Keeping Oil Spill From Becoming Spilled Milk

Fishermen cleaned up Exxon Valdez-spill that had idled them

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It’s hard to know how similar the Gulf spill is to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, but there is at least one parallel: fishermen idled by a mess threatening their livelihood.

In March of 1989 fishermen were readying themselves for the herring fishing season. This would be followed a few months later by the salmon fishing season in a normal year. After the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled it’s 11 million gallons of crude oil, nothing was normal.

Many, if not virtually all, of the fishermen in Prince William Sound were immediately put to work fighting the spreading oil. The fishermen knew their local waters like only local fishermen typically do. A shift in wind or tide might influence the spread of oil in ways only local knowledge could predict. The fishermen also knew how to handle heavy gear. They commonly set and retrieve long, weighted nets full of fish using state of the art hydraulic winches and other gear. This experience put them in good stead when they were asked to set, tow and retrieve oil containment booms to corral the oil.

Fishermen as a whole generally aren’t content to sit and let others do their work for them. They tend to be an independent and extremely self reliant group that have no choice but to be master mechanics, welders, hydraulic system engineers, woodworkers, line and cable splicers, electricians and communications gear technicians. They don’t love problems but are used to them and are used to having none but themselves to figure out answers.

In Alaska, rather than sitting on the beach feeling helpless, fighting the oil spill gave the fishermen a sense of purpose. But they also clearly understood, better than any others, their precious fishing areas—once so productive, sustainable and clean—would never be the same.

If history repeats we may soon see many Gulf coast fishermen out working to control the spread of oil.

John was Earthjustice’s Media Director and chief press wrangler from 2001 until 2013. He came to Earthjustice in 2001 to defend freshwaters and public land—and salmon.