Exxon Valdez oil-spill recovery still is work in progress, 20 years later

Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, pockets of oil — an estimated 16,000 gallons — remain buried in small portions of the intertidal zone. And herring, a cornerstone species of Prince William Sound’s ecosystem, is one of two species “not recovering.” The herring population’s failure to rebound has emerged as among the most perplexing ecological mysteries of the spill’s legacy.

By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter

Twenty years ago, Cordova fisherman John Renner was poised for the spring herring harvest in Prince William Sound. He had a 50-foot seiner packed with nets and fuel, and the galley loaded with deer, moose and other fixings to feed his four-person crew for up to a month.

Each day, he monitored reports from state biologists for word that the herring’s sac roe — a fish-egg delicacy in Japan — had ripened.

“The herring fishery was the pinnacle of seining,” Renner said. “It was the Super Bowl of fishing. The best, most competitive guys.”

The harvest was canceled after the Exxon Valdez ran aground March 24, 1989, on Bligh Reef, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil — enough crude to fill 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Instead of netting herring, Renner spent the spring picking up dead birds off the beach and running a shuttle service for the gargantuan cleanup effort.

Today, on the 20th anniversary of the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, Renner again will be on shore during the spring harvest due to a prolonged collapse of the herring stock.

The plight of the herring underscores how much of the Prince William Sound recovery remains a work in progress.

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