Monitoring ecosystem change and resource recovery since the Exxon Valdez oil spill
Gulf Watch Alaska is a long-term ecosystem research and monitoring program in the Gulf of Alaska. The program is funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to understand what is limiting the recovery of resources injured during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Trustee Council began funding the program in 2012, however, many of the studies included in Gulf Watch Alaska were established before or soon after the oil spill. These legacy studies were integrated with new studies to help understand why some species have not yet recovered after over 30 years. Various studies did show a physiological response by some animals to oil exposure 20 years after the spill. A more recent study demonstrated that Exxon Valdez oil is sequestered in sediments and no longer bioavailable. Yet, some species have not yet fully recovered, emphasizing the importance of understanding ecosystem variability and complex environmental factors that are limiting further recovery.
Gulf Watch Alaska is comprised of five components: 1. Environmental Drivers (physical and biological oceanography), 2. Nearshore Ecosystems (subtidal and intertidal systems), 3. Pelagic Ecosystems (prey and upper trophic-level predators), 4. Herring Research and Monitoring, and 5. Science Synthesis. Components 2, 3, 4 include at least one species classified as not recovered, while components 1 and 5 contribute to a better understanding of why recovery is not occurring.
Gulf Watch Alaska includes 16 projects and 35 principal investigators representing 14 different agencies and organizations. Furthermore, it has strong partnerships with other research efforts throughout the Gulf of Alaska, including the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the National Science Foundation’s Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research site, and the State of Alaska. Gulf Watch Alaska broadens its influence and relevance to stakeholders in the region by contributing to ecosystem-based management of fisheries, protected species, mariculture, and subsistence resources. All data from the program are archived and publically available on the Alaska Ocean Observing System data portal and DataONE