A Marine Ecologist’s Search For Meaning In An Oil Spill
March of 1989 was the first time I laid my eyes on Prince William Sound, Alaska. Our research team, including myself and three other marine ecologists, had arrived a few days after the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, from where it spilled 11 million gallons of north slope crude oil, transforming a little-known, but spectacular, region of Alaska coastal wilderness into a global symbol of ecological catastrophe. Our small group joined in the first trickle of what later became a deluge of researchers, consultants, lawyers, conservationists, news media, agencies, politicians, job hunters and authors, making a circus of small fishing and native communities as the oil continued leaking from the damaged tanker, smothering beach after beach. Adding insult to injury, one tragically oiled cove after another metamorphosed into war-zone-style symbols of dominion and the mechanistic techno-fix, as men in white hard hats spewed from helicopters and barges in a frantic attempt to “fix” nature by urgently spraying hot liquid from giant hoses onto the living membranes of submissive coves.
Prince William Sound is a relatively remote, semi-enclosed bay at the northern apex of the Gulf of Alaska. It encompasses a unique array of aquatic habitats, which overlie a submerged portion of the tallest coastal mountain range in the world—the Chugash Mountains. The lower slopes of these snow-covered peaks are mostly covered with conifers, but in some places, the mountains plunge almost vertically from two and a half miles above sea level to depths of 1,300 feet in fjords that reach like fingers into the mountains’ glacially carved valleys.
The Sound, at its deepest point 2,600 feet, covers over 3,500 square miles, which would accommodate 15 San Francisco or two Chesapeake Bays. The abundance of wildlife in Prince William Sound is reminiscent of early accounts of these two long-degraded estuaries, partly because its shoreline habitat is extremely convoluted and varied. The whole of Prince William Sound, and adjacent waters, harbors a diverse array of sheltered, sub-polar habitats that were relatively intact prior to the oil spill. It is virtually impossible to find an ecologically comparable setting anywhere in the world.
Our team dropped everything we were doing at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, on Monterey Bay, California, where I was a graduate student. We left for Prince William Sound with just enough time to gather our diving and sampling gear, and formulate a reconnaissance plan.
The winter snow was still close to the water when we arrived, and the chill enhanced a quiet and solitude we were unused to, though each team member had spent time alone in the field. For me, this quiet enhanced the bigness of Alaska that I remembered from a summer on a commercial salmon seiner out of nearby Kodiak five years before. This time we had come for a reason more urgent than youthful adventure, and the reminder was under our noses as we flew over the leaking Exxon Valdez supertanker on our way from Anchorage to Cordova, a fishing port on Prince William Sound. From there, a commercial fishing boat would carry our team on high-speed/high-coverage scuba surveys of the Sound’s shallow underwater habitats.
Our biggest hope was to document the status of some parts of the ecosystem before the oil could do its damage. We also hoped to reveal any immediate impacts of the oil in these habitats, and to describe sea floor communities. Sea otters eat relatively large amounts of clams in the Sound, which they excavate from sediment on the shallow sea floor. So we suspected that if the oil killed sea otters, populations of marine invertebrates that otters prey on might change.
As I look back at this catastrophe, through 10 formative years, my past and present experiences, and relations, now seem saturated with a meaning deeper than can be revealed by simply reducing nature to its constituent parts. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is an important symbol of the potentially disastrous impacts of our actions, but it is also symbolic of the limitations of both knowledge and our attempts at redemption.
Scientists are now realizing that ecosystems do not necessarily “recover” from certain types of degradation. As our human population careens beyond six billion, Earth’s ecosystems could unravel beyond the point where restoration schemes would work, or would matter. The optimistic flip-side of this realization is that we humans have choices—we can exercise our free will to change the way we interact with ecosystems.
