EVANS ISLAND, Alaska — For many of the Aleut villagers on this isolated island, fate has been cruelly instructive. On a March Good Friday 25 years ago their village on nearby Chenega Island was wiped off the map by a massive tidal wave. On Good Friday of this year, the Exxon Valdez ran aground 85 miles northeast of here and began bleeding millions of gallons of oil.
Now, those villagers, relocated to this island, wait again for the worst that lies just offshore.
Not only is the salmon hatchery two miles away threatened by the oil spill, but so is virtually everything the villagers eat. They depend on fishing and hunting for up to 80% of their food, resources that are being fouled by America's biggest oil disaster.
"I hear the deer are eating the kelp. The otters are dying. We've already stopped getting seals and sea lions . . . how many years down the line do we have to wait before our subsistence comes back?" demanded Chenega Bay village President John Totemoff on Thursday.
The 65 residents are working frantically with local officials and fishermen to fend off the slick, which flows steadily toward the island as it moves to the open sea. But their battle is a lonely one.
Exxon dispatched a tank barge to the scene, but it lies in the bay out of commission. Its pumps can't remove the heavy crude that has polluted Prince William Sound.
For many, the incident is a metaphor for the response of the oil industry in general.
"This is not just a matter of economics. It's our culture," said John Christensen, a member of the village council.
For thousands of years the Chenega villagers and their predecessors killed and ate seal, sea lion, bear and black-tail deer.
While subsistence living is declining, as recently as 1986 the average village household harvested 1,286 pounds of so-called wild resources and used 866 pounds. Some families meet upwards of 80% of their annual food requirements from sea mammals, deer, salmon and halibut.
Marine mammals constituted 39% of the harvest, salmon another 21% and game 20%, according to a report prepared by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The average Chenega household annually consumes 91 pounds of seal, 75 pounds of sea lion, 330 pounds of salmon, 80 pounds of halibut, 165 pounds of deer and 11 pounds of shrimp.
Now, many of those resources are either dying or contaminated. The oil is killing fish and birds, and fouling the low-tide kelp beds on which deer feed. Several deer have been found dead.
Many more sea otters have been killed. They died of hypothermia because their oil-encrusted coats could no longer protect them from frigid arctic water temperatures.
A Lean Season
The spill comes at a particularly bad time for the Aleuts here. Spring is a lean season in the village. It is just before the commercial fishing season begins and family budgets are low.
Typically, families borrow from canneries against future catches to buy equipment and meet other needs. But now the fishing catch is in serious jeopardy because of the oil spill. The herring season, which brings in $12 million around the sound for its caviar alone (known as sac roe), has been canceled.
The distress is not lost on Alaska officials. Alaska Environmental and Conservation Commissioner Dennis D. Kelso urged villagers not "to let the food situation go too far," meaning that food supplies on the island should be monitored carefully. He urged them to keep the state informed.
The villagers met Wednesday with California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the water and power subcommittee of the House Interior Committee, who stopped on the island as he toured the oil spill.
They asked for help fighting the spill. A mother held a young child in her lap and watched Miller and Alaska state officials intently.
"How many groceries can we get for a dollar? What kind of food can we get?" one villager asked.
"They've absolutely stopped getting seals and sea lions," Totemoff said. "We're just using canned stuff right now.
"I'd rather eat subsistence than beef and pork. That's been our life style," he said
Subsistence living is as much a practical necessity as a cultural imperative. "It is essential to being here. This is rural Alaska and a lot different from the Lower 48 states," Christensen said. There are no corner supermarkets.
"They're not going to starve to death, but it's a way of life for them. They depend on subsistence living. It's like saying to ranchers you can't eat cattle but you can have fish. It's going to hit them bad," Totemoff said.
"The mood here is apprehensive. There is anxiety about everything being unknown. This is not the quiet, nice, relaxed Alaskan native village it usually is," Christensen said.
BATTLE FOR PORT SAN JUAN
Evans Island--Fishemen and state officials have struggled for a week to protect the Port San Juan salmon hatchery at Sawmill Bay on Evans Island from the massive Alaskan oil spill. Meanwhile, a small Aleut village on the same island faces calamity as the oil ruins fishing and hunting, which provides the village much of its food.
Source: State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation