Full Interview

Makena O’Toole

Cordova, Alaska

I’m Makena O’Toole and I grew up in Cordova, and currently still reside here, at least in the summer time.

I think my first very conscious memories –  oh I guess I was about three and a half – phone ringing in the middle of the night and peeking over the edge of the ladder and just seeing my parents both in tears, hugging each other.  And that was the night that we got the news.  And then my mom and dad both worked on the clean-up.  Me and my sister stayed with one of our neighbors, and then kind of watched my parents struggle ever since then.  I remember my mom having a really hard time leaving us with our neighbor.My dad couldn’t afford to hire another deckhand, and so my mom would have to leave us for weeks at a time with the neighbor.  I just – I remember she had a really hard time leaving her children for that long under those circumstances, but you know, we basically didn’t have any choice.   You know, my family was filing for bankruptcy, and then my mom went and got her realtor’s certification up in Anchorage and came back and luckily had a really good experience with that business and I think we were one of the few families that didn’t have to declare bankruptcy after the Oil Spill, but there was definitely a lot of dysfunction in this town that you become aware of as you get older that and you know that you saw in school and in other people’s families.  I always felt like my family held it together a little bit better than some of those people.  

We were on the boat all the time [before the Spill], me and my sister.  We didn’t go out during the clean up and I’m glad that I never actually saw that first hand because I don’t think that anybody that has seen it really wants that image in their memory any more.

My dad, his boat burned to the waterline with no insurance the following year.  And he tried running other boats for a while in the nineties - it just wasn’t worth it.   He started running skiff for one of his friends.  I started fishing, just going out with him on his friend’s boat. I think the first time I probably went back on the boat was when I was seven, maybe, on my dad’s friend’s boat.  My dad tried for a while – he tried working weather stations up north and just doing different things, and you know, basically ended up mending nets a lot of the time for the gillnetters in town and tried several things to make money because after the Oil Spill there was just no money in fish.  I think the last year I seined I was maybe 16 and I think there was like 70 or 80 boats fishing then.  Now I come back to it after gillnetting for all those years and I don’t recognize any of these boats any more. 

I think my dad finally bought back in in 2009, which was about the worst year you could ever choose to buy back in. But he’s doing a lot better now.

I think my parents did a really good job of kind of sheltering me and my sister from the realities of what they were dealing with at the time.  I think that when I really started becoming more and more aware of the effects of the Oil Spill was when I started fishing on my own.  I think that they made a really good point to try not discussing any of that stuff in front of us and both of them are just healthy people. A lot of families in this town there is a lot of alcoholism and other issues going on that other kids had to deal with that I thankfully never did.  And I think my mom really kind of stepped it up and found another way to raise a family and to stay in Cordova.

There’s a lot of great things about growing up in Cordova.  I mean the times during the Oil Spill, honestly, it seemed like the whole town was just overwhelmed.  The only really positive memories I have from that point in time is after the season every year. We were still living up at our cabin in the Interior [of Alaska] then and just getting out of here basically and going up there.  In the years following Cordova was a great place to grow up and I loved, loved going out on the water all the time. I hated it when we came back to town [off the boat], but it was a great place to raise kids in a lot of ways. 

Riki Ott was also another huge factor in my life, and she was always at the forefront of fighting with Exxon.  She’d always come back and have dinner with our family and tell us wild and crazy stories of her escapades and everything, which I always found very entertaining and put kind of a humorous, exciting spin on the whole situation that I think definitely helped me and Malani get a more positive outcome from it, because as a kid it was really entertaining and something we looked forward to. 

You know, there was a great community here and a lot of friends.  I mean growing up I was always hunting and trapping and running around and driving our trucks on the lake and there was a really great music scene for kids in this town.  They have a great music camp for a couple weeks long every year that Belle Mickelson puts on during the summer. A lot of friends from all the different music camps and folk festivals in Alaska would all come here in the summer and their kids, and it was just a fun a time when all your friends were in town and everybody’s living at your house.  It was a lot of fun when you were a kid.

