Gulf Oil Spill—What Might We Expect?

Former reporter recalls how Exxon Valdez spill hurt wildlife

This page was published 13 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

(Earthjustice Media Director John McManus remembers what it was like covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a CNN journalist)

The oil now washing up on the Gulf Coast reminds me of the last big oil spill America lived through, the Exxon Valdez spill 21 years ago.

On March 24, 1989 a supertanker that had just topped with oil left the port of Valdez and crashed into a submerged rock reef in Alaska’s Prince Williams Sound. Eleven million gallons of north slope crude oil gushed from the side of the ship into the Sound.

Authorities immediately discussed lighting it on fire. There was even talk of the military firing missiles at the oil slick to ignite it. But the fires never happened. Maybe it was too cold, being Alaska. Instead the oil washed up on the beaches, headlands, harbors, villages and rocks that ring this giant bay. Some of the oil washed out of the Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska, fouling beaches hundreds of miles away on Kodiak Island and beyond.

News reporters, producers and camera crews descended on the scene from around the world. I worked for CNN at the time and was one of them. Over the next six months I went back and forth to cover the spill and didn’t finally make it home for the year until October. We’ll likely see similar news interest in the developing spill in the Gulf. Some reporters may be on this story all summer long.

The once-huge herring schools that used to swim annually into the Sound to spawn were poisoned by the oil. Their numbers plummeted and have not recovered to this day. Three years after the oil spill scientists documented suppressed immune systems in these critical food fish that made them sucseptible to disease.

If the fish species at the base of the food chain in the Gulf of Mexico are badly hurt by the spill, as the herring were in Alaska, one can safely assume all dependent species higher on the food chain, including humans, could be badly hurt for many years to come.

Herring are a small fish that naturally school in large numbers. They are a main source of food for other fish and wildlife up the food chain. Sea lions love to eat them, so do salmon, halibut, sea birds and many other species. The hit to herring was a very hard hit to all wildlife in the Sound. Before the spill there were an estimated 120,000 tons of herring that would spawn annually in Prince William Sound. Today, there are an estimated 20,000 tons of herring. The Sound supported a number of vibrant, economically robust commercial fisheries prior to the spill. Herring, salmon and other species provided for a good living for many fishing families. Things are very different there today.

Oil still persists in Prince William Sound. Last time I was back to check on the Sound was in 1999. We could still easily find oil under rocks on many beaches. The stuff was still sticky and extremely hard to get off your hands or clothes.

John was Earthjustice’s Media Director and chief press wrangler from 2001 until 2013. He came to Earthjustice in 2001 to defend freshwaters and public land—and salmon.