Survivors of one of the world's worst earthquakes and veterans of typhoons, floods and shipwrecks, the resilient people of the small fishing villages along Alaska's central coast recognize catastrophe quickly.

Which is why, days before millions of gallons of drifting crude oil from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez began threatening salmon spawning grounds, recreational beaches and a pristine national park, the people who live here didn't wait for help from Exxon or government bureaucrats.They helped themselves.

Up and down the coast, from Kodiak Island to Cordova, fishermen and town leaders improvised ways to catch oil with nets and protect bays with trees - and proved to be more successful than expensive and elaborate machinery.

"The bright spot on this whole spill is the spirit we've seen from the fishermen," said Jim Hayden, the state's cleanup coordinator. "They're naturals on the water. They've seined for salmon and they've seined for herring and now they're seining for oil."

In the battle to protect Sawmill Bay hatcheries, fishermen used seining nets to corral it and bring it over to barges, where they had super suction trucks normally used on drilling mud at North Slope oil fields.

At Kodiak, the nation's richest fishing port last year, fishermen used logs and nets to form a protective curtain around bays. Fishermen even used television to display boom-making techniques.

"It's all experimental," said Bud Cassidy, coordinator of the boom project.

At Seward, a combination of lucky breaks, old friends, good credit, fair weather, and a willingness to take risks allowed residents to protect their own coastal back yard.

Seward's port manager, Chris Gates, tapped old contacts and in the middle of the night during the first week of the spill found Joe Santamaria and 20,000 feet of containment boom by phone in Bristol, N.H.

"We keep 20,000 feet of boom on the East Coast for spills so when Seward said it wanted it, I had it," said Santamaria, general manager of JPS-Oiltrol, Inc. "Chris got Exxon to OK the purchase, we got it on a DC-9 out of Boston, and by Saturday I was training fishermen to lay boom."

In a stroke of good fortune, the adjacent Kenai Fjords National Park had completed its oil spill contingency plan only one week before the tanker accident, a measure required for all coastal national parks last year.

As City Council was declaring an emergency, park superintendent Anne Castellina was asking for, and getting, a federal disaster team and an account number to charge supplies.

Within hours, the park service and city had teamed up.

"We knew we needed each other," said Castellina. "They had the political clout and we had the resource information. Neither of us could go it alone."

Meanwhile, Seward fishermen who'd spent weeks preparing for herring season only to have it canceled by the state because of the spill, were standing by to help.

"Nobody had ever worked with oil booms before so we had no idea how to operate them," said Mark Clemens. "But we soon figured out that booms are essentially like operating a seine net because they float and they close off an area. We hooked 'em up like we were fishing for salmon."