheelwright, Copyright ) 1994 by Jeff Wheelwright, to be published in August by Simon & Schuster.
Jeff Wheelwright is the former science editor of Life magazine. He now lives on the central coast of California.