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Marge Gibson remembers the call to Alaska to care for Valdez oil spill
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(Editor’s note: Marge Gibson, director of the Antigo-based Raptor Education Group, was the eagle expert and avian researcher called in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster 25 years ago this week to assist and evaluate in the recovery of the region's bald eagle population. This is her remembrances of that time.)

By MARGE GIBSONExecutive director

Raptor Education Group Inc.

I received a call in April of 1989 from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They wanted me to come to Alaska for a few to several months to do health assessment on the bald eagles in the area affected by the oil spill. At the time I was only one of six people in the country who handled adult bald eagles and the only one with a medical background. I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave my family for that extended period of time, but wanted to hold on to the thought for a while so I told them I would talk to my husband and family.

My 15-year-old daughter (now Sarah Petroskey of Antigo) came home from school and I shared with her that I was offered a terrific opportunity to go to Alaska and work with bald eagles. I added that I knew it wasn’t possible but it was a cool job. Her reply changed my life.

“Oh great mom so I can tell my kids that their grandma had an opportunity to make history, but didn’t take it,” she said.

That put it all in perspective. My husband Don agreed with her and I was on the plane four days later.

I was the first woman in what was then considered a “man’s job”. The challenges in that arena both before and after my work in Alaska were great, but worth every second. There was a lot of confusion in the native villages for instance on how to treat me. I headed the Eagle Capture and Health Assessment Team, but I was a woman. In the end they treated me like any other man. It was all good.

I arrived to find Exxon had gathered the most esteemed scientists in the world to find solutions for this tragic spill. These were the guys that didn’t have to refer to the book…because they wrote them.

I headed a team of three biologists. The work evolved daily and went from what we thought would be walking on beaches picking up dead and dying eagles to the realization that most were flying and doing amazing well and avoiding the oiled areas. We had to develop methods to trap them so we could do blood testing and evaluate their condition. Traps used in the lower 48 didn’t fit the needs of the rugged Alaska coastline. With the help of a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist we learned a new technique and developed others that allowed us to capture over a hundred eagles that summer.

People ask what it was like there.

It was hard work seven days a week and with the long hours of daylight in Alaska there was little sleep. I usually worked from a float plane and a 42 foot purse seine fishing boat, but sometimes dangling from a helicopter. It was not a place to worry about breaking a fingernail, and you learn tide charts as if your life depended on it, because it often did.

In fact, I turned 40 that year in June and totally forgot my birthday as I was hauling dead seals to use as bait during a huge storm at sea. I mean really how does a woman forget her 40th birthday? 

The oil coverage of the bays and islands depended on the currents. Some places had two feet of oil on the shore and others remained pristine. The bigger question became, “How is that possible?”

The eagles adapted to the oil spill in ways never thought possible. The scope of my work changed dramatically from what I was originally hired to do. The only thing that remained the same was I was trapping, blood testing and evaluating bald eagles. This was all done from the fishing vessel. The byword of the eagle project and all programs that summer was “the only thing that remains constant is change.” The experiences both good, bad and everything in-between were some I will never forget.

For the next three years I did aerial habitat assessment in Alaska. The project allowed me flexibility in where I lived, so Don and I and family were able to move back to Antigo, my hometown. Without the Valdez oil spill we would still be living in sunny California.

Also moving from California was our famous bald eagle Qushquluk, the only known captive survivor of the spill. I caught her on Herring Bay, a heavily oiled area. She had lost her mate and her chicks before suffering a serious wing fracture. She was consequently covered with oil. Due to the fact that oil impacted her and the open fracture and she was not able to be released, I knew she would be the perfect bird to do long term blood studies on to evaluate the effect of the oil. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed and she was put on my permit. She has been with us for 25 years. An older bird when she was caught, likely over 20, she is still laying eggs and doing well. She did develop a carcinoma at the wing amputation site in 1995.  We are very excited that Qushquluk will be featured on the banners the will grace Antigo this summer.

It is hard for me to watch old footage of the Valdez oil spill. It is still an emotional roller coaster remembering some things that seems like they happened yesterday and others a lifetime ago. People assume the worst memories would be the oil in the environment. The worst to me remain the toll the spill took on the human communities in the area. Money flowed freely from Exxon to a population that was used to subsistence living and with that came drugs and alcohol. It was not a change for the better for at least an entire generation. The lesson learned, money does not solve problems but creates new and longer lasting ones. Greed was rampant during that time and sadly in some cases remains so. It changed good people into those who saw an opportunity for financial gain and ran with it.

In the end the pristine Prince William Sound may never be the same. The fishing has been affected, but the blame should not be only on Exxon’s shoulders. Many companies and even our government had a part in the choices that were made to create this “perfect storm.”

In 1989 the Valdez oil spill at 11 million gallons was the largest in U.S. history at that time. That was surpassed by the BP Deep Water Horizon spill in 2010 when 20 times that amount spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. BP learned from Exxon’s mistakes of allowing cameras to record the spill and leading scientists to document the findings. We hear little about the Deep Water Spill these days and yet a quarter of a century later we are still talking about Valdez. Nothing has changed but the companies learned to deny and cover-up facts. If the public doesn’t see it…it never happened.


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Marge Gibson in August, 1989, with the last bald eagle she captured in Alaska that year. She was blood tested and sent back to her chicks within about 15 minutes.
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ANTIGO DAILY
JOURNAL
612 Superior Street
Antigo, WI 54409
Phone: 715-623-4191
Fax: 715-623-4193
Mail to: Fred Berner
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JOURNAL
EXPRESS
612 Superior Street,
Antigo, WI 54409
Phone: 715-623-4191
Fax: 715-623-4193
Mail to: Fred Berner
MapOnUs Location: (local)

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