A Wizard And A Mystery
We returned to Prince William Sound in June of the same year aboard the University of Alaska’s 140-foot research vessel Alpha Helix, led by my mentor, Professor John Oliver, known as “the galactic wizard,” the archetype of “can do” biologists, and a true underwater naturalist with a teach-by-doing philosophy. The R/V Alpha Helix would arrive at a location, and teams of divers and intertidal ecologists would burst forth to don our diving equipment, gather our sampling gear, and deploy inflatable boats and whalers.
During this second trip, we witnessed the Exxon-sponsored cleanup of the oiled intertidal zone. This cleanup operation was astounding both in its magnitude and its secondary impacts of re-suspending oil, virtually eliminating plants and animals on cleaned beaches, and re-distributing the sediment to the subtidal zones, where it smothered organisms. It later turned out that cleanup was often not documented or coordinated in any organized way. Opportunities for learning were lost in the jumble.
Our team also discovered that few researchers were able to collect useful ecosystem information before the oil did its damage. Initially, nature seemed to provide some buffer with four days of calm weather that slowed the spread of the oil. Scientists could have been more rapidly deployed, and perhaps much of the oil could have been contained if a functioning emergency plan had existed. As it happened, opportunities faded amid bureaucratic confusion, political strategizing and public relations campaigns.
The lesson made clear to our research group was that efforts to determine the impacts of the oil spill were confounded by limited “baseline” information (the state of the ecosystem prior to the spill) and the lack of control areas for comparison of either direct impacts or cleanup. Exceptions to this lack of knowledge include ongoing studies of seabirds, which were considerably more abundant before the spill. Such prior information did provide a rough barometer of the spill’s ecological impacts. The indications of this barometer are, however, not comforting. For example, of the 28 species initially listed as severely impacted, only bald eagles and river otters have officially “recovered” to date—10 years after the spill.
For me, Prince William Sound was the wilderness place I had read and dreamed about. We were all excited to be there, and we explored it as my friends and I once explored the wooded lot at the end of my street. I knew then that I would someday return.
We left Alaska with sensory overload, with many questions about the effects of the spill and the cleanup, and with conflicting emotions. On the airplane, my fresh memories of snow-covered peaks, forested shores and new kinds of subtidal habitats clashed with vivid memories of dead eagles and
otters, blackened shorelines, the taste of oil, and its iridescent sheen on the water as it distorted the reflections of the mountains.
During the following two years, our research group would twice more travel north to explore other disturbances in Southeastern Alaska, but we would not return to my beloved Prince William Sound. Over the years, I caught wind of the Exxon Valdez oil spill studies, but the memory faded, as my interest drifted to tropical ecosystems. Later, I was lured into pollution studies and “ecological risk assessment,” which taught me how science can be bought, how truths can be obfuscated in the contexts of litigation, and how people justify their actions when personal ambition and fear rules.
I heard that political and legal pressures had influenced the science and muzzled some of the reporting of information during the months immediately following the spill. In retrospect, I realize that, even then, the involved parties had already started building their legal cases. The rhetorical showdowns of “experts” would soon ensue, a parade deemed not amusing to native Aleut communities, which had gathered their food from Prince William Sound for millennia. Victims of the oil spill were both human and non-human, but of all communities involved, these native communities undoubtedly felt the violation most deeply, as it was a defilement of their cultural history.
My new awakening led me to Alaska again for a solo springtime trek, 75 miles over the Resurrection Pass from a town called Hope on the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet (near Anchorage) to Seward, the home port of the R/V Alpha Helix, near Prince William Sound. I made this journey exactly five years after the first reconnaissance trip of our research group. During the days that I walked along that trail, encountering ptarmigan, moose, bears, snow geese, and even the wolverine I had long dreamed of, courtroom proceedings were underway in Anchorage to try to determine damages of, and blame for, the spill. The algorithm of law was being used to convert lost ecosystem “value” into U.S. dollars.
