Exxon Valdez: 23 Years Later

24 03 2012

I was 11 years old when Bligh Reef ripped open the Exxon Valdez’s steel belly, bleeding over 40,000 tons of crude into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. My family had traded Alaskan residency for our migrant lifestyle by then, setting up a winter life in Washington State and returning to Southeast every summer for the salmon season. I remember staring at the images on TV –  seabirds grounded by sludge-drenched wings, dead otters like blackened driftwood – and wearing a T-shirt that expressed despair through furious satire: caricatures of a party boat perched “on the rocks,” newly christened the Exxon Fuxxup.

Twenty-three years later, I’m sitting aboard a boat in Southeast Alaska, my body re-calibrating to the continual motion of a life cushioned by the sea. The view is stunning. Living in the midst of the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and a parade of wildlife, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this splendor isn’t guaranteed. That however firmly rooted nature appears to be, we can’t take her for granted or become indifferent to our responsibilities as good stewards.

Poet Vivian Faith Prescott is a fifth generation Alaskan who knows all too well the cost of indifference – environmental, cultural. She knows that when horror is so vast, grief so unspeakable, art provides a life raft. Her post,  “Fetched Up Hard Aground: Remembering the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” pulls readers into that life raft. If you’re not familiar with her work, please take a moment to visit Vivian at Planet Alaska.

Named and gendered, boats take on identities independent of the captains who come and go. They’re sized up and judged, bestowed with reputations that can’t be absolved with a change in ownership or a new name. So what  was the fate of the ship forever shackled to one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters? The Mudflats blog answered that question earlier this week:  “The Exxon Valdez Gets Its Death Sentence.”

In our sound-bite society, with social media’s barrage of moment-by-moment news updates, we’re good at year-of tributes. Succinct summaries of what happened back when and where they are now. This post is a perfect example – I wrote in that exact formula, without a second thought. And now I wonder… We remember, but what have we learned?

Photo Courtesy of John Lyle, ARLIS Reference.

Update: Immediately after posting this, I learned that Mudflats had re-posted her 2010 story, “Walking With the Ghost of Exxon.” A powerful account of what she found lingering in Prince William Sound 21 years after the spill – long after we’d been assured that everything was cleaned up –  this is on Hooked’s “Required Reading” list. Please do read and share.

Your Inner Lorax: Protecting the Tongass, part 3

4 03 2012

Thanks to Ashley Brady-Power, Dr. Seuss, and Scott Chambers.

Today begins an important week for the trees. Trout Unlimited and Sitka Conservation Society are sending a team of commercial and sports fishermen to Washington D.C., where they’ll lobby for increased funding for habitat conservation/restoration in the Tongass National Forest. Now is a critical time for this effort: on Tuesday, the Senate’s Natural Resource Committee meets to determine the 2013 Forestry budget. (Learn more from TU’s press release.)

Hooked readers may remember December’s posts on the skewed management of the Tongass. The world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, the Tongass is home to 70,000 humans, 30,000 bears, all 5 species of salmon, as well as deer, wolves, and over 300 species of birds. Its 17 million acres blanket Southeast Alaska, where coastal communities are sustained by less than 200 timber-related jobs and more than 7000 fishing-related jobs. Yet the Forest Service’s annual budget directs $25 million toward logging and road building, and $1.5 million – that’s 1 point 5 – to conservation and watershed restoration.

Many of you bristled at that discrepancy. You fired off emails and phone calls, urging a management plan reflective of the region’s actual economic and cultural values. You wrote a small mountain of letters, which will be hand-delivered to Congress and the Forest Service on Monday. You’re an inspiring team of Loraxes, friends, and your voices are making an impact. Thank you.

You don’t have to be an Alaskan or a fisherman to care about this funding discrepancy. In an awesome show of community organizing, Sitka Salmon Tours recently took the Tongass on the road. Through events in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, Nic Mink and Helen Schnoes explained the critical role of this rare ecosystem, where “the salmon are in the trees.”

Their audiences got it, and they rallied. I’ve read the 80 letters our Midwestern allies contributed. It’s a powerful experience, hearing strangers voice the connectedness between their own lives and this distant wild that many will never see firsthand.