And sand dunes out at Fourth of July.  Well, it seemed like lots of years we celebrated on Third of July due to  [fishing] openers and schedules.  Even today, Fourth of July there’ll be three, four hundred people out the road and huge bonfires and four wheelers and just kids running everywhere – swimming in the ponds and playing in the sand.  That was definitely a lot of fun growing up.

And the best thing about this town is that in the spring when everyone is in town getting ready for fishing, there’s like an electricity in the air of everybody getting ready and so much excitement all the time.  During those years [right after the Spill] I think there was a little bit less energy in town, maybe just more of a negative energy.  As the fishery’s gotten better, it has definitely intensified every year and it is just an exciting time to be around.

It was really frustrating I guess just to see this town and how it just kind of had nowhere to go. The boats just got more and more and more rundown and dropped out like flies until less and less people – you had friends that you grew up with when you were kids that came every summer and then they’d stop coming because their dad’s weren’t fishing up here anymore because they couldn’t make it.  

Watching the whole thing got drawn out over twenty years and watching a lot of people with their lives just on hold -- it’s just like keeping a wound open and never letting it heal, because there was no closure to it.  It was still an ongoing thing. People were still basing their retirement plans and their financial decisions and their life decisions on this mythical settlement.  And a lot of people just could never get over it. 

I always wonder what things would be like if it never happened around here, how strong and healthy this place would be and how much different our lives would be if we had year-round fisheries like Petersburg or Sitka or Juneau [all in Southeast Alaska].  If you go down there, you see there’s a lot of young guys getting into fishing down there because it’s a career when you can do it full time.  And up here, until the last couple years, there’s just nobody getting into it, there’s no kids that wanted to do that or saw that as a way to make a living anymore.  But it’s changing now, I mean things are definitely going up, but it’s just a matter of time.

I bought my first boat and permit, I think my senior year in high school.  And just been fishing ever since, year round usually. So I actually haven’t spent any time in Cordova in the winters for a long time, seeing as we don’t have anything left here.

I think that it [fishing] was just always something that I wanted to do.  My dad tells a story about when I was a little kid, up at our cabin, waking up in the middle of the night, in the middle of a dream, just kind of like sleep talking, saying, “My daddy’s a wisherman and I’m gonna be a wisherman too” and it was never a doubt in my mind.  I know my mom strongly discouraged it and all the teachers and pretty much everybody in town.  At the time that I bought into fishing it was not exactly what parents wanted their kids to be doing, and I was the first kid in high school in a long time to buy into fishing and to take that jump.   I ended up finding other friends that were my age that bought in at the same time.  Two of them are from Seward [Alaska] and two of them I guess were from Cordova, but lived up north and were home schooled so they weren’t around all the time.  We formed a radio group when we were still in high school.  It was never a doubt for me, but I think at the time it was quite a disappointment to my mom.  She was hoping I’d got to college, but it definitely draws people to it.

At that point in life I really didn’t care much about money, I just really enjoyed fishing.  I don’t think there was ever really a doubt in my dad’s head what I was going to do.  He definitely wasn’t nearly as verbal about the situation as my mom was.  I actually did go to college for two weeks.  I had a scholarship and everything down in Arizona and I dropped out. It was the last year the Bering Sea [crab fishery] was derby and I really wanted to do that.  I never actually got to do that, but I dropped out of college after two weeks. My dad was running my bowpicker [salmon gillnet boat] down in Controller Bay.  No cell phone reception, nothing, and I came back and I was walking around in the harbor late at night.  My dad had no idea, as far as he knew I was still in college.  I heard my boat coming in at a about midnight, walked over there, and he just kind of smiled at me and said, “I was wondering when you were going to be back.”  And he tied the boat up and got his stuff off and I got on and took off. 

I had pretty good luck with fishing too.  The first opener – 12 hours – I paid for my boat and then things just started going up from there – the fisheries did.  I kind of got in at the perfect time.  It’s a lot harder for guys to get in now; the permits are $180,000.  I think I bought mine for forty [thousand dollars] – my first drift permit. 

