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Exxon Valdez Spill, 25 Years Later

Just before midnight March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska, causing one of the largest oil spill in U.S. history. In the weeks that followed, a shocked world watched as the tanker spewed approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the formerly pristine and delicate Prince William Sound.


exxon valdez


Marilyn Heiman, then working for the Alaska Legislature and now director of Pew’s U.S. Arctic program, remembers that she began developing legislation to prevent a spill of that magnitude from ever happening again. She recalls waiting days for containment vessels to arrive and watching helplessly as the oil spread to beaches and killed hundreds of thousands of fish, birds, and other wildlife.

“The Exxon Valdez spill was truly devastating to the environment, the fishing industry, and the communities,” she says. “Prince William Sound is God’s country, so full of life and so rich. What was happening was heart-wrenching.”

The effects of the Exxon Valdez spill on the more than 1,300 miles of shoreline in the northernmost part of the Gulf of Alaska were horrific.

  1. Devastated the lives and livelihoods of many of the region’s residents.  
  2. Killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 15 to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.
  3. Required roughly 10,000 workers, 1,000 boats, and 100 airplanes and helicopters for the cleanup effort.  
  4. Devastated Pacific herring and pigeon guillemot populations so much that they have not yet recovered and affected sea otters, Barrow’s goldeneyes, and more than a dozen other species, which are still recovering 25 years later.


Oil Spil Coastline

25 years later two major challenges facing the Arctic must still be addressed.

1. Increased vessel traffic

Melting sea ice in the Bering Strait is opening a new passageway for ship traffic, a trend that is expected to accelerate in the future. Although shipping activity is light compared with other regions of the world, the capacity to provide aid and support for vessels in the strait is extremely limited, and responding to an oil spill in these remote and seasonally challenging waters is nearly impossible. Given the cultural, ecological, and economic importance of the region, the likely consequences of an accident are considerable.

The increasing activity makes this a critical moment for the United States to develop appropriate standards of care for vessel traffic in the Arctic. There are no regulations for vessel traffic in these waters, and setting “rules of the road” will ensure safer transport. Local communities should play a leadership role with other stakeholders in this effort.

The following standards should be developed:

  1. Developing vessel traffic lanes telling ships where to go.  
  2. Defining areas to be avoided to keep ships away from sensitive marine habitat or hazardous areas.  
  3. Seting speed limits to reduce the risk of striking slow-moving marine mammals, such as bowhead, gray, and humpback whales.  
  4. Develop a vessel tracking, compliance, and monitoring system, an Automatic Identification System-based monitoring structure that actively tracks vessels and enables greater information sharing among the U.S. Coast Guard, transiting ships, and local communities.  

2. Increased energy exploration

Today there is an increased push to drill offshore into ever deeper and riskier frontier waters of the Arctic. Those waters are ice-covered for eight to nine months of the year and in almost complete darkness for nearly three of those months. Even during the summer, when the ice pack has mostly receded, the Arctic experiences high seas, wind, freezing temperatures, dense fog, and floating ice hazards. Even more challenging, the major highways, airports, and ports that most Americans take for granted do not exist in the Arctic. The nearest Coast Guard base is more than 950 air miles away, and the closest major port is over 1,000 miles away.




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