A Look Back at the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Nearly 25 Years Later

Before the Deepwater Horizon event in the Gulf of Mexico, there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill — when a supertanker gutted 11 million gallons of crude oil into waters off the coast of Alaska. The environmental consequences of this event are still suffered today, a quarter of a century later.

oiled-cormorant-rocky-oiled-shore_exxon-valdez-oil-spill-trustee-council_0For a few minutes, March 24, 1989 was like any other night off the rugged southern coast of Alaska. The trans-Alaska pipeline was booming and, on average, two oil tankers were journeying between Valdez and the continental Pacific West Coast each day. Nobody suspected anything different from the Exxon Valdez supertanker, which was winding its way through icy waters just miles from the coast that night. But at 12:04 a.m., the 987-foot ship accidently pummeled into Bligh Reef, rupturing its storage tanks and spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. At the time, it was the worst oil spill in U.S. history, coating 1,300 miles of remote coastline and killing an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

Now, 25 years later, the ecosystem has still not healed. Pockets of fresh remnants from the spill still stain Alaska’s coastline, resident killer whales are over a decade away from a full recovery and fishermen say that important commercial fish populations like herring have not yet returned.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 21,000 gallons of oil still linger in Alaska’s marine ecosystem, reaching shores over 450 miles away from the initial spill sight.

“As much as Alaska is a place, it is an idea, and that idea was damaged.”

The toxic legacy of the Exxon Valdez is a seeping reminder that our increasing ocean operations to obtain or transport oil remain one of the biggest threats to marine ecosystems and wildlife.

“As I think back on the last twenty years, I am struck by cyclical nature of these events. Before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, we were told that oil development was safe and necessary. In the intervening decades, science has shown us that it is not,” said Oceana’s Pacific Science Director Jeff Short in his testimony before Congress on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill.

ExxonValdez2In the wake of this environmental catastrophe, we learned all too well the troubling consequences of inevitable oil spill events. We heard the cries of marine mammals coated with oil, saw thousands of lifeless creatures wash to shore from slow starvation or hyperthermia and felt the loss of one of the most pristine and seemingly immutable wild landscapes.

“As much as Alaska is a place, it is an idea, and that idea was damaged,” said Exxon cleanup manager Otto Harrison.

But while the shadowy remains of the Exxon Valdez linger on Alaska’s coasts, their memory is vanishing from current U.S. oil policy. Royal Dutch Shell sits on the brink of Arctic oil exploration, harmful seismic testing has been recommended to scout out Atlantic Ocean reserves and offshore drilling has made a vigorous return to the Gulf of Mexico in the four years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded — gushing an unprecedented 210 million gallons of oil into our fragile ocean ecosystem.

Down this path, what waits ahead seems all too familiar.

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Behind the Scenes of “American” Seafood

This week, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed questioning what qualifies everyday canned tuna as “American.” The piece investigated the complicated supply chains of three of the biggest tuna providers: StarKist, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea. What resulted, is a eye-opening look at the globalization of our seafood.

The story was prompted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “buy American” policy for school lunches. By the policy’s standards, only StarKist tuna, which has a processing plant in American Samoa, is considered American. The other companies, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea, cannot be included in the program because their fishing vessels are not registered in the U.S. and some of the initial processing, such as skinning and gutting the tuna, is handled in Thailand.

bluefintuna2This gets tricky, however, when American jobs are added to the picture. StarKist vessels land their tuna in the same fishing waters as Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea. But while StarKist tuna is cleaned and processed in an American Samoa plant, the plant workers are mostly non-Americans. In 2010, plant employees only averaged $4.76 an hour — about $3 below the U.S. minimum wage.

In contrast, the Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea tuna, after being landed by foreign flagged vessels and partially processed in Thailand, gets sent to the United States and supports over 1,000 jobs in Georgia and California. U.S. workers at these canneries make between $12 and $18 per hour.

To make matters more confusing: StarKist is owned by Korea’s Dongwong Industries, Bumble Bee Foods’ parent company is based in the U.K. and Chicken of the Sea is Thai-owned.

The Wall Street Journal sums it up:

“The USDA says a foreign-owned company that catches some of its tuna on foreign-flagged boats and cans the tuna mostly with foreign workers who make less than the U.S. minimum wage qualifies as ‘American.’ But two foreign-owned companies that buy some of their tuna from foreign-flagged operations and can their tuna with American workers is ‘un-American.'”

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This glimpse into the multifaceted seafood industry is a reminder of what goes on behind the scenes, before tuna cans and other products are stacked nicely at grocery stores across the country.

