When Prince William Sound fishermen blockaded tankers last month, their first goal was to put pressure on Exxon to settle claims from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. But the fishermen also were expressing frustration with the government's follow-up effort to restore the Sound to health. Despite more than $100 million spent on research since the spill, government scientists had been unable to explain much less predict the disastrous disappearance of herring and pink salmon from the Sound in 1993.
The wild pink run was the worst in two decades, and the mainstay run of hatchery pinks was an unexpected
flop. Herring showed up sick and unharvestable. Commissioner of Fish and Game Carl Rosier called the fishing season "a total disaster."
With a bad 1992 season already behind them, many fishermen in the Sound were facing bankruptcy.
Scientists were telling fishermen they didn't know what was going on. Their studies hadn't given them a broad understanding of the Sound's natural cycles, of water temperatures and food chains, and without that it would be nearly impossible to link the nation's biggest oil spill to an unexpected run failure four years later. Nor did they have such studies in the works.
Key studies of herring and salmon had even been cut back by state and federal trustees administering the $900 million Exxon civil settlement just before the disastrous 1993 season got under way.
Fishermen were irate.
"It seems pretty fishy to me that after this oil spill our hatcheries that have been performing like clockwork stop performing and our herring fishery dies," said Jim Gray, a commercial seiner who helped organize the blockade in Valdez Narrows.
Pink salmon runs have a quick turnaround because of the pink's two-year life cycle. Runs are known to fluctuate wildly, often because of poorly understood conditions in the ocean. But the 1993 run of Kodiak pinks, exposed to similar high-seas factors, was exceptional, nearly double the previous record high. The problems with the Sound's salmon seem to lie within Prince William Sound.
Exxon denies any connection between the oil spill and the run failure. Government and university scientists aren't so sure. Initial studies found little damage to pinks. Indeed, the first salmon return after the spill set a record. But a still-inconclusive Department of Fish and Game study has now produced surprising evidence of genetic damage to salmon born in oiled streams, rendering them sterile.
Even if those results are borne out by further study, they would provide only a small piece of the puzzle. The biggest sources of pinks in the Sound, and the biggest failure this year, are the hatchery runs, which were protected in the egg stage from oil.
Everyone agrees there are many factors affecting the Sound's salmon runs: ocean temperatures, plankton cycles, predator populations, maybe even spin-off effects from hatcheries, which have dumped up to 650 million extra salmon fry into the Sound's ecosystem each year. Exxon has cited "massive hatchery releases" in particular as a possible alternative explanation of the 1993 salmon crash.
Rather than study those factors as a backdrop to oil damage, however, scientists concentrated on more immediate effects of the spill, looking at dead birds and oiled salmon eggs to help government lawyers press their damage claims against Exxon. As a consequence, some scientists now say, federal and state officials failed to lay the groundwork for tracing more subtle, long- term possibilities such as genetic disturbances.
"It's a legacy of the kind of studies that have been approved since the spill," said University of Alaska researcher Ted Cooney, whose examination of natural cycles in the Sound was turned down for oil-spill funding. "There's a very good chance we'll come away from this without knowing very much at all about how oil affected the natural environment."
FISHERMEN WIN STUDY
Last month, after the fishermen's protest, the spill settlement trustees reversed course and approved $5 million for general ecosystem studies in Prince William Sound next year.
The trustees noted they'd been criticized in the past for spending too much on studies and not enough to buy coastal habitat. The disastrous 1993 season gave them the justification to start asking broad scientific questions, they said.
The $5 million commitment has widespread support. But the new emphasis on baseline studies may feed a growing debate over how to spend the bulk of the $600 million remaining in the oil-spill settlement.
Environmentalists, commercial fishermen and the Clinton administration have favored buying coastal forests that would otherwise be logged. But some fishermen now say more money should go toward future research. Their complaints have brought hallelujahs from University of Alaska officials and opponents of widespread logging bans. A coalition of such groups is pushing for creation of a scientific endowment of as much as $240 million.