Here are some snippets of what they wrote:

“I am writing because my life is richer knowing that wild places like this still exist in our world. As a teacher in Illinois, my students and I do not encounter these gorgeous wild landscapes, nor do we see rivers and lakes so abundant with fish.”

“It is important to me that the food I consume is healthy and sustainable. I know wild Alaskan salmon is both, but I fear for the future. When more money is allocated to the destructive acts such as the logging of old growth forests rather than to restoration of salmon habitats, I fear for the future.”

“This funding gap would be silly if its reach were not so damaging. There exists a gross disconnect: the tree removal harms salmon habitats, which in turn negatively affect the salmon population and is  much less economically valuable than the $986.1 million that salmon fishing and hatcheries generate.”

“While only a small portion of people in the Midwest will ever have the pleasure of traveling to the Tongass, many of us value the forest and its salmon as important national treasures.”

“I don’t have to be from Alaska to understand that salmon is one of the most sustainable and renewable resources of our entire National Forest system.”

“We need to see our forests for more than just the trees.”

Beautifully said.

Great big thanks to everyone who’s already urged the Forest Service to re-examine their Tongass budget. If you haven’t done so, it’s not too late – NOW is the critical time to chime in. Please take a moment today to summon your inner Lorax and send a quick email on behalf of the trees… and the salmon… the streams… and all of us. Direct your messages to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (ttidwell@fs.fed.us), USDA Undersecretary Harris Sherman (harris.sherman@usda.gov), Senator Mark Begich, and Senator Lisa Murkowski.

Need an example to get you started? Whether several concise sentences or an impassioned page, your words are an essential contribution. Please share your message in the comments, and much gratitude for your advocacy.

"Salmon Spawning," by photographer/author Amy Gulick (Salmon in the Trees)

Easy Salmon Advocacy: Protecting the Tongass, Part 2

14 12 2011

Friends of salmon and wild places: have you written your letter for the Tongass National Forest yet?

As discussed in Protecting the Tongass, Part 1,  the U.S. Forest Service’s budget for the Tongass has long been skewed. Timber/road development currently receive annual funding of $25 million, while habitat conservation/watershed restoration receive $1.5 million.

This disparity concerns me.  As a commercial fisherman, I have a significant interest in protecting the delicate ecosystems that nurture salmon. And as someone who calls Southeast Alaska “home,” my identity is as rooted in the Tongass as the towering hemlock, spruce, and cedar that carpet our coastline.

With gratitude to author/photographer Lynn Schooler for sharing this photo.

Sitka Conservation Society is a longtime advocate for a more balanced forestry budget. I’m joining SCS in this effort, and invite you to do so, too. Our goal is to collect 200 letters requesting increased funding for restoration and salmon protection by February 1. Can you take a moment to share your support? In February, SCS will hand-deliver our combined messages to Washington D.C.; please email your letter to andrew@sitkawild.org.

Not sure what to write? I’m sharing my message here; please feel free to use this example as a resource for your own letter. (Stats provided by a 2011 survey conducted by the Alaska chapter of the Nature Conservancy.)


Dear Undersecretary Sherman, Chief Tidwell, Senator Murkowski, & Senator Begich,

My name is Tele Aadsen, and I’m a second-generation salmon troller in Southeast Alaska. Salmon trollers are predominantly family operations; I began fishing at the age of seven, in 1984. My mother was one of a handful of female skippers at that time, and we comprised the only all-female troller. For the past 7 years my partner and I have run our own boat, the 43-foot Nerka, which he grew up on and took over as a 22 year old. Hook-and-line caught, we process and freeze our catch at sea, marketing a premium quality wild salmon to restaurants, grocers, and food co-ops across the U.S. This is our sole source of income.

Discussion of salmon sustainability frequently focuses on fisheries management and healthy oceans. Essential elements, yet incomplete. We must devote equal attention to the surrounding forests, which provide critical salmon habitat. In its streams, lakes, and ponds, the Tongass National Forest provides 17,690 miles of salmon habitat. Salmon are inextricably linked with the Tongass; the well-being of one directly impacts the other.

