Riki Ott

Moving Ideas Into Action

Recorded: February 7, 2014

Have you heard of Copper River salmon? What about the Exxon Valdez oil spill of March 24, 1989?  This massive oil spill off the shore of Cordova, Alaska horrified local fisherman and devastated the community when the Prince William Sound fishery stocks collapsed. Without fish, the economic base of the community was destroyed. Riki Ott shares her story about how she mobilized the community to help in the recovery, and how her experience awakened the need to make corporations more responsible for their actions.

Riki Ott, PhD is a marine toxicologist, author, and former commercial fisher. Ms. Ott was born and raised in Wisconsin, but has lived and worked in Alaska for almost 30 years. Her father was an opponent of DDT and very passionate about nature, imparting a strong environmental ethic to his children. Her father successfully campaigned to have the DDT banned, which made an impression on the teen. Riki soon began to read Rachel Carson’s books on the ocean, and the landmark, Silent Spring. It was only natural that Ms. Ott would decide to become a marine biologist and toxicologist. In 1985, she moved to Alaska.  When the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska, Riki was one of the first people on the scene. Now an internationally-recognized expert in oil spill impacts to wildlife, people, and communities, she is called into communities impacted by oil disasters to assist people by exposing the extent of damages.  Riki’s website has detailed information about these spills: http://riki.ott.com.

Ms. Ott is the featured character in the award-winning film BLACK WAVE: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, a documentary that tells the tale of the battle between commercial fishers against the largest corporation in the world, Exxon-Mobil and DIRTY ENERGY – The BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster: First-hand Stories from the Louisiana Bayou. She is the author of Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal, and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008).

Ms. Ott directs Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute, and teaches rights-based community organizing from fifth grade to university, sharing practical skills for sustainable living and ending corporate rule. She is an itinerant campaigner.

Riki lives in Cordova, Alaska.


[Slides]:   The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.  It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters.

[Slide]:  Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and commercial fisherman, was living in Cordova, Alaska when she received the news.

Riki Ott:    We had the knock on the door.  At 7 o’clock in the morning on March 24th 1989, I was like, “Who could that be,” you know.  So I go running out and there’s the acting president of Cordova District Fishermen United, Jack Lamb, and he’s like, “We’ve had the big one.”  And I mean the jolt of adrenaline, I’ll never forget it, and then just this flood of ideas of what we need to do.  I was the first– the second — plane to fly out. The Fish and Game was the plane that flew out right before me.  I just saw no cleanup equipment.  This was 9 hours after the grounding and here’s the tanker and this big oil stain all around the, like an inky blob, and it was like, “oh man, we are in such trouble.”  I was overwhelmed, what can one person do?  This is too big, it’s too much.  I don’t have any family here, I could leave.  I can see this is going to be ruined.  And I’m thinking, I know enough to make a difference, do I care enough?  And at that point it got really quiet, and I mean I’m on a tarmac in the middle of a disaster trauma, there’s helicopters right over my head, there’s everything.  And I just remember having this flash of my life, and realizing that I had done all these moves that put me in this place at this time, that I had thought were so random, to be here with this knowledge that was going to be needed.  And I thought, “you know, where am I going to go on the coast of an ocean anywhere on this planet that will be safe from things like this spill if somebody doesn’t take a stand somewhere.  If not now, when?”  And I just went, “I’m in.”

Riki Ott:    So Exxon Valdez, this was a, I call it my 20-year period of enlightenment.  Only instead of under the bodhi tree, it was in Cordova, Alaska, because I really saw how a disaster trauma like this affects, not just the marine life like I’ve been taught, very sterile environment, all scientific, no emotions.  No, this is a gut wrenching, you know, emotional change-your-life-event, forever. And I had never thought about how it affected people in a community.  And I got to be witness, and be a participant in this community, totally being smashed by the loss of the fisheries stocks in Prince William Sound, and then smashed by this corporation in the legal system, and just on and on.  There was no money, so how are you going to feed your family?  What are you going to do?  And so people were just grasping at straws, you know. We could log, we could clear cut log the Copper River Delta because that will put money on the table.  We could strip mine for coal, that will put money on the table.  We could do industrial scale tourism.  And these, this is a small bush community that’s not connected by a road, and a good half of the town lived there for that reason and didn’t want all this, you know, fancy development and resource extraction.  And besides that, the Copper River Delta had over 300 salmon spawning streams, and did we really want to clear cut and trash our own bread basket?

