Fishing village still recovering from Valdez impact
March 22, 1999
Web posted at: 7:03 p.m. EST (0003 GMT)
CORDOVA, Alaska (CNN) -- As the biggest fishing town on Prince William Sound, Cordova may have suffered the greatest economic loss of any community in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Time has not yet healed the wounds in Cordova, nor has it eased the anger many fishermen still feel toward Exxon.
Before the spill, fisherman John Gregory said he could bring in over $1 per pound for pink salmon. Now he's lucky to get 14 cents per pound. A fishery once worth more than $46 million a year to Cordova now averages about $25 million.
Exxon-supported scientists, though, say the oil spill isn't the chief cause of the fishing industry's decline.
"The (salmon) runs have been very large,' said Dr. David Page, chairman of the chemistry department of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. "The problem of the pink salmon is that nobody wants to buy them and the market for Alaska wild salmon has diminished due to world competition."
Gregory said the timing of the decline's beginnings is suspect.
Fishermen were paid to help clean up the spill
"We were fat and happy going into 1989," he said.
The decline wasn't even immediate, said Riki Ott, former fisherman.
"We saw the worst effects of the spill four and five years after the spill, not in 1989," said Ott, who holds a degree in marine toxicology. "But the oil spill actually detonated ecosystem-wide ripple effects, which just took time as they attenuated through the ecosystem."
After the 11 million gallon spill, Exxon hired just about every fishing boat and crew on Prince William Sound to help clean up the area. The company spent about $2 billion on the project and another $300 million in compensation for losses.
It wasn't enough for those who made their living on the Sound.
"I always thought there would be no end to the fishing," said Robby Maxwell. "Now I see myself looking at other ideas to get into different occupations to support my family."
Back in 1977, Maxwell earned $75,000 fishing his first year out of high school. At the time of the spill, his parents' boat and fishing permits were said to be worth nearly a million dollars.
"Ten years later, here we are," Maxwell said. "We lost our retirement, and we're living on Social Security."
The fishing industry in Prince William sound has never recovered from the spill
In 1994, a court ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in compensatory damages to fishermen, native Alaskans and others. Exxon, which argues that they've done enough and the Sound's ecosystem "is healthy, robust and thriving," has appealed the decision.
Exxon is also appealing a decision that banned the Exxon Valdez -- now overhauled and renamed the SeaRiver Mediterranean -- from the Sound.
The scientists who disagree with Exxon's assessment agree there has been improvement, but say there are still lingering effects.
Many fishing families in Cordova say they are hopeful that the fishery will fully recover, that Exxon will make full restitution for losses, that Cordova will once again flourish. They're hopeful, they say, but they're still waiting -- 10 years after the spill.
Correspondent Don Knapp and Reuters contributed to this report.