Story last updated at 3:06 p.m. Thursday, December 12, 2002

Judge Holland says Exxon should pay $4 billion
Sepp Jannotta

ExxonMobil will have to pay $4 billion in punitive damages for the 1989 Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, if a ruling by Alaska U.S. District Judge Russel Holland stands. The dollar amount was reduced from an original award of $5 billion after a federal appeals court ordered him to reduce the amount. Exxon is expected to appeal the ruling in a legal battle over punitive damages that has dragged on for years. Holland said in his ruling that he was fixing on a figure that was the lowest amount acceptable to the plaintiffs -- a collection of fishermen, Native Ala-skans and coastal communities arguing they suffered financial and economic harm from the spill. In his ruling, Holland was critical of Exxon's strategy of continued appeals and delay tactics, saying that he believed that if Exxon did not accept the latest ruling, the plaintiffs should consider a counter appeal. David Oesting, attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Anchorage Daily News that he thought Holland had accomplished what the appellate judge had ordered. "I thought the first number was right," he said. "But the circuit did tell this judge to reduce it, and that's what he's done."

Commercial salmon fisherman and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblyman Chris Moss said most of the local fishermen he'd talked to recently reacted to the latest ruling with indifference. "No one's very excited one way or the other about it because they realize there's going to be a couple more years of waiting around," Moss said. "Exxon has said they would appeal all the way." However, if the oil giant ever does pay the damages award on a scale of $4 billion, Moss said, it would be a huge financial boost for communities on the Kenai Peninsula such as Homer. "Out of all the economic benefits that could be distributed to the peninsula, if this settlement occurs, it would be one of the largest ever," Moss said. Still, the reality of a long fight against a powerful corporation left fishermen attending a Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage last week subdued as well. "I gave up on that a long time ago," Glenn Brookman told the Daily News. "I focus on things I can control."

The International Pacific Halibut Commission recently released its preliminary commercial catch limit recommendations. After a review of the 2002 catch data, the commission put the total 2003 catch at 74.92 million pounds. That figure is the same number the commission recommended for the 2002 season.

The state of Alaska's annual report on workplace fatalities showed 2001 was the worst year for deaths in the commercial fishing industry in nearly a decade. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported that 25 commercial fishermen died in 2001, nearly triple the fatalities in 2000. It was the highest total since 1992, when 35 people died in Alaska's fisheries. The number is skewed by the sinking of the Arctic Rose near the Pribilof Islands, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 15.

The National Academy of Sciences released a report last week saying that it doesn't look likely that the commercial fishing industry has been the cause of a decline in the Steller sea lion populations. Despite the report's findings, the panel conducting the review of sea lion science did recommend a research program that could involve some reductions in fishing. The report said there is insufficient evidence to explain why sea lion numbers in Western Alaska had plummeted by an estimated 80 percent over the last several decades. Research has shown that most of the individual animals that inhabit the region are in good health. The Kodiak Daily Mirror reported that the review by the National Academy of Sciences was made possible by money freed up in 2000 by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. He ordered the panel to review Steller sea lion data after a federal court ordered the closure of near-shore pollock fisheries from Cordova to Attu. At the time, the National Marine Fisheries Service also issued an opinion that found that commercial fishing was hurting sea lions. Stevens countered that killer whale predation was a more plausible explanation for the decline.

"I am pleased to see this report," Stevens said in an e-mail message relayed by Stevens' staff to the Daily Mirror last week. The National Academy of Sciences is a private society that advises Congress on scientific matters. According to the Daily Mirror, this review was conducted by a panel organized by the academy's National Research Council. The chief scientist on the panel was Robert Paine, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. Paine told the Daily Mirror that Western Alaska sea lions, basically those in Prince William Sound and farther west, are not suffering from too little food. There is no disagreement on the panel on that point, Paine said. One research recommendation was the closure of fishing in certain areas to factory trawlers. Smaller near-shore fishing vessels would not be subject to the closures. "It's the factory trawlers that take the majority of the prey shared in common with sea lions," Paine told the Daily Mirror. He added that as the big trawlers haul up their catch, both sea lions and killer whales are attracted to the concentrations of fish. It is then that the orcas appear to be feeding on the sea lions.

Ben Ellis was the choice of U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans to replace Bob Penney on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, according to the Web site Fish Information and Service or The choice is a bit of a surprise. Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles named Dan Coffey as his top nominee to replace Penney, who left the council in October to tend to family business affairs. Ellis, of Soldotna, will take his seat on the council in January and will serve out the remainder of Penney's three-year term, which expires on Aug. 10, 2003. Like Penney, Ellis is most often associated with sport fishing. The owner of an Anchorage-based public relations company, Ellis is a former journalist who helped develop the Kenai River Sportfishing Association in 1992. He was an organizer of the Kenai River Classic, an event that annually attracts powerful politicians and others for the chance to catch one of that river's trophy king salmon. Ellis also served as development director for the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, and he once worked as a plant manager for a fish processing business. He currently serves on the council's advisory panel, which has a broad membership of commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, processors, environmentalists, consumers, fishery observers and others. Coffey was expected to take Penney's seat, as the governor's choice is typically given the go-ahead. Coffey, an Anchorage lawyer, is a former chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which regulates salmon, crab, herring and other fisheries. The North Pacific Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils around the nation. The North Pacific Council makes recommendations to the Commerce secretary for management of groundfish and other stocks off the coast of Alaska.