20 Years Later, Wildlife Still Eating Oil from Exxon Valdez Spill

harlequin duck photo

Photo of harlequin duck, via Just chaos via Flickr CC

When officials said it would take 20 years for the corals on the Great Barrier Reef to recover after the Chinese coal ship slammed into it and grounded for a week, they may have even been conservative with their estimate. It seems that exposure to toxins and oil can have a long, drawn out recovery time - at least, that's what is found for wildlife that live in the area affected by the Exxon Valdez spill two decades ago. Scientists have discovered that animals living in Alaska are still ingesting oil from the spill. According to Science Daily, the research was published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and shows long-term exposure to oil in harlequin ducks living in the areas where 10.8 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into the sea.

It is still regarded as one of the most devastating human-caused contamination events, and the effects on wildlife populations and communities have been debated by biologists, ecologists, and the oil industry ever since. Now, using the biomarker CYP1A, which is induced upon exposure to crude oil, an international team led by Daniel Esler, from the Centre for Wildlife Ecology, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, has measured prolonged exposure to oil in local wildlife populations.

Harlequin ducks were the focus of research since they frequent the intertidal areas where residual oil is mostly found, they live off invertebrates that also live in this area, and have a limited ability to metabolize the residual oil. And when studied, levels in ducks living in areas affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill were "unequivocally" higher than ducks living in other areas, showing that the effects of disasters like this last not years, but decades.

While the grounding of the ship on the Great Barrier Reef and the resulting fuel leak doesn't come close to the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill, the research does tell us that even smaller-scale harm like this could be felt long after the point when scientists think the area will be recovered. Luckily, there is also research showing that if the mess is cleaned up right away, most ecosystems can rebound relatively quickly. Let's hope that's the case for the corals.

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