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Exxon Valdez and Long-term Recovery after a Spill

Every 5 days, an oil spill the size of Exxon Valdez was released into the Gulf of Mexico

The Exxon Valdez is to date the worst oil spill to have occurred in US waters. It has been well studied and provided twenty years worth of information on how ecosystems recover from oil spills.

Oil spills can have devastating impacts on fisheries. After the Exxon Valdez, fisheries for salmon, herring, crab, shrimp, rockfish and sablefish were closed in 1989 throughout Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, the outer Kenai coast, Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula. Shrimp and salmon commercial fisheries remained closed in parts of Prince William Sound through 1990. One of the largest impacts to fisheries after the Exxon Valdez spill was from the perception of contamination. The whole state had trouble marketing their catches, and the suspension of one fishing season for most of the Gulf of Alaska had a devastating long-term impact that Exxon never recognized in their settlement offers.

Unfortunately, many species don’t recover well from spills, and even 20 years after the Exxon Valdez, there are still two species that continue to be listed as “not recovered” -- the Pacific herring and pigeon guillemot. There are ten species that are still “recovering”, including sea otters, killer whales, clams, mussels. There are also four human services listed as “recovering”, including commercial fishing and recreation and tourism.

The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. The Gulf of Mexico spill released 200 million gallons of oil. This means that every 5 days, an oil spill the size of Exxon Valdez was released into the Gulf of Mexico, and this spill is over 18 times the size of predecessor. Twenty one years after the spill, Alaskan waters are still recovering, and many beaches and coastal areas are still contaminated with oil. Many species are still recovering, and some haven’t recovered at all. Given the catastrophic nature of the Exxon Valdez spill, and its lingering impacts 21 years later, it is becoming increasingly clear that the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill will last many years, and possibly even decades.