Roots of the Alaska Marine Science Symposium

exxon-valdez-aerial_h5403Anchorage 1/27/17

De-compressing from the hectic challenge of the Marine Science Symposium. It appears that these conferences will continue, with the semi-independent North Pacific Research Board picking up more of the tab in the future, relying less on federal agency funding. NPRB’s dollars come from the Dinkum Sands money bid on a federal offshore arctic oil lease sale many years ago that was stuck in escrow because of a boundary dispute between the state and federal governments. The feds won most of the suit, the oil industry never used the leases, and the money was put into this fund specifically to fund research. As the name indicates, a board decides how it’s going to be spent.

There is a certain unique culture to this annual gathering. I am one of the few who remember where it started more than 25 years ago in a back room of the Valdez Civic Center.

Mayor John Devens made the Center available for public discussion very soon after it was learned that the tanker Exxon Valdez had gone aground and spilled oil some miles outside of town. The local community radio station, KCHU, set up equipment there and proceeded to broadcast any and all press conferences, which were soon running almost back-to-back, held first by Exxon, then the various responding agencies, then the fishermen, and so forth. There was much to be discussed, and each entity had its own point of view – the Coast Guard, Exxon, the State of Alaska, NOAA, and so forth. There was a Unified Command composed of Exxon, the state and the Coast Guard, in charge of spending Exxon’s money. Then there were the local fishermen, the hatchery entity, the processors, the National Park Service, the state Fish and Game Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plus very soon the environmental groups. Everybody was talking and everybody was some distance from the actual spill.

Each morning the flights would go out and return and what they saw would be mapped. The state had its pilots and maps and the feds had theirs, and the feds always saw less oil than the state did. As the day wore on, people would return from the field with oil on their boots and news of what was actually going on out there. Rumors were everywhere.

My perception of Dave Kennedy, who headed the NOAA crew, was that he was quite political and at the direction of the Bush administration was seeking to play the whole thing down. There were many instances of this, particularly when NOAA arrived in Kodiak and told fishermen who had already seen oiled nets that the oil could not possibly have gotten that far already and could not possibly have sunk. They were wrong on both counts, of course.

But one thing Dave and his crew did that was very right was preside over what they called “science meetings” in the back room each evening when everybody had come back from their fieldwork. This was a frank and businesslike exchange where everybody simply downloaded and compared notes and went home.

There was a huge and growing press corps in town as the world began to realize the scale of this catastrophe. The science meetings were not announced to the press, but it didn’t take me long to find out about them and nobody kicked me out. These meetings were the beginning. They became more formalized, but they continued because they were so needed. And reporters continued to come, but for the most part had to hold their questions until afterwards. This meeting was for the scientists.

The science changed over the years, from damage assessment to restoration and recovery strategies, which in turn required scientific work to figure out where best to spend the money Exxon paid into the court settlement over the spill’s damages to natural resources the state and federal governments are responsible for. A Trustee Council of state and federal agency heads decided where the grants went, and that body in turn had advisory panels to enhance public and scientific engagement. One of the Council’s contracts was with independent journalist Jody Seitz to produce interpretive features about the science for broadcast to the people in the spill areas on their public radio stations. I was Jody’s consultant to make that happen, and I am not seeking to take any credit for it, but I will point out that I did suggest to the Council’s Outreach Director L.J. Evans, Science Director Stan Senner and Executive Director Molly McCammon that they consider doing those old Valdez Civic Center-style science meetings again, inviting the news media and the public to watch the scientists report on how they had spent the contract money and what they had learned. They set it up in the Hotel Captain Cook and it has been going ever since. The scientists found it valuable. By the time the oil spill money began to peter out, many of the same scientists had begun looking beyond Prince William Sound and the spill smeared coast to the much vaster Bering Sea, where the North Pacific Research Board was beginning to fund projects.

So in those 20 plus years, many of those researchers have retired out, but their graduate students continue, and the Symposium has become a key part of their yearly cycle of field seasons and other activities. All sorts of other scientific meetings are scheduled adjacent to it, the bars and restaurants downtown buzz with science gossip and wild speculation and deal making and more, and it has all become quite glorious. You can see it in the enthusiastic reaction from the few outside scientists who get invited. And it’s needed. Now more than ever.

 

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