by Rachel Mason
I came back to Kodiak two months before the March 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill to do ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation on the occupational culture of commercial fishing. I had been going to graduate school in Virginia. When my Kodiak friends, who knew me as a cab driver and before that a cannery worker, heard that I had obtained an NSF grant and another grant to study fishing and drinking in Kodiak, they thought I must have pulled off a wonderful scam.
My plan, in the spirit of participant observation, was to work briefly on several different boats and fishing operations. I had a little bit of experience fishing halibut and hoped I could convince some open-minded skippers to take on a working anthropologist observer. I first heard about the oil spill while inexpertly helping a seiner crew prepare their net for the upcoming herring season. When the oil spill curtailed most of the Kodiak fisheries, my research plans had to change. In fact, though, the summer of the oil spill may have provided me with an even better understanding of fishermen’s occupational identity than I would have gotten by actually fishing—because I saw what they missed when they were not allowed to fish.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in March 1989, but the oil didn’t reach Kodiak until several weeks later, first only spotting the beaches of the northern part of the archipelago, then advancing south, plastering the coasts of northern Kodiak Island. The city of Kodiak had an Emergency Services Team in place to respond to disaster, and in the month before the oil hit, there were public meetings with representatives of city, state, and federal agencies. Exxon representatives arrived after the oil hit to take control of the response effort. Thus began a summer that one resident described as a “foreign occupancy.”
As the oil spill began to dominate their lives, many people in Kodiak thought this was a qualitatively different crisis from “normal” fishing crises, or even from the larger natural and man-made disasters of the past. The spill made fishermen see that despite their efforts to preserve a lifestyle, their lives were controlled by the actions of big corporations. They thought Exxon's handling of the cleanup, even more than the oil itself, had a damaging effect on the Kodiak community. One man said that the Exxon’s presence and behavior during the cleanup effort made the spill different from a natural disaster because “here the guy who did it throws salt in the wound.” There was little trust in the scientific studies conducted by Exxon or government agencies to test whether seafoods were contaminated, or whether beaches were clean enough.
Kodiak residents were angry that the cleanup was not directed by people with local knowledge. “All Exxon knows how to do is write checks,” one person said. With the appearance of an Exxon Command Center, with uniformed security guards, and hundreds of Veco (Exxon’s employment contractor), and government agency personnel swarming in the community, Kodiak seemed to be under foreign occupation. Some attributed the chaotic cleanup operation to Exxon's calculation rather than to incompetence.
Some in the Lower 48 were skeptical about the hardships suffered by fishermen during the oil spill, especially since Exxon “poured money on the spill” by chartering fishing boats at absurdly high rates and paid unskilled workers $16.79 an hour to clean up the oil. Outside Alaska, more public concern was focused on the damages to subsistence lifestyle in the Alaska Native villages affected by the spill than on damages to the lifestyle of commercial fishermen. Even in Alaska, there was little sympathy for people who made a lot of money by working for Exxon during the oil spill. Kodiak residents commented that some fishermen had the “best season ever” in 1989, becoming “spillionaires.”
Salmon seiners were not allowed to fish in the summer of 1989 because of the possibility of salmon contamination. They waited for weeks as several implausible scenarios were suggested for dealing with salmon unfit for harvest; one idea was to shred the oiled fish and dump them three miles out. Finally, the whole salmon season was closed except for a few set net sites and a terminal fishery around a hatchery. Exxon chartered some of the seine boats after that, but many seiners resented being in this position. These fishermen felt that the deprivation of their freedom to fish represented a general loss of autonomy. Even when Exxon gave compensation to salmon fishermen for not fishing, they felt they had been made into a subject people, waiting for Exxon to give them a handout. Fishermen whose boats were chartered also felt dependent on Exxon, transformed from independent competitors into time-clock employees.
During the summer of 1989, the spill was all that anyone in Kodiak talked about. It was considered the definitive event that brought people’s heads out of the sand regarding their lack of autonomy in relation to the corporate world. Community meetings, daily at first and then less frequently, continued to be well attended and to include public testimony. Fishermen and cannery workers were politicized by the spill. There was a protest march against Exxon. The Seiners Association formed that summer and agitated for a fairer system of chartering vessels. There was a short-lived Crewmen’s Association, whose meetings were always in bars and were usually disrupted by a few outspoken members with specific concerns. The Crude Women began as a group of female fishermen and fishing spouses, displaced by the spill from their usual summer work and evolving into a local environmental advocacy group.
Two years later, however, interest in the spill itself had diminished in Kodiak. With characteristic resilience, Kodiak fishermen had gone on to face other crises. In 1991, the major issue facing local fishermen in Kodiak was the impending individual quota system for halibut and sablefish.
The oil spill was a particularly dramatic arena for demonstrating commercial fishing’s transition from a lifestyle to a business that has been playing out in Kodiak since the beginning of frontier exploitation of resources. The community has thrived on cycles of crisis, resisting a progression toward regulation and efficiency. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, a bigger crisis than most, showed fishermen the enormous power of the corporation.