Prince William Sound fishermen angered by a failed spring herring run and the collapse of the summer pink salmon run pulled in their nets and headed Friday to the Valdez Narrows to stage a protest blockade of an Exxon oil tanker. The fishermen fear that lingering effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill have harmed the runs. About 75 fishermen sought to vent their anger by meeting the Exxon Baton Rouge during its 10 a.m. scheduled passage through the foggy narrows outside Valdez. But the tanker was a no-show, remaining nowhere in sight as of 8 p.m. Friday, according to the Coast Guard.
"She's in the (Gulf of Alaska) somewhere and that's all we know," said Coast Guard Lt. Frank Wakefield, chief of the vessel traffic system in Valdez. "We do know she's not sinking or having any problems."
Exxon officials, who knew of the planned protest, offered no explanation for the delay.
"We do not comment on normal aspects of vessel operations," said Art Stephen, a spokesman for Exxon's Houston-based shipping operations.
When the Exxon ship failed to pass through the Narrows, the fleet of fishing boats retreated to Valdez, vowing to reform their ranks when the Baton Rouge finally passes into the Sound.
"We're going back out. It's just a matter of when," said Tom Lopez, a Valdez seine-boat skipper. "It's pretty much just symbolic. We're trying to get their attention that our lives have been screwed up."
Fishermen have been struggling for three years with low pink salmon prices, and during the last two years their problems have been greatly compounded by dismal runs. This year's pink salmon harvest is expected to be less than one-fifth of preseason estimates. Although several fishing areas were open Friday, many seiner and gillnet fishermen quit the grounds to join in the protest.
Many fishermen blame Exxon for their problems, and are frustrated by the slow pace of damage suits they are pressing against the oil company in court. They also want more money from the Exxon Valdez settlement with the state and federal government to go for studies to try to determine why the Sound runs are failing.
"We must find out what's wrong with Prince William Sound," said Jerry McCune, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United.
State Fish and Game biologists don't rule out the possibility of some link between the oil spill and the poor fish runs. But they say they don't know what is causing the problems.
Despite the absence of their target, fishermen declared their efforts Friday a success, saying the delays would cost Exxon Corp. money.
"Exxon has robbed us of our lifestyle," said Jim Gray, one of the organizers. "It's time they suffer at least one day's discomfort for the damage they have done."
The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into Prince William Sound, oiling hundreds of miles of beaches and killing thousands of birds, seals, sea otters and other wildlife from the Sound to Kodiak Island.
While the fishermen gathered in Valdez, Gov. Wally Hickel and several of his top deputies were in Cordova meeting with residents whose economy is closely tied to the fisheries.
Among those joining Hickel were Attorney General Charlie Cole and commissioners Paul Fuhs of Commerce and Carl Rosier of Fish and Game.
Hickel said the state shared the worries of the fishing-dependent region.
Fuhs said the Commerce Deparment won't foreclose on boats financed through a state loan program.
But fishermen also are worried about loans held by private banks, and wonder if the state might refinance those loans to prevent foreclosures, said Heather McCarty, whose family fishes in the Sound.
State officials were uncertain they can do anything about such loans, she said.
Some Cordovans have asked the Hickel administration to declare the region a state disaster area, but Fuhs said at an earlier round of meetings that such a declaration was unlikely.
Fuhs said the state and local governments should work together to find ways to diversify Cordova's economy.