In 1986, a group of Cordova fishermen, scientists, and resource managers began sharing bad coffee over informal lunches to explore a question: What can we do to better understand this globally-relevant region and share what we learn for the benefit of local people, and the world?
Two years later, the discussion with the semi-regulars resulted in a commitment to develop a community-based organization to serve as a repository for the knowledge gained from nearly 30 million acres of coastline, wetlands, estuaries, mountains, rivers and streams – all while engaging residents with education and entrepreneurial endeavors.
The dream was ambitious. Then, as the Prince William Sound Science Center’s (PWSSC) nonprofit papers were being developed in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude into our backyard of Prince William Sound –forever altering the environment and the fishery. Shortly after, on Earth Day – April 22, 1989 – our legal papers were filed and the real work began.
Our first actions focused on the oil spill. Vice-mayor, commercial fisherman and PWSSC co-founder R.J. Kopchak developed the Cordova Oil Spill Response Office in our new home, while the city hired future Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell to advise and administer local response efforts. By May 1989, biologist Mimi Oliver and current Finance Director Penny Oswalt were on staff, followed by future Executive Director Nancy Bird. Future board member and Ecotrust founder Spencer Beebe brokered a $50,000 grant from Conservation International, and for several months Kopchak served as president. Then-Governor Steve Cowper delivered $250,000 in funding for our original building.
By July 1989, John P. Harvill, PhD, became the director of the PWSSC. Dr. Harville, the recently-retired executive director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, brought experience needed to grow and legitimize the organization while developing strategies and science plans. Other board members developed funding proposals, and new board member Treadwell played a key role by crafting strategies that resulted in the creation of our nonprofit subsidiary, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI), with provisions in the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Without Treadwell and the OSRI contributions over time, the PWSSC’s survival would have been difficult, if not impossible.
In March 1990, Harville moderated a regional science planning conference with over 155 invited participants to identify and prioritize research topics and needs. Still, the early struggles to gain support for a regional science center show in the budgets. For the first three years, the average budget was just over $140,000. We barely kept the lights on and met payroll, and yet we moved ahead on research, education and outreach. During the early years, and in addition to our research, the PWSSC developed the Discovery Room, which still today provides science enrichment programs for the school system, as well as science summer camps that remain a popular tradition.
By spring 1993, it was obvious that Prince William Sound was still experiencing the aftereffects of the oil spill. In August of that year, 60 commercial fishing boats blockaded the Valdez narrows, stopping oil tanker traffic and demanding that more effort and funding be available to deal with failed fish runs, especially pink salmon and herring. Soon, our budget grew from $400,000 in 1993 to $3.2 million by 1995.
From 1995 to 2005, the science center budget averaged about $2.8 million, with average education program support of $63,000. Since 2006, the budget averaged just over $3 million, with education budgets averaging about $125,000.
In 2010, the PWSSC purchased the 39-foot research vessel New Wave for surveys in Prince William Sound and the North Gulf of Alaska. Funding for herring research and climate change studies have helped establish the first comprehensive year-round sampling program in the region.
Over the years, we’ve become well-known for our leading research in the areas of hatchery-wild salmon interactions, herring, glaciers, the understanding of climate change (including a partnership with NASA), the relationship of land-and-sea, seabird/shorebird health, and much more. Studies conducted by our researchers provide answers to many challenges, including: resource use and sustainability, food webs that support coastal / inland economies, and the management, harvest and processing of fish and shellfish. Ultimately, all of our work seeks one outcome: to understand how a place can maintain both its environment and economy for generations to come.
Our education programs have also attracted attention near and far. Oil spill curriculum, marine robotics, “Field Notes” radio programs, our Tuesday night lecture series, Discovery Room programs for the grade school, environmental leadership adventure camps for young adults, and summer science camps are just a few of our efforts. Our annual Delta Sound Connections magazine has broad reach, and we are developing new approaches to using real-time science to enhance classroom learning.
Looking to the Future
Today, nearly 30 years on, current CEO Katrina Hoffman (who also serves as Executive Director of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute) is leading the PWSSC in a new phase of growth of as we look to expand our facilities, staff and reach – both locally and across the globe. Our center today is focused on resilience – what it means, and what it takes to model it here and everywhere. To our mayor, Clay Koplin, resilience is the ability for a region to be knocked flat, dust yourself off, and end up in a better place than expected. That’s a view we find inspiring and hopeful.
Our region is one of the world’s most remote and greatest living laboratories, and in these last-best places there’s a responsibility: to research, to discover, to share what we learn. Ours is one of the world’s environmental strongholds, a place that’s critical to a thriving planet. Our location, at the endpoint of a 1,000-year conveyor belt of water from Antarctica, gives us a unique vantage point to understand the globe’s changing climate. Mayor Koplin believes that agility, or the ability to adapt to change, is at the heart of resilience. He also believes that demonstrating how to be resilient is the greatest potential export of our region.
Gaining that knowledge and preparing the next generation for a changing world is at the heart of our mission and work. It’s work we can’t do without you. We humbly ask you to join our hopeful exploration now, and for the long-term, so that the promise envisioned by our founders, staff and partners over the years may remain the promise of tomorrow.