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Be prepared for more devastation

Editor's note: Squamish Climate Action Network (CAN) member Ana Santos provides Chief readers with her observations during an expedition to study the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the Prince William Sound, 21 years after its devastation.

Editor's note: Squamish Climate Action Network (CAN) member Ana Santos provides Chief readers with her observations during an expedition to study the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the Prince William Sound, 21 years after its devastation.

Part three of the Prince William Sound summer 2010 survey is out of Cordova, a small village whose fishing industry was virtually destroyed by the spill.

On July 12, we turn to Cordova, on the eastern shores of Prince William Sound, as our third survey base.

Cordovans move with the rhythm of the fish - the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 meant the total loss of their livelihood and way of life. The herring alone, unseen in Prince William Sound waters ever since, brought $4 million annually to this town of 2,400.

Although the oil didn't reach its shoreline, Cordova was left with empty canneries, a fishing workforce cut in half, and a fleet of "high-liners," fishermen whose wives became the household money-makers.

With these thoughts on my mind as we approach the harbour, I am surprised to find it almost empty; there are barely more than a handful of boats tied to the docks. I charge towards the harbourmaster's office in search of an explanation: "Where is everybody? Are they all out fishing? Has Cordova finally recovered?"

The harbourmaster allows himself a few long seconds to carefully measure his answer: "Well, it depends what you consider recovery. Things are better than 20 years ago, and yes, the boats are out fishing, but they're fishing for salmon, a fishery that is alive and well thanks partly to the hatcheries. We're still waiting for the crab, the shrimp, the herring to come back... But yes, things have picked up a little."

I feel happy and relieved. Not for long though. My joy is wiped out almost instantly as I turn my eyes to the 2010 tide tables booklet that sits on the counter.

Prince William Sound waters may be recovering from the oil spill, but they are now encountering the same evil yet again, if with a different face.

The tide tables booklet is the obvious thing to find at the harbourmaster's office, but this particular one strikes me as unique - there are no advertisements on the cover; instead, the title warns Alaskans of the new giant oncoming wave that they need to prepare themselves to ride.

"Ocean acidification threatens our fisheries, our coastal communities, and the legacy we leave our children."

The Alaskans' concern is more than understandable. Every day, more than 20 million tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, oil amongst them. Nearly one-third of this pollution is absorbed by the oceans, which turn more acidic.

Alaska is particularly vulnerable. Cold water can hold more gas than warmer water; ocean waters here absorb more CO2 and, therefore, acidify faster than the global average. The shallow waters of Alaska's continental shelf compound the problem because there is less mixing of seawater from deeper ocean waters.

Some species are particularly sensitive to even small changes in water acidity, including many that are critical in maintaining the healthy food webs that support Alaska's commercial, subsistence, and recreational fisheries.

According to the harbourmaster, word on ocean acidification is getting around, but it isn't a dominating issue on Cordovans' minds yet. "Perhaps because it doesn't spread a visible stain on the water that we have to go out and clean up in a rush. Also, we have been too busy preparing for another spill to give anything else much thought," he says.

Nobody in this town knows more about preparedness than Kelley Weaverling, Mayor of Cordova at the time of the 1989 spill. In his little bookstore, I offer him my admiration for taking the mayor's chair during such difficult times.

"Quite the opposite," he says, "it was the easiest of times; everybody in town was moving with resolve."

Weaverling stares at me with concern as I tell him about plans for tankers to transport oil along the B.C. coast. He takes a deep breath before commenting: "You know, it is very difficult to find a silver lining to the very dark cloud cast on all of us by the Exxon Valdez disaster, but we learned a lot. We learned that responding to an oil spill is pretty much a fallacy. There's very little you can do once it's happened. This is not to say that we should just stand there, arms crossed watching it spread, but we need to concentrate efforts on prevention instead."

Obvious as this may sound, we need only look at the Gulf of Mexico to realize that the lack of prevention and response strategies in the oil sector is just as evident.

With a loud sigh, Weaverling dismisses my remark that oil companies should be able to see how wrong their approach is.

"There's no right or wrong in this business. It's all about profit or less profit, and regulation can mean less profit," he interrupts.

Although Weaverling agrees that we need to move faster towards renewable energy sources, he is convinced we are stuck with oil for a long time yet, "so we have no option but to learn to handle it with care."

In Alaska, the silver lining of the Exxon Valdez disaster came in the form of preventive measures that should be an example for the rest of the world; double-hull tankers, mandatory use of tethered tugs, escorts, observers, and the oversight of the oil industry by the Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, which was formed right after the spill to reduce pollution from oil transportation, and includes a wide range of stakeholders, from biologists and fishermen to representatives of the communities that could be affected by a spill.

Kelley's frown deepens as he tells me that the dangers of oil transportation by tankers go beyond the potential of oil spills. Another equally sticky issue relates to water used for ballast on these massive boats.

Once the tankers offload their oil at destination, they fill up with water so they can keep safely balanced. Discharged in the proximity of the terminal, this ballast water carries the risk of introducing invasive species from foreign waters into our native ecosystems.

"The impact can be as devastating as an oil spill."

I'm almost glad that a customer walks into the bookstore at this moment, bringing our conversation to an end.

Before I lose him, I ask Weaverling for a message to take back home.

"Be prepared," he simply says.

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