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The Selendang Ayu Shipwreck and Oil Spill: Considering Threats and Fears of a Worst-Case Scenario

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On December 8, 2004, the Selendang Ayu, a Malaysian-flagged freighter, ran aground off Unalaska Island in Alaska's Aleutian chain. Despite rescue efforts by the United States Coast Guard, six of the Selendang Ayu's crew members died. In addition to the deaths, more than 300,000 gallons of heavy bulk fuel oil spilled into the sea. Much of the oil washed onto the island's shores, into areas providing cultural, recreational, subsistence, and commercial fishing resources for residents of the renewable resource community of Dutch Harbor/Unalaska. The purpose of this article is to identify and examine different dimensions of risk, based on qualitative research conducted in 2005. We use a contextual constructionist approach to understand risk, which conceptualizes risk as an objective hazard, threat, or danger that is mediated through social and cultural processes. Research methods included 31 personal interviews, participatory observation, and a review of media coverage. Findings revealed several dimensions of risk perceived by residents: the incident in relation to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska as a high-risk community and more general current events; threats to the community's annual $1 billion seafood industry; threats to Alaska Native subsistence culture; and issues of future risk and uncertainty. Interviews and observations support our conclusion that the Selendang Ayu incident represented a “shot across the bow” that could have been a “worst case” if oil had contaminated commercial fish processing. Residents believe that it is only a matter of time before another, more damaging accident occurs. Given this general perception, it is important to more clearly assess risk in Dutch Harbor/Unalaska and help the community increase resilience to the multiple hazards it faces. More broadly, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska serves as an example—all communities could benefit from better risk assessments and increased attention to resiliency.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Western Michigan University 2: Mississippi State University

Publication date: 2008-05-01

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