Has PWS Recovered Six Years After The Spill?
The answer depends on one's definition of recovery. The National Academy of Science rejects the notion of a "recovery to pre-spill conditions," an impossible event given the dynamic processes operating in the coastal milieu. Recovery will have occurred when the environment can support the same general range of life and biomass as before the spill.10 Using this definition, PWS has recovered. Virtually all species in PWS remain abundant and are successfully reproducing in the area impacted by the spill. The exception of the Harlequin duck has been discussed previously. And the sea lion population was already in serious decline prior to the oil spill.
According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees (the Alaska and federal representatives responsible for "restoring" the Sound after the determination and settlement of damages), "in a scientific sense, full ecological recovery has been achieved when the pre-spill flora and fauna are again present, healthy, and productive, and there is a full complement of age classes." By this more rigorous definition, the sea otter population has only partially recovered. Yet this conclusion has been challenged by other scientists who believe that PWS after the oil spill is still overpopulated by otters.18
The impact of the spill must ultimately be assessed against the backdrop of natural variation. A quote from a recently published Congressional Research Service report is revealing: "Despite short-term media attention to the catastrophic nature of major spill events, the chemicals contained in petroleum have long been part of the marine environment and physical impacts are likely to be temporary in the dynamic natural flux of the coastal environment."23