Prince William Sound

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Prince William Sound

British explorer Captain James Cook made the European discovery of Prince William Sound in 1778. Today, the 25,090-square-mile (65,000-square-kilometer) passage southeast of Anchorage, Alaska, is the focal point of an ongoing political and environmental issue: whether oil can be safely transported in extreme climates without seriously threatening terrestrial and marine habitats or the recreational, agricultural, and industrial interests of the region.

Prince William Sound is bordered on the north and west by the Chugach and Kenai mountain ranges, on the east by the Copper River, and by the Hinchinbrook Islands on the south. Ten percent of its area is open water, with depths ranging from 492-2,952 ft (149-895 m). The remainder consists of shallow coastal waters, shoals, and reefs. The combined 2,980 miles (4,800 km) of mainland and island shoreline are home to more than 200 species of birds, among them approximately 3,000 bald eagles. Ten species of marine mammals, including sea lions , seals , whales , porpoises, and some 10,000 sea otters thrive in its bountiful waters. The natural beauty of Prince William Sound is responsible for the area's healthy tourism industry.

The Sound is world-renowned for its salmon fishery. More than 300 streams are used by salmon for spawning and, combined with hatchery inputs, more than one billion fry are released annually into the Sound. The herring season brings in an additional 12 million dollars to the area each year. The inhabitants of the four communities on the Sound are supported primarily by fishing and its related industries. For economic reasons, residents of the area are concerned with preserving the Sound's natural resources .

In the mid-1970s, the Cordova Island fishermen fought the oil industry's plan to build an oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska to Prince William Sound. The decision was left to the United States Senate which, despite warnings from scientists and environmental groups, voted to approve the proposed pipeline route into the Sound.

Natural and man-induced disasters threaten the health of the Sound. The Alaskan coast makes up the western boundary of the North American continental plate and is, therefore, subject to considerable seismic activity. On March 24, 1964, an earthquake centered in the mountains surrounding Prince William Sound had substantial effects on the Sound. Twenty-five years later to the day, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez wrecked on the rocks of the Sound's Bligh Reef in waters less than 39 ft (12 m) deep. Approximately 265,000 barrels (42 million liters) of heavy crude oil leaked into the Sound, one of the worst oil spills in United States history. The local sea otter population was nearly destroyed; many pelagic and shore bird populations were also heavily impacted. Effects of the spill and subsequent clean-up efforts on shoreline and sea-floor communities are unknown, as are the long-term effects on Prince William Sound and adjacent habitats.

[William G. Ambrose Jr. and Paul E. Renaud ]



Lethcoe, N., ed. Prince William Sound Environmental Reader, 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Valdez, AK: Prince William Sound Books, 1989.


Dold, C. A., et al. "Just the Facts: Prince William Sound." Audubon 91 (1989): 80.

Heacox, K. "Sound of Silence." Buzzworm 5 (JanuaryFebruary 1993): 52.

Steiner, R. "Probing an Oil-Stained Legacy." National Wildlife 31 (AprilMay 1993): 411.

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Prince William Sound

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