Fishermen called off their blockade of the Valdez oil terminal Sunday after promises of assistance from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and British Petroleum and Arco officials. The three-day blockade ended as seven tankers waited offshore to dock at the oil terminal, where storage tanks were rapidly reaching capacity. If the blockade had not ended by Tuesday, officials would have been forced to slow or stop the flow of oil through the trans-Alaska pipeline, officials with the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. said.
Babbitt and oil company officials agreed to urge Exxon to meet with the fishermen, who blame the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound for this year's sharp drop in pink salmon and herring runs. The officials also agreed to look at ways to get financial aid to both fishermen and hatcheries this winter.
Acting at the request of Gov. Wally Hickel, Babbitt made an unscheduled trip to Valdez on Sunday for an hourlong meeting with fishermen. His offer of aid helped end a tense three-day protest by frustrated fishermen who fear that collapsing salmon runs and low prices are pushing them into mass bankruptcy. The protest started Friday, in what some fishermen said was purely a symbolic blockade of the Sound, then escalated into the real thing Saturday as they blocked passage of one tanker.
Babbitt said he would push federal trustees of the $900 million oil spill settlement fund to look at purchasing spawning streams and other habitat affecting fisheries as well as paying for studies of problems in the Sound.
"The trustees need to devote more funds to the issues in Prince William Sound, whether that means habitat acquisition or wildlife studies," Babbitt said Sunday evening.
Babbitt had harsh words for Exxon, calling "outrageous" the company's reluctance to meet with fishermen who are pressing for payments sought in damage suits.
"The message I've been peddling all over Alaska this week is that we need to talk more, that all groups need to increase communication," Babbitt said. "I think that applies to Exxon, too."
Exxon officials said Sunday that despite Babbitt's request, the spill did not cause the dismal fish run and they have no intention of meeting with litigious fishermen.
"Our position would be, because the fisherman-plaintiffs initiated the lawsuits, it's something that's going to have to be left to the courts," Exxon spokesman Les Rogers said from Houston, Texas.
"Hiding behind a lawsuit is a ploy, an excuse," Babbitt said. "That's like saying I can't talk to Gov. Hickel because he's suing me."
On Saturday, Exxon refused Hickel's request that the company meet with fishermen. Hickel asked Babbitt to meet with fishermen after his own meeting with them Saturday in which he promised lower interest rates on state loans and also pledged that more oil-settlement money would be spent on Sound restoration.
Torie Baker, who fishes the Sound and acted as spokeswoman for the fishermen, said she believed Exxon's position would change after Babbitt and two of the six oil companies that run the pipeline begin pushing for a meeting.
"Exxon isn't that dumb," Baker said. "I don't think they have too many options. We stepped down in good faith. We can always head right back out there. Right now we're willing to let Exxon step back and listen to those who are talking to them, but we're going to have to see some action within a few weeks. Within about 60 days here, some people are going to be losing their boats as the first payments come due."
Arco spokeswoman Susan Reed said financial assistance to hatcheries and fishermen would not necessarily come directly from the oil companies.
"The oil companies and the fishermen will both explore where the financial aid might come from this week," Reed said. "A portion might come from the Exxon Valdez settlement monies."
Rick Steiner, a Cordova-based protest organizer, said one financial plan discussed was a $12 million loan program by oil companies that would use Alyeska oil settlement funds as collateral.
Reed stressed that in trying to urge Exxon to meet with fishermen, Arco and BP were in no way blaming the 1989 oil spill for this year's dropoff in pink salmon and herring runs.
"The fishermen are obviously having some problems, but we didn't get into the possible causes," Reed said. How to determine what might be causing the dropoff will be one of the issues discussed this week, she said.
Exxon denies there could be any connection between the spill and the diminished runs because pink salmon in the Sound are predominantly hatchery raised and don't return to streams to spawn, and because hatchery stocks were protected from the spill.
Rogers pointed out that the largest pink harvest in Sound history occurred in 1990, one year after the spill.
State biologists don't rule out a connection between the spill and the troubled fishery, but they don't know what is causing the problems.
Fishermen think they do know.
"It took two years for things to go wacko in the Sound, but it's happened and we're the first ones to really go under because of it," Baker said. "We believe there is a connection."
By Sunday evening, the first of seven tankers began docking at the Valdez oil terminal, officials with the U.S. Coast Guard said. Three tankers can dock at the terminal at one time.
Of the seven tankers blocked by the three-day protest, three were with BP, two operated by Exxon and two with Arco.
Coast Guard officials said the fishermen may pay a price for their protest.
Petty Officer Don Atwell said Sunday the Coast Guard plans to issue civil fines to fishermen who entered the Valdez Narrows after the area was declared a safe-passage zone at 9:30 a.m. Saturday. The Narrows is a tight passageway that tankers must pass through to reach the oil terminal.
Atwell said that a Coast Guard helicopter recorded names and numbers of boats, and that civil fines, with a maximum of $25,000, would be issued. If boats again attempt to block the Narrows, fishermen could be charged with a criminal violation that carries a maximum penalty of six years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.
The Coast Guard plans to keep two cutters in the area until all tankers have reached the oil terminal, Atwell said.
Alyeska spokeswoman Marnie Isaacs said the oil terminal can hold 8.7 million barrels of oil. With 1.6 million barrels of oil flowing through the pipeline every day, storage tanks would have been full by Tuesday. Oil flow in the pipeline was not slowed during the blockade. The pipeline carries about one-fourth of the nation's crude oil production.
Art Steven, a spokesman for SeaRiver Maritime Inc., the Exxon subsidiary that manages its tankers, told The Associated Press that keeping a tanker idle in the Gulf of Alaska costs between $15,000 and $30,000 a day.
Anchorage Daily News business reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this article.