Cook Inlet Driftnetters Challenge Oil Company Goliath
National Fisherman, October 1989
National Fisherman, October 1989
The following article was … submitted to National Fisherman by Cook Inlet salmon driftnetter Pat Dixon, who participated in the blockade. Ed.
A flotilla of about 15 Cook Inlet driftnet fishermen attempted to stop an 800’ supertanker from docking at Nikiski harbor south of Anchorage on the night of July 21. No one was injured in the confrontation, though the tanker skipper did not interrupt his docking approach. “What we were trying to do was not necessarily stop a tanker,” says Dixon, “but to deliver a message to the nation that we are being treated fairly by Exxon.”
The tanker Flying Clipper, in ballast, was headed for Nikiski, north of the Kenai River, to take on bunker oil when the fishermen sailed for the protest. Before leaving port, the fishermen alerted local and national media of their intentions, and then they waited for the tanker to show up.
A few days earlier, the 600 drift gillnet fishermen of Cook Inlet had received the grim news that the red salmon fishery would remain closed due to oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in March, effectively killing their entire season. Though most of the attention on the spill and lost seasons had been directed at Prince William Sound and Kodiak, not many people expected the oil to bring its devastation to Cook Inlet.
As the bad news came from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and environmental monitors on closing the fishery, Exxon and contractor Veco were waffling on earlier promises of smooth claims by imposing more conditions for payment of reparations and offering no guarantees that the cleanup effort would continue next spring. What’s more, many fishermen in the Cook Inlet fleet were still – after two years – trying to collect on claims from the far less extensive spill from the British Petroleum/Tesoro tanker Glacier Bay in 1987.
“As it turned out, tar balls and weathered mousse [oil, water and debris] were found scattered throughout the inlet, concentrated mostly in the tide rips,” says Dixon in his report. Cook Inlet is well-known for its huge tides and racing currents. These same tides, the second largest in the world (only the Bay of Fundy has a larger tide range), create river-like rips in the waters of Cook Inlet, known to fishermen as the east, west and middle rips. Other smaller rips exist, but the three biggest ones gather the bulk of the debris and nutrients for the inlet’s waters as the tides run.
In July, Exxon employed a small fleet of seven drift boats and 16 skiffs to net the tars balls out of the rips with fine-mesh dipnets, saying they were cleaning the rips so fishing could proceed. “The obvious problem was that the effort was ineffective and ludicrous on such a small scale,” Dixon says. The entire drift fleet, 600 boats strong and sitting idle at the docks, were scared away from an attempt at a volunteer cleanup by a lack of boat-cleaning stations. (Alaska environmental officials require that any boat that encounters oil must be cleaned up before it can re-enter the fishery.)
“We were caught in a situation where we felt helpless,” Dixon says. “The season was slipping away, and the national media was all but ignoring our crisis. “ Other attempts were made to get more substantial cleanup fleets on the inlet, but the battle was being lost and the fishery remained closed. On July 19, ADF&G closed drift gillnetting until Aug. 5, with possible further closure, an act that would be moot since the red run has traditionally proved to be over by Aug. 5.
“In the meantime, other issues were adding fuel to the fire,” Dixon reports. “Exxon was playing hardball in hammering out an agreement with the United Cook Inlet Drift Association for interim settlement advances, and its stance was “Take it or leave it.” Most fishermen felt they had to take the money, though, since it might be all they were going to get out of the season, but no one was saying they felt the amount was fair.
“Exxon’s calculations were based upon low-end projections of the run, the lowest grounds price and average weights per fish that were below what most of us felt were accurate,” Dixon reports. “A fair and equitable settlement was a far cry from Exxon’s figures.”
“In a classic case of poor timing on their par, Alaska’s congressional delegation of Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young just happened to send a public opinion van to the Kenai Peninsula two days after the fisheries closure announcement,” Dixon says. “They were greeted by several angry fishermen, and it was at that gathering that some of us began to realize that all our so-called acceptable avenues of protest concerning what was happening to the fishery, our livelihoods and lifestyles were exhausted. Something else was necessary. Informally, the idea of a blockade began to get serious consideration, and the next night the ideas began to gel into a plan.”
The fishermen drew up a list of “concerns” to be carried by all boats participating in the blockade. It read:
The oil companies have lied to us in three ways:
- They told us they wouldn’t spill the oil, and that was a lie.
- They told us they’d clean any spill, and that was also a lie.
- They told us they’d compensate those damaged by the spill fairly, and that is proving to be a lie as well.
The decision to blockade Nikiski was based on the desire to:
- create pressure upon oil companies to implement a serious oil clean-up effort on Cook Inlet;
- encourage Exxon to deal equitably and fairly with the settlement of claims resulting from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its effects on the inlet’s fishery;
- remind the public that British Petroleum and Tesoro and others have yet to negotiate any settlement to fishermen as a result of the 1987 Glacier Bay spill on the inlet and that spill’s impact upon our fishery; and to
- point out that there is still no real capability to clean up a new oil spill.
“The short notice both helped us and hurt us,” Dixon reports. “It allowed us to catch the oil industry off guard, but it cost us in numbers of actual participants. A total of 15 boats left the Kenai and Kasilof rivers that evening, and after several tense minute of wondering if the tanker was even going to show, we finally spotted its smoke on the horizon.
“As the tanker neared, the boats began to move in close to the docks. As we did so, we noticed four men on the dock, one in a Coast Guard uniform., writing down boat numbers and names. Soon after that, the Coast Guard announced its presence on the VHF, said we were in restricted waters and ordered us to clear the area. Our small group of boats was quiet over the radio in response,” Dixon writes. “I felt that someone needed to find out what could happen to us, so I picked up my microphone and asked the person making the announcement to identify himself. He refused to do so.
“Then I asked him why he would not identify himself, and he replied that it was due to security considerations. I asked him what laws we would be in violation of, should we refuse to move, and what penalties for those violations were. Again he refused to answer over the radio and said he would tell me in person if I would motor over to the dock. After a brief discussion with Frank Mullen, a local fisherman with political experience, I decided to find out what our group was risking.
“We took the boat to the dock and learned that upon refusing a direct order from the Coast Guard, we were subject to up to five years in jail and a $50,000 fine for obstructing a navigable waterway – a federal misdemeanor. At that time, we made the assumption that our boat was the only one that had received a direct order, and we said our vessel would stand off, but we couldn’t speak for the rest of the boats. The Coast Guard officer, a Lt. Wilson, was apparently there for the inspection of the tanker, a routine task. He voiced his sympathies for our concerns. Although he requested to board my vessel, he did not press his request when I refused to allow him on board.
“We idled away from the dock,” Dixon states, “switched to the VHF channel our group was on and informed them of what had been said. We told them our boat was staying out of the way of the tanker as it came in to the dock and advised the individuals in our group to use their own best judgment. The only response that came back was an unidentified, sarcastic comment from one of the members of the group: ‘I dunno,’ the guy said, ‘I think I might be having a fan belt problem soon.’
“The tanker was now close in on the fleet, and the show began in earnest. The tanker skipper had been advised from shore to ‘Keep her coming; they’ve been warned away. They’re just playing chicken with you.’ The fishing boats crowded around the tanker; one even bumped her. I remember thinking, that the entire scene was symbolic of the roots of our protest: the giant was, in reality, unaffected by the small craft buzzing it. The tanker just kept on coming, implacable, unstoppable, just like the Exxon Valdez spill itself, just like the oil industry. What chance do we really have?”
No charges were files against the fishermen after the blockade.