I’ve done everything from Dungeness [crab] down along the Washington coast, squid in California, and tanner crab in Kodiak [Alaska], sword fish in California, halibut and black cod long-lining out in the Gulf [of Alaska], cod fishing in Adak [Alaska], cucumber diving in Southeast [Alaska],  Sitka [Alaska] herring we just bought part of a permit in the Sitka herring fishery now, so kind of just been all over.

I’d still say Cordova’s home.  It’s not that we’re leaving by choice.  We’re leaving out of necessity in the winters, because I feel really uncomfortable basing my business plan and my family’s livelihood on salmon because I’ve seen what happened to my parents.  I sure as hell don’t want that same situation, and it’s a matter of time.  I’m trying to diversify my business to the point where I can just move down to Southeast [Alaska] full time, because I don’t like having that constant threat of that happening hanging over my head, and I can’t diversify locally.  There’s no winter fisheries here whatsoever.  After the Oil Spill, we lost our tanner crab, the dungies [Dungeness crab] went down hill, herring, pretty much everything.  So Southeast [Alaska] -- you’re still able to diversify down there.  It’s kind of our long-term goal to get down there and get set up.

If you talk to any of these guys that grew up here before the Oil Spill, they had rock fish, they had halibut and black cod derbies, which isn’t part of the Oil Spill – it’s just the changing times.  Before the Oil Spill, you know, we had a 14 million pound tanner crab quota in 1988, we had red king crab, we had blue king crab, we had a spot prawn fishery, we had a herring fishery that was huge and brought a ton of money in to this town, especially at a critical time in the year when everybody’s trying to get their boats ready for salmon.  We don’t have any of that now. It’s been harder and harder for young fishermen to make it.  In the wintertime, we’re anywhere from San Diego [California] to Adak [Alaska].  If you have a bad year here, if anything goes wrong, you need something else to fall back on. It’s just not a very smart plan to put all of your eggs in the salmon basket.  If you don’t make it on salmon, you just don’t make it and there’s just nothing to do here in the winter at all.  And so as much as I love it here, I don’t think there’s any real future in it.  It’s a great place to spend the summers, but if you want to be financially secure it’s kind of a challenge.

The fishery here, of all the salmon fisheries, is definitely my favorite and the gillnet fishery here, I feel that other than the fact we still bring tankers through Prince William Sound, I feel that it’s the most stable fishery in the state of Alaska – the fact that we fish all five species [of salmon] and that we are diversified over several different runs of hatchery fish and wild fish and I think that that’s a really stable solid fishery, but we still have the threat of another Oil Spill coming through, so you can’t ever really count on it.

A lot of the fisheries in this town probably could have been reopened, but a lot of people didn’t want the fisheries to reopen after that long because it was less of a case for us.  Now we’re at a point where there’s still a lot of damage to the ecosystem around here, but there’s got to be something in all of Prince William Sound that can keep a couple of guys busy during the winter.  There’s no funding for it because in the twenty years since the Oil Spill happened, all of the funding to manage those fisheries has been rediverted to other areas and it is impossible to get funding to even study a fishery, much less start managing it.  And that’s one of the most frustrating things to me; we’re in a position now where some of the stocks are rebuilding enough to where we could start trying to make a fishery out of it, but the political hurdles that you have to jump through and the hassles and everything makes it just unrealistic and there’s nobody here with the energy and the time to push those things forward.  I tried for a couple of years going to different meetings and the reality of it is, is that it’s just easier to walk away, you know, and start somewhere else. So I think that’s where I’m at anyway. 

I mean the biggest thing I think that we can take from what we learned here is move on.  Get over it.  If it’s not something that you can continue to make a life out of there, then you need to leave.  If you can, then you need to get over it and don’t let yourself be put on hold for twenty years listening to false promises or false hopes because it doesn’t help anybody.  I think that’s the one thing that was very apparent from this town, is nobody benefitted.  Even if we would’ve won the settlement, even if we would have gotten full settlements, twenty years of your life for that much whatever the financial benefits would have been? It turned out to be pretty much nothing for us.  You know, it’s just not worth it.  I don’t think any amount of money is worth putting your life on hold for that long, and so I would just say “move on” and, you know, hopefully justice will be served, but if it’s not, don’t let it ruin your life.