"All this tree-purchase talk has pushed the trustees away from (their responsibility), to restore and enhance the damaged resources," said Cooney. "Now fishermen and the science community are up in arms over what could be done and what should have been done."
A TROUBLING SIGN
Where were the jellyfish in Prince William Sound this summer?
"My daughter was working on a fishing boat and said, 'I only got jellied once this summer. It's so nice,' " said Heather McCarty, marketing manager for the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association. "It's not nice. It's abnormal."
Fishermen on the Sound said the water this summer was so clear they could see the lead lines on their nets, 35 feet below the surface. It was a troubling sign: a healthy plankton bloom keeps the water a little cloudy. Plankton provide food for juvenile salmon when they leave the streams and hatchery pens.
"I remember talking to someone from the Cousteau ship during the spill," said McCarty. "He said, 'You mark my words,' or the French equivalent of that, 'it will take three to four years to see the long-term damage.' Everyone's remembering that now."
Exxon points out that salmon runs in the first two years after the spill the runs directly affected by oil actually increased. Critics say there's nothing particularly scientific or exonerating about such evidence: the runs might have been even better without the oil, which slowed the growth of juvenile fry, according to a state study.
Exxon also conducted scientific studies, including studies of eggs in oiled streams.
"The studies demonstrated conclusively that the spill had no measurable short- or long-term impact on the PWS pink salmon population," Exxon said in a prepared statement after the fishermen's protest.
A study by the Department of Fish and Game has come up with very different evidence that trustee staff say is potentially groundbreaking.
State biologists found more eggs died in oiled streams than in unoiled streams. But the big surprise was that egg mortality was higher in 1991 than in 1989. Eggs were even dying in parts of streams where oil never reached. Researchers speculate that pink salmon hatched from eggs exposed to oil suffered genetic damage that caused their own eggs to fail two years later. Further work is under way to test the hypothesis of genetic damage in eggs exposed to crude oil.
WHICH STUDY IS RIGHT?
So who has the better science? Unfortunately the peer review process, by which studies are published and examined by fellow scientists, is slow and drawn out. It may be years before independent scientists render a verdict on pink salmon or other spill subjects where opposite conclusions were reached.
One reason for the differing results in the salmon study might be that Exxon sampled fewer streams five oiled and four unoiled, compared to 10 oiled and 15 unoiled streams sampled by the state, according to Brian Bue, a state biologist who attended the Atlanta symposium last spring where Exxon first disclosed its findings. Also, Exxon used incubators to watch egg growth and the state didn't, Bue said.
The state study, on the other hand, might be flawed. It's possible the geographical features that protected some test streams from oil and allowed oil into others was also responsible for the difference in egg mortality. The state is now testing for such side effects and also trying to duplicate the field results in a lab, Fish and Game biologist Sam Sharr said.
Even if it proves oil damage, the egg mortality study would only account for the decline of wild pink runs in oiled streams. The Sound-wide collapse of wild and hatchery fish this year appears to be part of some larger problem.
Some scientists say more widespread damage could have occurred when salmon fry came in contact with oil in 1989. Marine toxicologist Riki Ott of Cordova wants the trustees to fund a laboratory study to see whether oil could have caused genetic damage in future generations.
"We had the perfect lab, with oiled bays and intertidal spawners, and we blew it," Ott said. "I think the litigation really messed up the science that got initiated."
Many scientists consider genetic damage to fry unlikely. But if it occurred, it will be difficult to detect in retrospect.
"We didn't divert enough money to a broad ecosystem approach, to help us sort out natural variability," said Fish and Game's Sharr. "Until we can do that, we can't sort out the man-made variabilities."
Scientists are now proposing to study a variety of factors unconnected to oil, including:
* Natural cycles of water temperature and plankton growth. Cooney used such models to predict poor pink returns in 1992 and 1993, though he said this year's collapse was well beyond his predictions.
* Populations of predators like pollock and cod that could be killing off salmon fry in the Sound. The populations could have naturally increased, or they could have been drawn to the Sound by the huge releases of hatchery fry, Cooney said.
