On March 23, 1989, Prince William Sound fisherman Gordon Scott didn’t know a thing about oil spills, and if you had asked him that day, he probably wouldn’t have been too interested.
“I was in Anchorage selling shrimp when the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks.”
On Friday morning, March 24, he saw the headlines about the spill. He didn’t fish near Bligh Reef, so at first he wasn’t worried. On his rounds delivering shrimp, however, all the customers he talked to were asking if this would affect him. Would he still be able to keep fishing for shrimp?
“Of course,” he told them, “this isn’t going to affect me! I’m a fisherman, that’s an oil spill, it’s a tanker.”
All their questions piqued his interest, so he headed back to his boat, the Early Times, at the dock in Whittier. He and his crew took off on Saturday morning to take a look at the spill.
Gordon and his crew were 80 to 100 miles away from the Exxon Valdez when they first noticed a smell. As they came closer, the smell got worse and worse.
“It was awful,” Scott said.
In denial, and still thinking it wasn’t too bad, he ran into someone he knew and asked what was going on. The answer was “nothing.”
“Well, it wasn’t nothing,” Scott said. He found workers with a large skimmer full of seaweed.
“Mainly they were trying to figure out how to make it work.”
Scott offered to help. He was told to go to Valdez and add his name to the list. He ran into an uncoordinated mess.
The Early Times’ first assignment was burning oil. These efforts were unsuccessful, so they were put to work collecting oil with boom. The next problem they encountered was that once the oil was collected, there was no place to put it.
“Stand by,” was commonly heard on the radio when calling for orders.
Scott said some vessels stood by as ordered, but he and a few others proactively went looking for oil instead of waiting. They’d call and tell headquarters to send them a skimmer if they collected a boom full of oil.
At the beginning of the spill, an expert demonstrated the basic technique for collecting oil with the boom, but the details were left to each crew to figure out on their own. Scott and his crew got creative with ways to corral the oil. They developed techniques using equipment on hand, such as throwing lights from their fishing gear into the water ahead of the vessel so they could follow streaks of oil at night.
“We figured out a lot of things, a lot of little tactics, many of which are in use today,” Scott said, “RCAC developed a lot of those and got them into the fishing vessel response tactics.” These tactics are now used by Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System.
Slow days on the water
“I’ve always said if I wrote a book about the oil spill, it would be titled ‘Life at half a knot’.”
When collecting oil, the vessels can’t move faster than half a knot [a little over half a mile per hour] or the oil will flow out from under the boom and be lost.
The spill responders were frustratingly slow getting skimmers to the vessels who had collected oil. Scott and his partner boat finally started calling the boats with skimmers directly and scheduling their own pickups.
“They pulled the skimmers out from under us; we weren’t any good if we couldn’t get it [the oil] out of the water.”
“Once you start collecting, you can’t just leave the oil.”
If a skimmer and storage vessel weren’t ready and nearby when his boom was full of oil, he was stuck. He had to keep moving at half a knot or they’d lose the oil they had collected.
“Our longest tow I think was 4 days,” Scott said, “because we couldn’t get a skimmer.”
Frustration with the system
“The biggest thing was how frustrated we were out there by the system that we had. It really never ended, we kinda got used to it.”
Scott had what he refers to as “animated” talks with the Exxon bosses, usually a manager from Houston. “It was like talking to a wall.”
“’This is the most wonderful thing to happen to the state of Alaska!’ Oh yeah. That’s pretty much a direct quote from one of these guys,” Scott said, “It was a pretty disheartening thing to deal with.”
At one point, the Early Times was assigned to report to an Exxon manager who was assigned to an area of the Sound with no oil.
“We tried to sneak out of there so many times. He was on to us; he kept us under his thumb. He didn’t want to get rid of us, in case any oil came down there, because he knew we’d get it.”
Meanwhile, Scott was hearing over the radio about oiled areas that were not being cleaned up, so they’d try to sneak off again. They didn’t want to get fired, but they were frustrated and driven to do everything they could.
“If we could get out there and get on the oil, they couldn’t really say anything to us.”
“My wife, or wife to be, came out and visited several times during the spill; spent a few days with us. It was interesting, her perspective. This was something she wrote to her parents… I got to see it later. She said ‘It’s amazing how excited they are when they’ve got some oil to collect. But when there wasn’t any oil around, they were just chafing at the bit. It was just like fishing.”
Scott has been volunteering with the council’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response advisory committee for over 20 years. You will be able to hear his entire story in his own voice at the Project Jukebox archives, a joint effort with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. More stories from Scott include:
- Futile efforts to burn oil in the early days of the spill
- Hear about how the Early Times took a “wave of oil” over the bow of the boat
- A sickening incident in which they were told to dump a boom full of oil
- His thoughts on how the current response system could handle a response today
[Editor’s note: You can find Scott selling Prince William Sound spot shrimp most Saturdays during shrimping season at Spenard Farmer’s Market in Anchorage. Do yourself a favor and go get some of the best shrimp you have ever tasted if you are in the area.]