With boats, booms and bare hands, fishermen fought a desperate fight Sunday to keep the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez from contaminating a major salmon hatchery in Prince William Sound.
By the end of the day, Day 10 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the battle had not been won or lost. But as currents relentlessly pushed metallic slicks and brownish blobs, the Armin F. Koernig Hatchery looked like the Alamo of the oil spill.
"This is it. We've got to save the brood stock. Not just for this year but maybe for 10 years," said John Wolfe, fisherman and part time college instructor from Homer.
He was directing the efforts of the "mosquito fleet" of about 50 people and two dozen small boats to keep oil out of Sawmill Bay, which holds the hatchery in the Sound's southwest corner. It is also called the Port San Juan hatchery.
Already, more than 2 million salmon fry are penned up there in saltwater, where they can be poisoned by amounts of oil too small to see.
"It isn't working. It's making me sick," said Cordova deckhand Ken Horten as oil ran beneath the booms being towed in front of the bay.
Closer in, the ripples set up by light breezes were enough to send oil splashing over the top of the orange and yellow containment booms that ring the mouth of the bay like fortress walls.
Most of the fleet had been hauled to the hatchery Sunday morning by the state ferry Bartlett, pressed into service, its carpets covered with cardboard oil protection. The workers, some of them young, some of them veteran fishermen, had been collected in Cordova the day before as a last ditch effort to respond to the 10 million gallon oil spill.
"Exxon has been sitting around for what, nine days? We thought we had to do something," said Margaret Salmon, a member of the Cordova District Fishermens Union. "This came together in 24 hours."
Exxon is officially in charge of the cleanup because its tanker spilled the oil, after piling into Bligh Reef just after midnight March 24. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, says tests show the ship's captain was too drunk to legally run it. Statements so far show the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was not on the bridge when the ship ran aground; he had turned control over to an unqualified third mate.
Hazelwood is being sought on Alaska criminal charges, but has so far avoided police in Alaska and his home state of New York.
For the Sawmill Bay defense, the state provided the transportation and hired the contractor, Versatile Response Co. of Anchorage. The ferry picked up the people in Cordova, the equipment in Valdez.
High school senior Neil Galosich said the fishery was part of his dream. "My dad and I have talked a lot about getting our own boat."
Kim Ewers, already facing the possible closure of the herring fishery, called Sunday's effort an "absolutely last ditch" shot at protecting a big part of the Sound salmon run.
Hatchery manager Eric Prestegard said about 120 million salmon have hatched and will have to be moved soon to the saltwater pens.
Salmon from this and four other hatcheries in the Sound contribute more than half the total catch, on average, and last year made up about 90 percent, according to the Fish and Game Department.
While fishermen towed booms between skiffs to corral oil Sunday, and threw absorbent materials on the slicks by hand, hatchery workers were collecting water samples in pickle jars to test for oil.
So far, the hydrocarbon tests had been negative, Prestegard said. But it takes only a few parts per million to kill the fry.
Back on boom patrol, fisherman Ed Fee said sopping up the pudding like oil scum will not protect the fish from oil that has migrated down into the water column. Depth sounding equipment shows layers below the surface, he said. "It looks just like this down to 90 feet."
From the air Sunday afternoon, the western half of the Sound was ugly with oil in every condition: tarry black pools, rainbow hued spots like the one in your driveway, frothy tan foam, nearly colorless, opaque scum that glittered in the sunlight like mother of pearl. Wind and tide had wrenched it into every shape and cut it into every size. The most common shape was skinny; the most common size long.
The oil has attacked island coasts capriciously, gathering in big clumps on some while ignoring others. Booms stretched across a couple of bays; most were unprotected. Oil glistened from the rocky shores of a string of islands Storey, Peak, Naked, Eleanor, Ingot, Knight, Green, Evans. Along the island coasts clusters of seabirds were interspersed with the slicks. Sea lions huddled together like tiny logjams in the clear water between slicks. Orcas rolled and dove among the slicks.
The oil was heaviest in the southwest quarter of the Sound. Boats bobbed along the north shore of hard hit Knight Island, a little fleet there to rescue birds. A helicopter sat in a protected finger of water, there to whisk rescued birds to the Valdez cleaning center and national television exposure. The people ashore, tiny dots dressed in bright orange, seemed to be sitting on a beach eating lunch. Little of the shore looked like a spot to picnic or chase birds. Another clutch of wildlife rescue boats was strung out along the northern side of Green Island. In a couple of places, seemingly at random, boats connected by booms tried corraling oil. Here and there skimmers plowed the water stolidly, making little visible difference.
It went on and on. Past Evans Island, where the battle for Sawmill Bay raged, past Cape Puget and Cape Junken, into the Gulf of Alaska. A pod of grey whales basked and blew near a stretch of frothy scum patch after patch all the way to Resurrection Bay but as of Sunday afternoon not into it. About 130 miles in all it stretched. And it made everything it touched ugly.
In Valdez, the battle for Prince William Sound was turning into a public relations war.
Exxon and the Coast Guard traded press releases debating who was responsible for the delay in the use of dispersants, which experts have said really don't work very well anyway, especially on North Slope crude oil.
Exxon trotted out tiredeyed, sagging bird and mammal experts who seemed by Sunday almost as ill as the creatures they are attempting to save from the oil spill. State officials lamented the loss of thousands more animals and birds.
So far, 150 birds and 17 sea otters had been cleaned of the tarry oil. Many of the otters are bound for Sea World in San Diego, at least until they recover. Even then, they'll never see Prince William Sound again.
Dr. Randall Davis, the Sea World expert Exxon hired to run the otter recovery project, says the animals will have to be released far from the once pristine Sound for their own protection.
By Sunday night, the state Department of Environmental Conversation had posted signs warning its employees to remember to wear their identification badges even out in the field. "The Coast Guard is checking," the sign said.
While all sides in the argument about who's in the right here or who, at least, is least in the wrong are avidly courting public opinion, they are also systematically walling themselves off from reporters covering the Exxon Valdez tragedy.
A week ago, reporters generally had free run of the second floor of a local hotel where Exxon has set up headquarters. At midweek, security guards appeared, and by Friday they had set up posts at the foot of a stairwell. No one but Exxon employees and contractors are allowed beyond.
The Coast Guard operates behind a locked door and an intercom.
Even the state Department of Environmental Conservation set up a security desk actually, a wood plank balanced on some cardboard boxes.
While attempts to clean up the spilled oil are in their infancy, Exxon hopes to rescue the tanker itself by the end of this week, perhaps as early as Wednesday.
If salvage crews are successful in floating the ruptured tanker off the reef, it will undergo temporary repairs in a sheltered cove at Naked Island. It will be taken to dry dock in Portland, Ore., for permanent repairs.
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