In the spring of 1989, just a little over 25 years ago, my parents finalized the purchase of their commercial set net fish site on the west side of Kodiak Island, Alaska. A month later, on March 24, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, releasing into Prince William Sound what was — at that time — the largest volume of crude oil spilled in the history of our country.
Instead of setting their gillnets for the first season at their own fish site that June, my parents spent the summer of ’89 dealing with the devastating effects of the accident. I grew up constantly hearing stories about “the spill” and the ongoing litigation during what became a pivotal time for commercial fishing communities across the state of Alaska.
I can remember my mom recounting the helplessness she felt, wading out into the surf to try to catch the massive rafts of crude oil in large plastic baskets before they hit the beach. At first they came in pairs or threes, and everyone hoped that would be it, but one morning after a big southwest blow, they awoke to the beautiful pristine beach slicked thick with new oil.
The oil spilled from Exxon spread much farther than initially presumed, as far as the west side of Kodiak, and beyond.
All that summer, my family and the other fishermen of Uyak Bay spent valuable fishing time collecting ugly, weathered mats of crude oil and dead or dying gulls, cormorants, eagles, otters and fish off of the beaches they knew and loved so well.