The Exxon-Valdez oil spill of March 24, 1989, had long-lasting effects on Alaska's environment, animals and way of life. At the time of the spill, hundreds of volunteers stepped forward to clean up seabirds and other animals drenched in oil. Their work helped a modest number of animals, but many still died, and recovery efforts for a number of species continue after 24 years.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, the death toll of individual species of native Alaskan wildlife is still being tallied as of 2013. In the days immediately following the spill -- which, at the time was the worst in U.S. history -- many animals died including upwards of 100,000 and possibly as many as 250,000 seabirds. More than 2,800 sea otters and 12 river otters immediately expired. At least 300 harbor seals and almost 250 bald eagles were also instantly destroyed. Orcas living in the area at the time, 22 in number, were killed, as were countless fish. Small organisms were killed by the trillions, leaving those animals who prey on them with nothing to eat, causing even more deaths. In the following days and weeks, these numbers climbed much higher.
How They Died
Aside from the reef fish and other animals nearby when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, millions of animals died as a direct or proximate cause of the spill. Animals covered in oil tried vainly to clean their bodies by licking themselves, only to be poisoned by the toxins in the oil. Birds weighted down by the heavy oil were unable to fly. Otters depend upon the unique design of their fur to help them tolerate extreme cold climates. When covered in oil, their fur is unable to act as a protective covering, so otters die of hypothermia. Whales are killed when they eat fish covered in oil or when their blowholes are plugged with oil, making it impossible for them to breathe.
Ten Years After
Ten years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported in the journal "Science" that many animal species were still recovering and the damage to their habitats had not significantly decreased. It was once thought that the number of animals killed acutely -- that is, immediately following the spill -- would be much higher than any subsequent numbers. But Chapel Hill's researchers reported in 2009 that Alaska's coastal ecosystem continues to show toxins that affect wildlife.
Twenty Years After
In 2007 -- two decades after the oil spill -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 21,000 gallons of crude oil still pollutes the ecosystem within a 450-mile radius -- and the oil continues to kill animals within its sphere. The problem persists because the spill is contained within the Prince William Sound, so it doesn't biodegrade as it would in the open ocean. The orca pod affected by the spill never recovered. Sea otters and ducks, who forage for food in the beaches, need only scratch the surface to find layers of oil soaked into the sand. The oil remains toxic to these animals. Oceana, a conservation organization, reports that some species of loons, salmon, seals, ducks, herrings, pigeons, mussel and clam populations have never fully recovered. Commercial fishing, a $286 million industry, has not completely resumed in the area.
- Scientific American: Environmental Effects of Exxon Valdez Spill Still Being Felt
- GoodHousekeeping.com: 4 Dirty Secrets of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
- National Wildlife Foundation: Voices from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: "The Day the Water Died"
- Mother Nature Network: The 13 Largest Oil Spills in History
- American Association for the Advancement of Science: Long-Term Ecosystem Response To The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
- National Geographic: Exxon Valdez Anniversary: 20 Years Later, Oil Remains
- Oceana: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Facts
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.