25 years later, what have we learned from Exxon Valdez?

In the spring of 1989, just a little over 25 years ago, my parents finalized the purchase of their commercial set net fish site on the west side of Kodiak Island, Alaska. A month later, on March 24, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, releasing into Prince William Sound what was — at that time — the largest volume of crude oil spilled in the history of our country.

Instead of setting their gillnets for the first season at their own fish site that June, my parents spent the summer of ’89 dealing with the devastating effects of the accident. I grew up constantly hearing stories about “the spill” and the ongoing litigation during what became a pivotal time for commercial fishing communities across the state of Alaska.

I can remember my mom recounting the helplessness she felt, wading out into the surf to try to catch the massive rafts of crude oil in large plastic baskets before they hit the beach. At first they came in pairs or threes, and everyone hoped that would be it, but one morning after a big southwest blow, they awoke to the beautiful pristine beach slicked thick with new oil.

The oil spilled from Exxon spread much farther than initially presumed, as far as the west side of Kodiak, and beyond.

All that summer, my family and the other fishermen of Uyak Bay spent valuable fishing time collecting ugly, weathered mats of crude oil and dead or dying gulls, cormorants, eagles, otters and fish off of the beaches they knew and loved so well.

I have visited with shrimp fishermen from Grand Isle, La., who rely upon the shrimp and oyster fisheries of the Gulf Coast to sustain their families and their community. They told me about the catastrophic contaminating effects of the oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, and lamented the declining fisheries production and the slow (or nonexistent) government support and industry cleanup response.

I recognized in their voices the same downtrodden, frustrated, desperate tone towards the oil spill that I heard so often growing up. Their frustration with the lack of affirmative action on the part of the offending oil companies was identical to the pain and suffering felt across Alaska in 1989 and in the years following.

Despite the increasingly strict regulations put in place as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill, it seems that our national attitude toward oil extraction, processing and transport is still cavalier enough to let another massive oil spill devastate valuable marine ecosystems and the communities they support.

As we remember Exxon Valdez 25 years later this week, I am struck by how little has changed. Even as I write this, containment efforts continue in the Houston shipping canal to reduce the spread of nearly 168,000 gallons of heavy crude oil that spilled from the bulk oil carrier Summer Wind when it collided with another vessel.

Now is the time to look closely at our oil dependency and the way in which we power our world. I am hopeful that we can find a way to reduce our consumptive needs and to meet them with more conscientious, better-managed and cleaner sources of energy.

Shelly Larsen is an Alaskan, a commercial fisherman, and a biology and environmental policy student at the University of Puget Sound.