Riki Ott:    From my part of problem solving, I came up with the idea of, well, let’s figure out this economic puzzle.  As long as the economy is completely broken, why do we want to rebuild it the same way?  Maybe we want to build it a different way.  Maybe we should look at some of this sustainable development stuff that’s going on.  We have options here.

Riki Ott:    There was an ally in Alaska who was on the President’s Council, so we teamed up on this, and we started the first-on-the-ground sustainable community development project in Alaska, which became the Copper River Watershed Project. And that is still ongoing to this day, and became a forum for discussion, a safe place to hold those tensions until you can find the common ground that wouldn’t have emerged had you not been able to have this discussion.  Our common ground was, we loved fishing, we loved our town the way it was. We wanted to have our fishing community back again, which meant we had to get the fish back, which meant we had to build and encourage businesses that were compatible with fishing.  And people said, “Okay, what we need to do is we need to build some form of, you know, wealth. We don’t care if it’s social wealth because we were all fighting economic wealth, environmental wealth, without decreasing the other two.”  We wanted to encourage businesses that did that.  So that became the niche marketing model for Copper River Salmon that drove the price up to 21 dollars a pound.

Huey Johnson:    I seen it and wondered.

Riki Ott:    That’s the story behind that, because our fisheries in Prince William Sound had collapsed.  We only had the Copper River fishery, so we had to get more value for those fish.  And it also kick-started ecotourism in Cordova because people realized that we had an option, it was either going to be these big cruise ships or something that fit.  And what had happened, in the sort of learning of Exxon Valdez was, that this was really more than an environmental disaster.  This was really a democracy crisis, because what had happened by 2008 was that we were on the verge of losing our lawsuit for 5 billion dollar compensatory and punitive award.  I mean, the herring fishery in Prince William Sound still has not recovered 25 years later.

Riki Ott:    And I saw that democracy was really not ours anymore, it’s supposed to be of, for, and by the people — government of, for, and by the people.  And as I was problem solving in my book, Not One Drop, I wanted part 4 to be, sort of the lessons learned, and how we can apply them to the bigger picture, to the rest of America.  People in town started asking me, “How do corporations get this big, that they can manipulate the legal system, that they can manipulate our politics?  I thought it was democracy.  I thought it was ‘we’ the people.”  And I was like, “Geez, I don’t know.”  You know, so I went and took – I did a year, part of intensive study.  I took some of Thomas Lindsay’s Community and Environmental Legal Defense Fund trainings and I realized that this is great information.  It needs to be packaged in a way that ordinary people can assess it, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, right?  It needs to get out there.  This is it.  This is what people need to know to fix the democracy so we don’t have things like these oil spills because corporations are held accountable.

Riki Ott:    By fall of 2009, Citizen’s United was going to be heard at the Supreme Court level.  Citizen’s United, of course is the Supreme Court decision that ultimately, that basically ruled that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money to – in elections.  So corporate personhood was kind of in the news, and I got this email thread saying, “Riki, you should be on this email thread,” and it was 30 of the top democracy activists in the country, all discussing about writing a resolution – writing letters to the editor.  And I’m like, “now’s the time for action not a resolution.  Let’s have a meeting in San Marin now to organize for this.”  And that was the birth of Move to Amend, the grassroots organization that’s now active in over 40 states, that’s moving to amend the U.S. Constitution. Corporations are not persons, money’s not speech, with state chapters in you know grass – its total from the grassroots up.  Ever since 2008, I have pretty much remained an itinerant campaigner.

What I’m hearing is sort of a collective vision around America, is more regional self sufficiency.  More autonomy and more of this balance of our human values matter.  The social wealth counts. That environmental wealth counts.  The economic wealth counts.  It has to be a balance.

Riki Ott:    One of my most fulfilling things I do right now is actually teaching high school, and down to 5th grade, how to move ideas into action.  I have had 5th graders wave me away saying, “We already know the problems; we want to know what the solutions are.”  So these kids are coming in now to tackle tough problems, and they are not shirking from this at all.  I’m very hopeful for the future.  I think that’s it, in the midst of chaos and collapse and polarization, and economies going down, and you know, environment going down, and climate change, and you just think, “Ah!”  Go talk to people in 5th grade, you know, it’ll just rejuvenate you.  The kids want to do something, and I am proud and happy to be here to serve as guides for them, not as their teacher, but sharing in this process of rebirthing what it is that will follow.

Huey Johnson:    Well thank you for your passion and your purpose.