In Alaska, salmon mean far more than a meal or a paycheck. In a 2007 survey, 96% of Alaskans said salmon are essential to our way of life. In our remote region, where many communities are island-based, closed systems, the term “way of life” refers more to practical necessity than sentimentality. Nearly 90% of rural households in Southeast Alaska depend on salmon.

What does a dependency on salmon look like? It looks like over 7000 jobs: men, women, and young people working on fishing vessels or in processing plants. In a tremendous ripple effect, fisheries contribute to local economies. In some of Southeast Alaska’s small communities, salmon are the local economy. Grocers, restaurants, hotels, cold storages and transport systems all flourish with healthy salmon runs. The combined economic value of commercial, sports, and subsistence salmon fishing, plus hatchery operations, is estimated at $986.1 million.

The economic impact of salmon doesn’t stop at Alaska’s border. Many fishermen spend the off-season in the Lower 48, enhancing the economy of multiple states. In 2009, my partner and I were able to purchase our first home in Washington, where we frequently have boat work done. Maintaining a safe, successful fishing vessel is an expensive, on-going effort: all across the West Coast, harbors, boat yards, diesel mechanics, refrigeration services, craftsmen, fiberglass workers, metal fabricators, gear stores, and other marine service professionals are direct beneficiaries of our good salmon seasons.

Beyond these enormous economic considerations, the Tongass is one of the few remaining wild places in America, a rare ecosystem of deep cultural significance, beauty and wonder. I’m profoundly grateful for my life as a commercial fisherman, and hope to continue providing quality wild salmon to Americans in a responsible manner. I’m committed to protecting the natural resources that allow this unique profession, and want to thank you both for joining me in this effort. Thank you for advocating for a healthy, sustainable future, prioritizing funding for watershed restoration and salmon habitat in the Tongass.


Tele Aadsen, MSW

F/V Nerka


Please  take a moment to write a letter voicing your support for a more balanced forestry budget.  Your message doesn’t have to be long, but Sitka Conservation Society does need it by February 1 for hand-delivery to Washington D.C. In addition to channeling letters through andrew@sitkawild.org, you can, of course, send additional messages directly to Alaskan Senators Murkowski and Begich Forest Service Chief Tidwell (ttidwell@fs.fed.us), and Undersecretary Sherman (harris.sherman@usda.gov).

To me, these letters are more than advocacy. We’re writing love letters to the Tongass, based on our unique relationships with trees, salmon and Southeast Alaska. You all know my story… I’d love to hear yours. Why do you want to protect the Tongass? Please copy/paste your letter in the comments below. I’ll keep you posted on how we’re doing with our 200 letter goal. As always, I’m deeply grateful to each of you for your time and support. Best wishes to all.

Again, gratitude to Lynn Schooler.

Salmon, Trees, and We: The Tongass, Part 1

9 12 2011

This is one of my favorite places in the world:

Photo by Joel Brady-Power

This photo was taken in Sitka, but could be almost anywhere in Southeast Alaska. The Tongass National Forest blankets most of our region, a crazy quilt of western red cedar, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock that covers almost 17 million acres. Not only is the Tongass the largest national forest in the US, it’s also the largest temperate rainforest remaining in the world. About 70,000 people call the Tongass home – as do 30,000 bears. This rare ecosystem also supports deer, wolves, over 300 species of birds, and all 5 species of salmon: chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, and pink.

When we talk about protecting wild salmon, our national dialogue is heavy on fisheries management and healthy oceans.  Essential elements, but incomplete. These ocean swimmers begin and end their lives in freshwater, including  17,690 miles of streams, lakes and ponds in the Tongass. If we promote sustainable fisheries without placing equal value on salmon habitat, both are at risk.

One of my fellow fishermen, Karl Jordan, published an editorial in the Juneau Empire yesterday: “Forest Service Budget Just Doesn’t Add Up.” (Available here.) Karl examined the annual funding for habitat conservation/restoration ($1.5 million) and logging/road development ($25 million). Quite a discrepancy – especially when you note that timber-related jobs number less than 200, compared to over 7000 fisheries-related jobs.