Buying American doesn’t always have to be so complex. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors all seafood landed in the United States, and provides quarterly updates on the sustainability of these species. This information is available here or on the website FishWatch. Both the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s  SeafoodWatch, among other third-party certifications, are also helpful guidelines for domestic and global seafood.

5 Ocean Photos You have to See to Believe

The ocean is pretty spectacular. It covers more than 70 percent of the world but humans have only explored around five percent of it. With so much left to learn, it’s not wonder new and strange things are being discovered every day. Below are five of the most astonishing photos and discoveries to surface from the seas in the past 25 years.

1) Rare sighting of a deep-sea frilled shark 

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Rarely seen by humans, frilled sharks spend most of their lives in the deep sea up to depths of 5,000 feet. Frilled sharks bear many of the same characteristics of prehistoric sharks and rays and are considered living fossils. This picture was taken in 2007 off the coast of Japan when a fishermen discovered a female frilled shark in shallow waters. Suspected to be injured or sick, the shark was brought to Awashima Marine Park, but died soon after. Watch a video of this unusual sighting here. 

2) Spiny Throat of a Leatherback Sea Turtle 

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Though leatherbacks may seem like gentle giants of the sea, for jellies and other soft-bodied creatures, an unlucky encounter looks straight out of a Jaws movie. A leatherback’s esophagus is lined with hundreds of backward-pointing spines that help keep gelatinous prey down. Although leatherbacks are the largest species of sea turtle — weighing up to 2,000 pounds — they feed almost exclusively on open-water jellies and are particularly vulnerable to marine debris such as plastic bags, which, to a turtle, look like its usual snack.

3) Underwater Lake in the Gulf of Mexico 

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In 1990, on an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists were amazed when they discovered what appeared to be an underwater lake half a mile below the ocean’s surface. Separated by its salt density, the remarkable waters have their own tides and sandy beaches that are lined by thousands of mussels. The dense pools are too saline for most life beyond small microorganisms, but invertebrates like shrimp and tubeworms inhabit the mussel beds. Since the first discovery, scientists have returned the pools multiple times to test new studies on these underwater anomalies.

4) Sea Foam After a Storm in Yamba

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After a storm in 2007, parts of Austalia’s shoreline were dubbed “the cappuccino coast” due to the extreme levels of seafoam that invaded Yamba, a small town just north of Sydney. Reaching as high as nine feet in some areas, the foam disrupted traffic in the small town for days. Though it may look fun to play in, scientists say the bubbles were a mixture of salt, chemicals, dead plants, decomposed fish and excretions from seaweed.

5) Puffer Fish Crop Circles 

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When a series of beautiful underwater sand circles were discovered off the coast of Japan in 2012, many were quick to impute the designs to aliens. But it turns out the culprits – or artists – were male puffer fish trying to grab the attention of females. Using only their small bodies and fins, puffer fish tirelessly move sand into amazing circular patterns for females to inspect. The process takes about seven to nine days and scientists are still unsure about what exactly the females are looking for in a suitable sculpture.

Hawaii Reefs House More Fish Species Than Anywhere In the World, But Nobody Knew it Until Now

Way more fish species reside in Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) than previously believed. According to new research released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these protected waters house unprecedented levels of marine biodiversity, boasting a greater number of unique fish species than anywhere else in the world.

So how have these biological oases gone unnoticed for so long?

According to NOAA, previous studies using SCUBA gear were only observing fish in the top 100 feet of the reserves. With only partial data available, the level of unique fish species was estimated at around 21 percent. However, NOAA’s most recent two-year study also looked at fish in waters 100-300 feet deep, truly revealing a whole new world. The new perspective exposed levels closer to 50 percent, with that number increasing to a shocking 90 percent in some of the area’s deeper coral reefs.

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This research underscores the value of the area’s protected marine reserves, says NOAA. PNMN is the largest protected reserve in U.S. waters and one of the biggest in the world. It spans 139,797 square miles of the Pacific — an area larger than all of the country’s national parks combined. Currently, the U.S. has a whopping number of 1,819 marine protected areas, but less one percent of them limit all harmful activity.

“The richness of unique species in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands validates the need to protect this area with the highest conservation measures available,” Randy Kosaki, PMNM’s deputy superintendent and co-author of the study,said in a written statement. “These findings also highlight the need for further survey work on the monument’s deeper reefs, ecosystems that remain largely unexplored.”