With this fresh in my mind, I pledged to devote my life to conservation, restoration and preservation of the Earth’s beleaguered, and increasingly stressed, ecosystems. I founded a non-profit organization for integrating science with conservation and education, focusing first on pollution, habitat restoration and wildlife preservation issues at closing California military bases, before becoming fully immersed in fisheries conservation with a larger marine conservation organization.
All the while, Prince William Sound was imbedded in my psyche as my archetype of a last pristine wilderness, resilient and strong in its abundance and remoteness, which nevertheless became imperiled. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was like a form of cognitive dissonance, expressing the frailty of strong things. In my new working world of conference calls and public meetings, I longed for real science and exploration, as my conservation efforts became little more than policy advocacy, and science came to mean little more than lip service. I realized I had to stop telling old adventure stories and go back into the wild.
The New Metaphors
And so fate brought me together with Professor Daniel Pauly, a charismatic and visionary scientist based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who, along with other famous fishery ecologists, champions an analytical tool capable of integrating broad ecosystem information into a cohesive synthesis. The Ecopath approach to computer modelling of food webs gives us a view of the flows of energy among organisms, as well as how these organisms, and the whole system, might respond to disturbances or stress. This approach allows us to learn more about how nature is structured, and how ecosystems function.
Disparate symmetries do converge. The Bligh Reef, where the Exxon Valdez came to grief, is the namesake of a mutinous mishap on the H.M.S. Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, whose direct descendents I had met on Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific just one year before the spill. Our research vessel delivered a young girl from Palmer, Alaska, near Prince William Sound, to meet her grandmother for the first time on this famously remote South Pacific island. Tragedy and separation do send ripples through the system, but they ultimately lead to reconciliation and union because ecosystems are interconnected.
Like others before our team, Professor Pauly looked back in time through scientific literature to view the Prince William Sound ecosystem that existed prior to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. A great deal of information exists in the collective memory of the native communities throughout the region, but our team found little reflection of this past on the bookshelves of scientific knowledge. We realized that a view of the ecosystem prior to the spill was fundamental to understanding its ecological impacts.
Fortunately, a great deal of science had been underway since, with different teams focusing on particular segments of the overall ecosystem. In fact, the impacts of some aspects of the spill are reasonably well known, and researchers from these various teams are steadily increasing our understanding of the workings of the system.
My team from the University of British Columbia and two others from the University of Tennessee decided to build a computer model of predator-prey interactions, and energy flows among the animals and plants of Prince William Sound, integrating the work of many post-spill researchers. Simply going through the exercise of combining these estimates into a whole ecosystem matrix has been informative, not only about the ecosystem, but also about the quality of the information, and it has helped to clarify where research might be focused to understand the ecosystem better.
We are learning how the ecosystem works by simulating the responses of the various plants and animals to natural changes and human activities. For example, changes in fishing patterns on a particular species can be simulated, and researchers can see how a change in this one species might influence other species, or groups of species in Prince William Sound. This new tool can allow resource managers to explicitly consider the potential impacts of a management decision on parts of the ecosystem other than the target stock, like an endangered species. In the future, fishery managers will use this tool along with their current approaches to help protect the Sound, and other marine ecosystems.
Questions, Answers, And Questions
In this 11th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, people want to know if Prince William Sound has recovered? There’s no simple answer. Some parts of the ecosystem seemed to recover within a few years, while the recovery of others will take much longer, if it occurs at all. In general, scientists talk about the spill as a “pulse perturbation,” or a disturbance that was short lived, albeit catastrophic. Parts of the ecosystem responded as such. However, free oil still persists in some of the Sound sediment (and some animal tissues are known to be contaminated), surely continuing to affect living components of the system. Some of the most interesting results of our analyses using this model indicate that the spill might have pushed the system to an “alternate stable state,” from which it will not recover.
Conspicuous impacts, or those demonstrated through rigorous science, ar
e the only ecosystem effects that enter the public consciousness. However, many real impacts go undetected and undemonstrated simply because of budgetary constraints. Even if there were no persistent direct effects of the oil spill, ripples of the initial impacts may still propagate indirectly through the food web long after scientists are able to detect them.
