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Fish Factor

Alaska fishermen hope to end more appeals by Exxon

By Laine Welch


May 22, 2007

Alaska fishermen are taking their message to the streets of San Francisco in hopes of putting an end to more appeals cases by Exxon. It is up to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to decide if Exxon merits another day in court to contest a $2.5 billion punitive damages award ruled in December. The money is compensation for fishermen's losses stemming from the 1989 oil spill, when a drunken skipper ran the Exxon Valdez tanker aground on a well marked reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.

A small group called Oiled Fishermen Frustrated by Exxon is paying the expenses for one 'oiled' colleague - Arnie King of Cordova - who will carry a picket sign and hand out information about the unresolved case outside the courthouse starting on Monday. The OFF Exxon group includes about 20 fishermen who have chipped in to cover costs for King's room and board in San Francisco for about two weeks.

"This is the only thing we can think of - to take our message to the street. We're respectfully asking them to pay attention to this case and move it along," said Frank Mullen, an OFF Exxon spokesman from Homer.

"Our hope is that we can get a message especially to Chief Justice Mary Schroeder that says please understand there are 35,000 fishermen out there who are waiting for resolution on this litigation. And if the judges could work for a couple extra hours on a Saturday to clear out this latest appeal that would be great."

Exxon's strategy of endless appeals has bounced the case back and forth between federal and State courts for more than 10 years. The oil giant has stated it will appeal the $2.5 settlement all the way to the Supreme Court.

"They are simply so big, they do not care," said Matt Jamin, an attorney for hundreds of Kodiak fishermen.

"Some of their lawyers have told us they are a bit embarrassed by it, but they say they are being well paid to implement a strategy which is to crush litigation from any place at any time. Any size, big, small whatever - they will take whatever resources they need to fight it to the end, and we are seeing that in this case," Jamin said.

Meanwhile, nearly 20 percent of the original claimants have passed away while waiting for resolution from Exxon.

"It's been 18 years and we don't want even more fishermen to die before they see an end to this litigation. Justice delayed is justice denied and oiled fishermen simply want the court to get on with the case," Mullen said.

Jamin and other attorneys speculate that the 9th Circuit and/or the Supreme Court are unlikely to hear Exxon's appeals. Depending on further motions in court, a final decision on the settlement is possible by the end of this year or by mid-2008.

Get tax protection!

Another measure that needs to get moving is a bill that will protect Alaska fishermen from huge tax hits when Exxon is ordered to settle the punitive damages lawsuit. Protections will come from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Tax Treatment Act ­ if it is passed by U.S. senators.

"We need to get this bill (S.552) heard and moved along so it can pass this year. If it isn't passed, fishermen will lose up to 35 percent or more of their Exxon settlement," said Mark Vinsel, director of United Fishermen of Alaska.

The Act provides for one time retirement contributions and income averaging of Exxon settlements. It is not a tax break for Alaska, Vinsel stressed.

"It is more of a tax treatment to defer these taxes. Ultimately, they will still be paid fairly when they're taken out of retirement accounts," he explained.

It is also important that people living in other states tell their senators they are Alaska fishermen.

"We've got fishermen from every state of the country. Washington, Oregon, Montana and Colorado are among the top ten states where Alaska fishermen come from. Key seats on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee are held by representatives from those states, and it is up to them to act on the bill. If they are not hearing from their own constituents, they have no reason to want to move it," Vinsel said.

UFA is urging fishermen to fax letters or make phone calls to reps on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee asking them to support S. 552, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Tax Treatment Act. Contact UFA in Juneau for more information.

Salmon up close at Seward

Follow salmon from egg hatch to their return home at a gigantic new exhibit opening next week at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. It's unlike anything done before anywhere in the world, said Steve Carrick, manager of visitor operations.

"We've created an 'ant farm' type approach to looking at a salmon nest, so you actually see a cross section of a stream bed and the eggs under the gravel. They'll hatch and the young fish will then populate our fresh water streams, move to another giant tank mimicking an estuary habitat, then on to an even larger tank simulating the abyssal void of the ocean. It's all designed so you're at eye level, standing above and below the water. We call it total immersion," Carrick said.

The half million dollar project was funded by the Southeast Sustainable Salmon Fund specifically to create an educational exhibit at the Sea Life Center.

"We realized there was a glaring omission at the Center on where salmon come from, how they breed, and why and how they find their way back to their natal streams. This really connects visitors with the heart of Alaska's fishing industry," he added.

The salmon exhibit will eventually provide a unique peek into the natural world of more than 300 of all five species of Alaska salmon.

"It's like the widest of wide screen television looking into the life of salmon. It really is spectacular," Carrick said.

The salmon exhibit opens May 25th at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. Find out more at

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. 2007 marks the 16th year that she has been writing this weekly fisheries column. It now appears in nearly 20 newspapers and web outlets.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

This article is protected by copyright and may not be reprinted or distributed without permission. Contact msfish[AT]
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