Nearly 30 years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, and the $900 million settlement began a scientific frenzy to understand its consequences. I recently sat down for the annual report, now called the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, to catch up on decades of research.
Despite all the signs that the Arctic is warming and there are dramatic impacts to wildlife: historic lows in sea ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean, salmon failures, the blob, and seabird die-offs, the public and the media demonstrated a glaring indifference to the symposium. Thank you to Lori Townsend for hosting Fran Ulmer on Alaska Insights at the end of the week. If you had one person to get the rundown from, Fran would be my choice.
While I don’t blame anyone who would like to forget the hideous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, for not wanting to spend days inside listening to talks, what the scientists who have spent decades perfecting their craft would have you know is that the natural world is changing, they can actually measure it, and it's happening faster than anyone would have predicted. In some instances the changes could surpass the damage done by the Exxon Valdez.
Changes scientists thought they'd be warning us about in 30 years, are already here: The shells of littleneck clams from a beach in Kachemak Bay are already dissolving because the nearshore areas are too acidic. Pteropods, an animal plankton that is food for many fishes, including pink salmon, are already experiencing lower survival due to the increase in acidity of the ocean. In fact, shellfish shells are affected by ocean acidification in all the oceans around Alaska.
Increased salinity in coastal wetlands poses a threat to seabirds. This spring, 1.5 million seabirds will migrate to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to feed, rest and nest. Experiments on sea ducklings at the Alaska SeaLife Center found that the ducklings cannot thrive in saline environments before they develop a gland for handling seawater. It takes time for this gland to develop. Levels of salinity that impair the ducklings’ development are already surpassed in the wetland where they will hatch this spring. The lack of ice in the Bering Sea for the past five years is causing ocean levels to rise, more waves to breach the shorelines and contribute more marine water to the usually freshwater delta. The warmer waters and changing ice patterns are producing effects that cascade up and down the food web in ways that anyone who fishes for a living, enjoys seafood or loves marine wildlife, should care about.
We heard from scientists with decades of experience here in the Arctic, students from a variety of universities and colleges, as well as other scientists from around the world.
The evening panel about the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez recapped events leading up to the beginning of the North Pacific Research Board. It featured talks by scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Auke Bay Lab in Juneau, but also from as far away as South Korea and Louisiana, on the response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 2007 Hebei Spirit oil spill in South Korea, and who took lessons from the research on the impacts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Korean scientists reported social and economic effects among the people affected by the Hebei Spirit oil spill as it damaged Taen National Park, particularly a beautiful sandy beach that the adjacent community cherished. More than a million people showed up to help clean the beach. They used mechanical means as well as hand labor, wiping each rock by hand, to clean their beach, with much less lasting damage, than the hotwater cleanup used in the EVOS. The community damaged by the Hebei Spirit also experienced tremendous psychological effects as well as health effects from exposure to crude oil. One researcher reported that six suicides are attributed to the 2010 Hebei Spirit oil spill.
I came away startled by some of their findings, but also impressed by the effort to understand the ecology of the oceans surrounding Alaska, and somewhat soothed by the power of the knowledge being generated and the new methods and technical advancements for measuring change. I give credit for this not just to the scientists and the staff of the North Pacific Research Board, but also the public response to the oil spill and the public demand for ecosystem science.
Do you remember the 1993 blockade of the tanker lane in Valdez Narrows? Prince William Sound fishermen were protesting after the herring (which were spawned in 1989) turned up with a disease, viral hemorrhagic septicemia, and the pink salmon run failure. They put their boats on the line to try to get a change in the type of research funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and for the council to do more to “make them whole again” as promised. They wanted ecosystem science.
Who knows if this is what they imagined, but soon Congress picked up where the Exxon settlement left off, creating the North Pacific Research Board to keep ecosystem research going in all the seas around Alaska with an endowment that feeds the fund every year. It’s changed how science is done here in the Pacific Northwest, and the result of this dedicated effort to monitor and measure ecosystem changes in the oceans surrounding Alaska is that scientists are able to see things coming down the pike that are potentially way worse than even a spill like the Exxon Valdez. The threat to our environment comes from the same source - human reliance on petroleum, CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.
It's a lesson we should really remember, and stay involved as people who care about our environment, to help guide this thing as the changes in our world play out. There will be choices to make.
Jody Seitz is the former producer of the public radio series “Alaska Coastal Currents (1997 - 2001).
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