The Clean Team : Fishermen Train as Reserve Force in Case of Oil Spill Along Coast


Sure-footed on the slippery deck, Donna Kleeburg helped stretch a buoyant oil-containment boom onto the coastal waters near Carpinteria in mock battle against an oil slick.

“This is basically the same thing we do all the time, like casting nets and pulling lines,” said Kleeburg, who fishes commercially with her husband, James, out of the Port of Hueneme.

As volunteers for oil cleanup training, the Kleeburgs offer more than experienced sea legs and steady hands. They can add the 65-foot “Donna K” to the armada of boats that industry experts say would be needed to contain a major oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel.

So far, 88 fishermen and 42 boats have signed up with Ventura County Fishermen’s Oil Response Team, the first effort in the nation to organize and train fishermen in the art of mopping up oil spilled on the high seas.


Although hundreds of fishermen helped clean up the massive Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska last year, the chaotic effort did not include them until after the advancing oil slick had devastated Alaskan fisheries.

Horrified by the disorganized response to the Exxon spill, Ventura County fishermen persuaded oil cleanup specialists to hire them as a reserve force prepared at all times to protect the Channel Islands and coastline in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

“Ventura has become the model for the rest of the state and the country in getting the training, insurance and rates of compensation for fishermen,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns. in Sausalito on the San Francisco Bay.

“Within a year,” Grader said, “we will have a number of similar programs up and down the Pacific Coast.”

The pilot program began earlier this year under the direction of Clean Seas, a nonprofit cleanup cooperative financed by 19 area oil companies. Created after the 1969 Union Oil platform blowout off Santa Barbara, Clean Seas is responsible for corralling spills off the coast of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. The co-op has six boats of its own.

“They bought the concept because it is so beautifully simple,” said Brian Jenison, president of the Ventura County Commercial Fishermen’s Assn. “Fishermen have boats. They know how to stand on slippery decks. They know how to work the equipment. And, they want to protect their fisheries.”

From the oil industry’s perspective, it’s far cheaper to have a reserve of fishing boats on call 24 hours a day than increase the number of their own boats dedicated to oil cleanup.

Furthermore, state and federal governments plan to scrutinize the industry’s contingency plans to determine if they are prepared for a major spill such as the one that blackened Alaska’s coastline and fishing grounds.


“If the industry can work a deal with fishermen, it increases their show of force,” said Brian Baird, an oil spill cleanup specialist for the California Coastal Commission. “They can say, here is our navy and here’s how we are going to use it.”

Under the new state law that created a $100-million oil spill cleanup fund, lawmakers have directed the state’s yet-to-be-appointed oil spill “czar” to examine the feasibility of training fishermen as part of a comprehensive statewide contingency plan. Lawmakers expect the position to be filled sometime next year by Gov.-elect Pete Wilson.

Industry cleanup cooperatives are not waiting for the government to act.

Clean Bay, an industry co-op that covers spills in Central and Northern California from Cape San Martin to Fort Bragg, recently held a training session for fishermen at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay, said Stephen Ricks, the co-op’s manager in Concord. “We haven’t gotten to the level of sophistication of the guys in Ventura, but we are on the same track.”


Roy McClymonds, manager of Clean Coastal Waters, said he hired two fishing vessels to help mop up the 9,600-barrel British Petroleum tanker spill off Huntington Beach in February.

“We gave them some booms and they did just fine,” said McClymonds, whose co-op is responsible for spills off the coast of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. “Fishermen are a tremendous resource. I will probably follow on Clean Seas’ shirttails on this to sign contracts and get fishermen pre-trained.”

One of the biggest supporters of employing fishermen is Skip Onstad, the newly appointed general manager of the Pacific Southwest Regional Response Center at the Port of Hueneme.

The $60-million facility will be the first of five regional centers planned by a consortium of big oil companies after it concluded the industry had “neither the equipment or personnel” to handle a catastrophic tanker spill.


“Working with fishermen is a match made in heaven,” said Onstad, who was manager of Clean Sea before being elevated to the new position. “I would suspect that we will develop similar programs for fishermen throughout the country.”

At its Channel Islands Harbor office, the Ventura County Fishermen’s Oil Response Team has a computerized roster of pre-inspected boats with captain and crew under prearranged work contracts ranging from $600 to $2,400 a day depending on the size of the vessel.

Office Manager Michele Sojka is on call around the clock so that one emergency telephone call from Clean Seas launches the office into action, mustering the requested vessels and trained crews within hours.

Although the fishermen have been trained by Clean Seas, they may report to the spiller, which has primary responsibility for cleanup under the law, or to the Coast Guard, which sometimes take a lead role in organizing mop-up efforts.


In a crisis, fishermen could be called to perform a variety of tasks, including ferrying supplies and workers to oil cleanup vessels, helping capture and transport oil-soaked seabirds or other wildlife, hauling oily debris and sweeping the ocean with oil-containment booms.

A recent training session focused on instructing fishermen how to safely unfurl and tend oil-containment booms. The self-inflating polyurethane fences are used to corral oil at sea until skimmers can remove the oil from the ocean surface and pump it into tanks aboard ships or barges.

“The only difference that I can see is that they are interested in catching what’s on the surface and we are interested in what’s below,” said Harold Gingrich, a squid and anchovy fisherman based at the Port of Hueneme.

For the most part, commercial fishermen said they have joined the oil response team so they could do something to help if disaster strikes, instead of sitting idly by as their fisheries are devastated. Many of them expressed concern about the likelihood of an oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, which has more oil platforms than anywhere else along the California coast.


“It’s for survival,” said Joe Tsunoda of Oxnard, a lifelong commercial fisherman with a boat at Channel Islands Harbor. “I’ve never seen anything drastic out here like what happened in Huntington. But if it happens, we’ve got to help clean it up. Otherwise, we lose our livelihood.”