AMERICAN RESILIENCE: How a small Alaska town fought for survival after the Exxon Valdez Oil spill dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean and nearly wiped out its fishing industry
Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker off the coast of Alaska, hit a reef in March of 1989, spilling more than 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The spill's initial impacts devastated wildlife, killing hundreds of thousands of marine animals and billions of fish eggs. Lingering oil in the ocean was linked to dwindling herring and salmon populations. In the three decades since the spill, Herring fishermen have turned to other breeds, locations to fish, and entirely different lines forms of work. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. SEE ALSO: 43 photos show how extreme weather and natural disasters have gotten more intense over the last decade DON'T MISS: 29 photos show how climate change has ravaged the Arctic in the past decade Cordova is a town on the east coast of Prince William Sound in Alaska. A sound is a section of the ocean that is between coastlines.
Source: The New York Times, World Atlas In the 1970s and 1980s, Cordova was a hot spot for commercial herring and salmon fishing. 800 of the town's 2,100 people were fishermen. Their collective catch amounted to as much as $40 million.
Source: The New York Times On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound, spilling more than 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency The oil spread about 1,300 miles down the coast. At the time, it was the biggest oil spill in history.
Source: National Geographic Immediately afterward, Exxon recognized its role in the incident and the organization that represented the oil tanker took responsibility for cleaning up the spill. Several others helped clean too, including the U.S. Coast Guard.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The New York Times The spill killed 250,000 seabirds, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales, and around 3,000 sea otters per a National Geographic article.
Source: National Geographic The spill also killed billions of salmon eggs and caused the area's Pacific herring population, which fishermen heavily relied on, to plummet.
Source: National Geographic Rick Steiner, a marine biologist, told National Geographic that it's impossible to clean up an oil spill entirely. In 2016, Smithsonian Magazine said that this is because there is no technology that can clean it up fast enough.
Source: National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine By 1994, scientists estimated that 50% of the oil in Prince William Sound had biodegraded, 20% had evaporated, and 14% had been cleaned.
Source: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council That means that 16% of the oil remained — 13% in sediments, 2% on shorelines, and 1% remained in the ocean.
Source: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-led 2015 study found that these oil levels were linked to growth problems in salmon and herring.
Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science The study stated that fish embryos absorb oil into their skin while they are developing into fully-formed fish and this reduces their ability to swim and their chance of survival.
Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science Between 1990 and 1992, Alaska caught a record number of salmon and herring. However, in 1994, both species' populations plummeted and the local herring fishery closed. State and federal scientists said this was linked to the lingering oil in the ocean, the New York Times reported in 1994.
Source: The New York Times The state sued Exxon following the spill, and the federal government said the company violated the Clean Water Act, which states that no one can add pollutants to water without a permit. It cost the oil company more than $1 billion in settlements.
Source: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Business Insider In 2006, U.S. and state officials asked Exxon to pay an additional $92 million for cleaning up long-term damages. The company refused and in 2015, the judicial action was dropped.
Source: Business Insider More than 32,000 fishermen and Alaska residents collectively sued Exxon for its impact on the fishing industry which had led to economic depression in Cordova, The New York Times reported in 1994. They sued for $5 billion, but the Supreme Court changed the amount to half a billion in 2008.
Sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times After the spill, some who initially moved to Cordova for the fishing industry began traveling south to California. Others turned to odd jobs like construction work.
Sources: NPR, The New York Times, NPR By 2014, salmon, cod, and halibut populations had rebounded in Cordova, but herrings had not.
Source: NPR The Alaska Department of Fishing and Game has not released a report on Commercial Herring Fisheries in Prince William Sound in four years. According to the latest report in 2016, the commercial harvest of the fish was not likely the following year.
Source: The State of Alaska, The Alaska Department of Fishing and Game But Cordova's fishing industry is making do without the herring population. According to a 2018 study, residents made $33 million in gross fish earnings.
Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute In May 2020, the New York Times reported that the fishing town is concerned that about this year's Copper River salmon season because of the coronavirus. The small town is worried that out-of-state travelers will spread the virus in Cordova.
Source: The New York Times Thousands of fishermen from around the world travel to the town each year to catch Copper River salmon, which sell for about $75 a pound.
Source: The New York Times