28 Million Years Later: Ancient Whale Fossil Reveals Early Origins of Echolocation

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Sperm whales spend most of their lives in the deep levels of the ocean, sometimes diving as far down as 3,000 feet to feed on large squid. But locating their favorite prey in these dark waters is no easy task. In order to navigate and forage in areas of the ocean with poor visibility, the ancestors of sperm whales and other toothed whales, including dolphins, orcas and porpoises, evolved an amazing ability to understand their surroundings using sounds. Echolocation, like sonar on a submarine, enables animals to detect objects in their environment by broadcasting out high frequency calls and then listening for the location and distance from where they bounce back.

Image Surprisingly, this key adaption in toothed whales isn’t shared with baleen whales like blue whales and humpbacks, which feed by straining water through large baleen plates. Fossil evidence shows that toothed whales diverged from the ancestors of baleen whales around 35 million years ago, distinguishing the two modern-day subspecies. When and how echolocation evolved in toothed whales, however, has remained a mystery.

But a new study released in Nature is giving scientists critical insight into the origins of whale echolocation. Researchers at the New York Institute of Technology examined the skull of a newly discovered 28-million-year-old whale species named Cotylocara macei and determined that the extinct mammal likely had sonar ability similar to present day toothed whales. This breakthrough discovery suggests that echolocation began evolving in toothed whales around 32 million to 34 million years ago — very early in the history of this whale subspecies.

“The most important conclusion of our study involves the evolution of echolocation and the complex anatomy that underlies this behavior,” said the study’s lead scientist, Dr. Jonathan Geisler, in a written statement. “This was occurring at the same time that whales were diversifying in terms of feeding behavior, body size, and relative brain size.” images

Although the ear bones and soft tissues that capacitate echolocation in modern whales were not preserved in the ancient fossil, distinctive features, including bone density variations and several deep air cavities, indicate the creature had the ability to use sonar. The whale’s genus name, Cotylocara, loosely translates to “cavity head” in recognition of this important characteristic.

Cotylocara macei, which likely hunted in shallow seas and looked similar to modern dolphins, is not related to any living whale species and is thought to have gone extinct about 25 million or 26 million years ago. “The anatomy of the skull is really unusual. I’ve not seen anything like this in any other whale, living or extinct,” Geisler said. Discovered off the coast of South Carolina, Cotylocara macei is the first of it’s kind and provides a rare glimpse into the long evolutionary process that has shaped modern marine mammals.

The Old Whiskey and The Sea

Photo from NPR provided by OSEARCH

For most of us, the heavy rocking of a boat at sea is enough to make our stomach churn. But for barrels of Kentucky whiskey, the motion of the ocean may speed up its aging process, developing darker, richer flavors than bourbon aged the same amount of time on land.

Artisan Kentucky bourbon distiller Trey Zoeller recently told NPR’s The Salt about his experiments with ocean-aged bourbon. Five years ago, Zoeller teamed up with former high school classmate Chris Fischer, who heads OSEARCH, an organization that tracks the movements of sharks and other apex predators. Fischer agreed to carry a handful of Zoeller’s whiskey barrels aboard a research vessel traveling around the equator. The barrels spent three and a half years at sea and traversed over 10,000 nautical miles before returning home.

When Zoeller finally tapped the seafaring barrels, he told NPR that the results had “exceeded our expectations.” The whiskey contents, which had started clear, were darker than 30-year-old bourbons.

To find out what is happening to the bourbon as it gets rocked by the sea, NPR interviewed University of California chemist Tom Collins:

Chemist Tom Collins, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has analyzed the flavor profiles of American whiskeys, says higher temperatures like those found in tropical locales, and the swill of the ocean, can both accelerate the whiskey aging process.

‘The daily swing in temperature matters,’ Collins explains. ‘As the liquid warms up, it expands into the wood. And then as it cools down, it contracts, which can improve extraction’ of compounds from the wood – compounds that give aged whiskey its characteristic flavor. ‘These reactions are generally favored with higher temperatures.’

Source: Wikipedia commons

Source: Wikipedia commons

While Zoeller and Fischer’s experiment may seem revolutionary, the process of aging Kentucky bourbon by boat actually goes back to the very origins of the U.S. whiskey trade. During the 18th century, when trade was reliant on waterways, Kentucky distilleries would ship their whiskey along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to buyers throughout the South, sending the barrels as far as New Orleans.

Instead of a step forward, Zoeller and his whiskey are taking several step backwards and returning the bourbon-making process to its roots. Unsurprisingly, like most wonderful things, bourbon’s roots seem to trace back to the sea.

Read the NPR story “For A Faster-Aged Bourbon, You Need The Motion Of The Ocean”