By Tom Copeland
For The Cordova Times
In August of 1993, four years after the spill, Cordova fishermen were suffering through an even worse season than this one. The seine fleet was stuck in two giant lines down at AFK. Three days waiting for a set and then no fish. Times were tough.
Exxon was showing no interest in entering into any serious settlement talks, the herring were sick, and pink salmon almost nonexistent. On top of everything else, the Exxon Valdez Trustees Council was steadfastly refusing to fund any research or restoration efforts for either salmon or herring in PWS.
The Council’s reasoning was nonsense. They said we fishermen were going to get that done with our personal damages suit!
CDFU had been urging the Council to get started on finding out what the oil spill had done to salmon and herring since shortly after the spill — but to no avail. In May at a CDFU meeting, Phil Leon had stood up and said, “This seems like it had to be a secret deal between Exxon and the government to not spend any of the Natural Resource Damage Settlement monies on anything that could generate evidence for us to use against them in our lawsuit.”
As soon as he said that, the shoe dropped. Of course, why had it taken us so long to figure it out? Four long years and not one dollar had been spent on salmon and herring.
There was an urgent and immediate need for the Council’s funding. ADF&G had never been very enthusiastic about the fishermen’s salmon hatchery program. Now they said the new keyword for PWS was restoration not production. The hatcheries needed to be part of the solution, not part of the stress. They were willing to allow hatchery production to continue only if the hatcheries could differentiate hatchery fish from wild fish. There was a way — coded wire tags. The program would cost $10 million. This type of expenditure was well suited for the Trustees Council. With any other species there would have been no problem, but not for salmon or herring.
The seine fleet, tired of wasting fuel out at AFK, decided that they had little to lose and resolved to stop being victims and to take the battle to the oil industry. If Exxon would not even try to settle with us, then we would stop any tankers from entering Valdez. We would hold the narrows until Exxon agreed to settle.
It was quite a battle for the fleet to get up to Valdez Narrows, into the teeth of a good southeaster the whole way up from AFK. But the Narrows was taken, a line formed up across it, pictures were taken. The Coast Guard lost no time in sending the Sweetbrier up from Cordova to confront what they called, “The first closure of a federal waterway due to civil disobedience since the Civil War.” The next morning several blockading skippers met with the USCG, BP, and Governor Hickel in Valdez. Everyone was cordial but Exxon refused to meet with us. We were stuck.
About then word reached the fleet, milling around in the Narrows, that Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, was in the middle of a visit to the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. It was pointed out that the Secretary appointed all three federal members of the Trustee’s Council. This was the guy who could fix the problem we were having with salmon and herring research and perhaps save the hatcheries. Maybe he could pressure Exxon to meet with us. The fleet decided to invite him to meet with us in Valdez and get this thing settled.
The next morning we successfully turned around the assembled might of the USCG and a BP tanker. That afternoon Secretary Babbitt met with a delegation of fishermen in Valdez. I was chosen to present to the Secretary our argument with the Trustees Council. After a couple of phone calls, Secretary Babbitt promised immediate and substantial funding for salmon and herring in PWS. He also promised the full weight of the federal government to bring Exxon to the bargaining table. We all shook hands and the blockade was ended.
The fleet took up a collection to send Jim Gray back to Washington D.C. to meet with President Clinton’s staff to try and get our substantial USCG fines forgiven. He was successful. One week later the Trustee’s Council announced the creation of the SEA Program – $20 million for salmon and herring research in PWS. They later stated that this program was created as a direct result of the 1993 Fishermen’s Blockade of Valdez Narrows.
The blockade is worth remembering because victories of such magnitude and duration come few and far between.
Anna Young, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, is currently in town collecting interviews and pictures for a video about the Blockade. Everyone remembers it differently, don’t be left out. Anna’s cellphone is 907-253-3469.