“The most fundamental prerequisite to exercising the right to take fish is the existence of fish to be taken.” Judge Orrick, United States v. State of Washington, 506 F. Supp. 187, 203 (1980).
An age-old battle has been fought in Alaska for generations, of which, many of us lower 48'ers are not aware. We book our cruise trips, we plan our getaways at a remote lodge, all with one thing in mind, to fill our freezers with that precious commodity that everyone wants a taste of: Alaskan Seafood. The battle I mentioned above is a politically diverse, multi-faceted, and immensely complicated issue between commercial fisherman, charter fisherman, the tourist industry, and our diminishing resources of wild caught Alaskan seafood. I prefer not to get into all the complicated details involved in the Us vs. Them arguments being raised on all sides, but rather, to propose an alternative.
Since starting my seafood company, I have operated under the precept of, "a rise in tide lifts all ships" or, in other words, a good business deal benefits everyone, especially the environment! In terms of modern fishing practices, I am here to say, that the way we have been doing things is not cohesive to a sustainable abundance of fish in the ocean. Already, the numbers of halibut are dwindling in the oceans. Every year, we are having to implement more and more hatcheries to produce the amount of smolt needed to re-populate the oceans enough to keep up with the world's demand for fish. Now, I know we all love our Alaskan Salmon, and it's far better to eat than farmed salmon for a copious number of reasons, both health and environmental; however, we cannot continue with the current patterns in any of the industries affecting our Alaskan oceans. The future of our industry is changing! It has to change if we ever want our children to see those beautiful salmon fighting the rapids upriver. If we are to preserve the abundance of one of the world's main food sources, the future of the industry must adapt, to more readily resemble collaborative conservation.
What is collaborative conservation? I think it is best described by Aldo Leopold:
"Conservation means harmony between men and land. When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not."
The Farmer as a Conservationist - Aldo Leopold
What Leopold recognized, as early as 1939, was that there is a way for all to benefit, including the environment. What Wild Woman Adventures provides, is an example of this model. Even though everyone wants to fill their freezers, the tourist side of the industry needs to move away from the "wack em, and stack em" mentality, and instead, we must make a transition toward trips that are filled with education, and learning subsistence through the appreciation of nature. Clients on these excursions might only catch a few fish, but they will be eager to learn about the species, environmental truths, and how to catch, process, and cook the fish. They will ultimately be left with a sense of how they can contribute to the sustainability of the species. They may not be taking home 150 lb of salmon on the plane, but they will have an experience of a lifetime, that will leave them wanting to spread the word about how precious this American resource truly is within our own country!
On the commercial side of the industry, the transition is going to look a lot more like fish staying, and being consumed, within our own borders. We are going to see a lot fewer corporate fish processors controlling the market, and a lot more commercial fisherman connecting with communities. By servicing specific local markets, they will only be catching what they will need to serve those communities for the year. This will drive the price up for fisherman, and consumers will see a more affordable price in the market. With the fall of salmon fish farming, due to disease problems and environmental education lowering the demand, we will rely more upon the wild caught market to fulfill our love for Alaskan seafood.
A huge obstacle I've seen in the seafood industry, is how separated communities are from the commercial fisherman who catch their food. Both general consumers, as well as those preparing it, like restaurant chefs, have very little knowledge or interaction with those providing them their fish. This is because of the physical distance and separation Alaska has from the lower 48, but it also has to do with the corporate fishing giants. A huge issue in Alaska, is the lack of custom processing facilities for fisherman. Anytime one opens up for fisherman to use to process and label their own catch, one of the corporate giants comes in and puts them out of business. Any corporate processing facility will only allow their salmon to be marketed under their name. It makes it almost impossible for fisherman outside the corporate net to have any sort of control over their catch, or over the price they are getting paid for it. Corporate fish companies often drive down dock price and raise market price for consumers. They are also responsible for over 80% of our catch leaving the U.S and going to markets in China and Europe. A lot of our seine caught fish out of Yakutat, Alaska is actually being frozen, in plant, shipped to China, and then brought back to the U.S for distribution! Along with price, there is also the sense of smoke and mirrors being put up around the seafood industry, making it difficult to know much at all about where our fish comes from. This is done on purpose to keep the general consumer disillusioned and confused. The less they are told, the more they buy, not ever knowing to which industry they are contributing their dollar.
With proper education, Alaskan seafood and tourist industries are going to change. The more people know about these issues, the more they will seek out the truth. They will start sourcing their salmon from the fisherman, and from the most sustainable industry that exists within the commercial industry (more on that to come). The consumer demand will drive the future of our industries, and in effect, the industries will have to respond. Everyone benefits: the consumer, the fisherman, the environment. I think there is even a way we can start working with the processing plants already in place, working together with this common goal in mind, and they will stand to benefit as well, both financially and with awesome PR. On the tourism end of things, the more our tourists are educated, and given experiences of the realities of our Alaskan resources, the more they are going to appreciate a salmon when they buy one, and the more they will share their education with others. Like wildfire, what used to be shrouded and unknown about the fishing industries in Alaska, will quickly become common knowledge. Change can happen! A fly-fisherman practices catch and release in the river in Colorado because we know, as sure as the air we breathe, that we, as Coloradans, love to fish! Hell, I love to fish! But part of that love is in building a mentality around conservation, only keeping what we can eat for dinner, and going out the next day to do the same. It's in learning humility and honor for your catch, through giving thanks and processing it mindfully, knowing that it gave its life to nourish you and your children's bodies. It's in teaching our kids this mentality, and a respect for nature and its resources, so we can continue to enjoy them as an ever expanding human population on this earth.
Now is the time. We must think no longer in an Us vs. Them mentality, but rather, we must think how WE can come together under a common solution where everyone benefits.