Reflecting On the 25 Years Since the Exxon Valdez Spill

Published April 02, 2014

by Jenn Dittmar, Manager of National Aquarium Animal Rescue

Oil spills have been an on-going topic of interest to the public for centuries, but was rapidly thrust to the spotlight 25 years ago when the Exxon Valdez vessel grounded in Prince William Sound, Alaska and discharged 11 million gallons of crude oil.

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**Images via Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

Despite a broadened awareness of environmental risks, more stringent regulations and increased safety methods, the efforts to decrease oil spills on a global level have been largely unsuccessful.

There are multi-disciplinary studies to quantify the effects of oil on marine and terrestrial ecosystems, the wildlife that inhabits those ecosystems and the social and economic impacts to communities.  The pictures of oiled wildlife from the Exxon Valdez spill, similar to the ones from the Deepwater Horizon spill a generation later, and the recent photos from last month’s Houston ship channel spill are devastating.

Kemp's Ridley BP Oil Spill

This Kemp's Ridley turtle was recovered from the site of the Deep Horizon accident site on June 14, 2010. Photo via Carolyn Cole/LA Times.

The immediate threat to wildlife and the human communities that depend on healthy natural resources is obvious.  The long-term effects on our ecosystems (through direct exposure of through food chain interactions), while not as readily apparent, is equally concerning.  These emerging impacts are profound in any environment, but when the oil is released in a spawning or nursery area like the Gulf of Mexico, effects can be compounded and impact entire year classes of fish.  A recently published study found that even passing exposure to petroleum compounds can cause damages in developing embryos that may ultimately prove lethal months to years later.

Protecting wildlife from oil spill incidents, and subsequently responding to oiled animals are not easy tasks. While all plants and animals can be affected by oil spills, the most visible and easily accessible animals are typically those that are collected to be decontaminated and rehabilitated. Examples often include birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Oiled wildlife response is just one small part of the overall spill response.

Our Animal Rescue team ensures our preparedness to respond to oil spill events involving marine mammals or sea turtles in our area by participating in oil spill training and drills, maintaining internal protocols, and meeting with the Regional Response Team for our area (RRT III). RRT III is a group of federal, state and local organizations that oversee written plans for response to oil spill events within the region of Pennsylvania through Virginia. These plans, known as Area Contingency Plans, include information such as: environmentally sensitive species/areas, culturally sensitive areas, high risk locations and critical infrastructure.

Our dependence on fossils fuels ensures that there will always be a risk of oils spills. To mitigate for this risk we need to understand the true cost of this dependence and take responsibility for making better life style decisions in our daily routines.

Support and implementation of cleaner energy alternatives will decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and the risk of oil spill events.

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Jenn Dittmar

Manager of National Aquarium Animal Rescue

National Aquarium - Jen Dittmar

About Jenn Dittmar

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