A fourth-generation fisherman, Karl’s profiled here in Amy Gulick’s tribute to the Tongass,  Salmon in the Trees. He’s a powerful advocate for salmon, speaking from a place of deep love for Southeast Alaska, the Tongass, and commercial fishing.

We heart salmon. (Photo by Jon Corbett)

That’s the place that I speak from, too. Life as a harvester is, for me, inherently bound to life as a conservationist. I believe it’s my responsibility to protect what I love. And between the photo at the top of this post, the many joys of our life at sea, and the honor of hand-delivering these gorgeous fish to our customers, I can’t even begin to count all of the ways I love salmon and trees.

If you speak from this place, too, please join me in quick, easy activism for salmon. If you support increased funding for salmon programs and habitat restoration in the Tongass, please email Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (ttidwell@fs.fed.us) with your message. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be received by December 16th to weigh in on 2012’s budget planning.

Not sure what to say? Karl’s editorial, here, is a great resource. Tomorrow, I’ll share a copy of my letter to Undersecretary Harris Sherman, which you’re also welcome to use as a resource. Whether your livelihood depends on the well-being of the Tongass, or your life is richer knowing that wild places like this still exist in our world, thank you for joining me in this effort.

Photo by Joel Brady-Power

Seeking the Sustainable: Alaskan Black Cod

6 04 2011

It’s been almost 1 month since Alaska’s 2011 longline fishery opened. Maybe you’ve seen banners around your grocery’s seafood counter, promoting the sudden market availability.  “Fresh Alaska halibut is here!”

Lesser known among Americans is black cod (aka sablefish) which is also being fished right now. Japanese and European markets have been clamoring for black cod for decades, and domestic interest is increasing. These torpedo-shaped beauties saunter through the darkest depths of our Gulf waters, requiring gear set in up to 400 fathoms. Some perspective: walking that length from ocean surface to sea floor would be the equivalent of climbing three-quarters of the way up Mt. Edgecumbe, a strenuous day’s hike. Fishing in such depth places tremendous tension on the line, making this a higher-stress, higher-risk fishery than some others.

(Ten years later, I still remember the T-shirt a local fisherwoman was wearing in the P Bar – that’s Sitka’s Pioneer Bar, for those who haven’t been. Handmade, white letters blazing from a black background, it boasted, “Longliners do it deeper.”)

Snapping on baited "tube gear" on the mainline that's flying by. Very tense line, very tense crew.

Like halibut, black cod is managed by an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system. Alaska’s longline fisheries are heavily-regulated and meticulously monitored, earning both of these species a “Best Choice” sustainability rating from SeaWatch’s Marine Stewardship Council.  The National Marine Fisheries System has an excellent summary of the black cod’s life history, habitat, management and sustainability.

Black cod might as well be black gold. A limited number of boats can participate in this fishery, and with deliveries earning close to $7 per pound, the competition for deckhand positions is December-gale fierce. Though I grew up in the fleet, I didn’t manage to land a spot on a longliner until I was in my late 20’s. I’d been squeezing salt water from my socks for over 2 decades before the first velvety bit of black cod melted on my tongue.

That first bite was instant love, but as with many things, love wasn’t enough. My freezer rarely contained this rich white meat. A deckhand doesn’t walk away with much take-home fish – particularly not at these prices. My world shifted when a friend introduced me to black cod tips.

Black cod are sold headed & gutted. The heads are chopped off by the processing plant, slated for disposal. Tips are a delicious nugget of meat nestled between the jaw and collar.  Too small and time-consuming to be lucrative for a business, they’re perfect for the local salvager who’s willing to dumpster dive for fish.

If you’re lucky enough to have a fisherfriend you can beg some black cod tips from, the sun is indeed shining on you, my friend.  Otherwise, check in with your local seafood store and consider splurging on a fillet.  It’s not cheap, but it’s a rich flavor where a small piece will provide monumental taste (along with high omega-3’s and other heart-related good-for-you’s.)

Please check back in for more of this series: in Part 2 I’ll share a marinade recipe that’s a Sitka classic, and we’ll share a tribute to our friends in Japan in Part 3, with a black cod miso soup recipe.  Meanwhile, best wishes to the men and women longlining out of Sitka, facing 13′ seas right now – stay safe, sweeties.


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