* Other possible impacts of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. program, such as farm-fed fry outcompeting or interbreeding with wild stocks. Biologists are already worried that straying hatchery salmon may be weakening the genetic strength of wild runs, said Robert Spies, the chief scientific adviser to the trustee council.
"There has to be a clear connection between the trustees' spending and the oil spill," said Mark Brodersen, a staff member of the spill restoration team. "I think with the economic crisis in Prince William Sound now, people are a little more willing to consider projects where the results are not 100- percent guaranteed."
A FLAWED PROCESS
The blind spots in scientific knowledge about the Sound were built into scientific inquiry from the early post-spill days, when the government's decisions were wrapped in the secrecy of litigation. Lawyers were asking scientists for legal ammunition and under the laws covering oil spills, they were right to do so, said Gregg Erickson, who supervised spill response studies for Fish and Game.
"A lot of heated discussions occurred in those secret councils," he said.
Erickson said he fought to preserve funding for a salmon tagging program, which would help lawyers defend the state's pink salmon fishery management in court. But a similar case could not be made for plankton and fry studies proposed by University of Alaska biologists, he said.
"They made a plausible case that those studies were important, but they failed miserably to show how what they'd find out could be used in court," Erickson said.
"You'd propose a 10-year plan and they'd look at you like you had 10 heads," said Joan Osterkamp, executive officer of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska. "Either they were not familiar with the time needed to provide meaningful data, or they were interested in a quick fix, something they could report back to the public real quick."
Other factors are now cited as reasons why the necessary studies weren't done: the public's interest in studying bigger, telegenic animals like otters and sea birds, environmentalist pressure to make habitat acquisition a priority, and the wildlife agencies' role in setting up studies that fit neatly with the previous work of their staff. Under the Bush administration, studies for commercial species like salmon were frequently vetoed most recently the tagging study, which state biologists said was necessary to protect damaged wild pink runs. The tagging study was restored this year.
Some critics say a master plan for the studies was needed from the start. Trustee science adviser Spies said that's a valid criticism.
"The peer reviewers were asked to sort through projects proposed by the agencies. But they never sat down to say, 'this is the the overall program that makes sense,' " Spies said.
The peer review for the new $5 million in baseline ecosystem studies will be broadened to include scientists and fishing groups familiar with the Sound, according to the trustees. "When you want to know the condition of the infield, you ask the shortstop," said Attorney General Charlie Cole, one of the state trustees.
An ad hoc group in Cordova, including fishermen involved in the tanker blockade, is now drawing up a set of proposals for how to spend that money. Their recommendations may include projects to replenish salmon runs that could mean contracts for the financially strapped aquaculture corporation.
The commitment to ecosystem studies may give new impetus to proposals for a scientific research endowment funded by the oil-spill settlement.
This summer, the University of Alaska dropped a proposal to endow special teaching positions in favor of a plan, put forth by University President Jerome Komisar and former state Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski, to set aside $30 million a year for eight years in a marine research fund controlled by independent trustees. The oil-spill trustees council is expected to discuss the endowment idea Sept. 16.
The endowment idea may face serious legal problems under federal laws governing use of the oil-spill settlement. It is also likely to meet reluctance from environmentalists, the Clinton administration and some key members of Congress, who have all said they want to see much of the remaining settlement used to acquire habitat.
"Some of these studies are worth doing regardless of oil spills. But science has some inherent limitations, especially with complex ecosystems," said Rick Steiner, a Cordova-based marine advisory agent for the university who has backed buying land with the settlement. "I think it's a waste of human potential to spend years and years trying to determine exactly how oil harms the environment."
CUTLINE:In 1991 in Prince William Sound, the problem wasn't too few fish, it was too many fish returning too late. Fish processors were overwhelmed with pink salmon and couldn't process all of the catch. That resulted in the dumping of fish. Dave Dominique, crewman aboard the tender Baltic Sea, steadies the hose as 90,000 pounds of dead pink salmon are pumped into Montague Strait.
Exxon environmental adviser Andy Teal helps dig test pits on Eleanor Island. Scientists check the pits for signs of oil and to determine the beach composition.
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