We can see only the surface of nature, though we believe the basic rules are within our reach. Ecology is still a new science, but it is rapidly evolving. Science can be beneficial, as well as broadly understandable, as long as people recognize the limitations of its power to detect natural processes. Understanding nature is necessary for ecological redemption and survival, but owning up to what we do not understand is just as important when making decisions about ecosystems.
The model of Prince William Sound is a good example of this. By definition, our model of the ecosystem is wrong. We constructed it not because it could be an exact representation of the ecosystem, but because a simple model of the whole system would be useful in understanding the ecosystem better than we currently do. The biggest problems arise when people believe that such an analytical tool is complete in its details. Even some scientists make the mistake of concluding that a process does not exist in the real world if is not manifested in the model.
With such cautions in mind, society should use the knowledge gained by scientists. The model of Prince William Sound is available for science education in schools and communities as an avenue for active participation in resource stewardship and management. The tremendous amount of knowledge gained from the post-spill scientific research will help sustain Prince William Sound, will help us understand and sustain other ecosystems, and will keep on informing us about coastal oil spills.
We are searching for useful reflections of a pristine ecosystem, a system with complexity forever beyond the grasp of science. What we can grasp are the simple, conspicuous patterns within this complex system, and these are well worth exploring. We found a system changed by humans, a system in which the ripples of a catastrophic disturbance are superimposed over ripples caused by fishing and other human activities. We also found ripples of human frailty. All of these propagate through the system, but the signals fade in a cacophony of cause and effect, and they appear even more dull because of our limited ability to detect them.
We’ve learned a great deal about nature as a result of this tragedy. We did this by looking outward with the best efforts of the natural sciences, in spite of political and legal constraints. But I suspect we can find the most important lesson of all by looking inward and seeing that the unholy, iridescent ripples we chased through this near-pristine ecosystem emanate not only from the frailty of one man, one crew, or one multi-national corporation, but from each of us, through our enthusiastic participation in a society that squanders its resources.
Oil spills occur with such frequency around the world that they can be considered inevitable for as long as we continue demanding fossil fuels. They occur in spite of safety precautions that are implemented after large spills, and they happen because of chance events in nature that we cannot completely understand or predict. We can expect these spills to occur in ecologically spectacular places like the coast of Oregon or at San Francisco Bay’s Golden Gate, because of the treacherous and exposed nature of our remaining wild places. And we know that though oil spills can be tragedies of catastrophic proportions, there are even more dire consequences from simply driving your luxury off-road vehicle or your over-powered sports car. Scientists have reached effective consensus that humans are causing a relatively rapid change in the global climate. The ranges of estimates of the severity of this change are rapidly surpassing science fiction. The reversibility of such a change might be beyond useful scales.
In truth, there are laws we cannot break, though we try to postpone them. Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but merely changed from one form to another. Energy is always degraded to a less useful form. These are the unbending laws of thermodynamics, and they inform us that Earth’s functioning ecosystems, which keep us alive, are degraded by the activities of more than six billion needy humans. Even the relatively intact ecosystems on Earth are adversely affected. Resources that once seemed infinite and inexhaustible, such as forests, clean water, oil, ocean fishes, whales and passenger pigeons now appear conspicuously finite, or missing altogether. In fact, they are disappearing so fast that the term “renewable” has little meaning as we approach the new millennium.
Ecosystems have degrees of resilience, however, and the key to their survival and stewardship in them lies in our ability to measure that resilience. Most fundamentally, it depends on our being aware of the interconnection between our personal actions and the integrity of our planet’s living systems.
THOMAS OKEY is a marine ecologist from California who is constructing a food web model of the Prince William Sound ecosystem. He is the founder of Conservation Science Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the integration of science with education and conservation advocacy.