Linda Behnken in front of the log home that she and her husband built in Sitka. Behnken has been commercial fishing in Alaska since 1982. “I came up on the ferry…in March and decided by the time I got off the ferry that I was going to live here,” Behnken said. “The ride up from Seattle to Sitka is so spectacular and the mountains get bigger and it gets wilder and I just loved it.” (KCAW/Erin McKinstry)

The Heinz Family Foundation announced the winners of the twenty-fifth annual Heinz Awards on Tuesday (10-13-20), and the director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association was among them. Sitka’s Linda Behnken was one of seven individuals honored with the prestigious award, which includes a $250,000 unrestricted cash prize, for her work as a sustainable fisheries advocate.

When I arrive at the log cabin that Linda Behnken and her husband built themselves, Behnken’s listening in to a North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, which is responsible for developing policy for Alaska’s federal fisheries.

She served on the council for nine years and has her phone at the ready in case a current council member wants to seek her advice. And that’s just one of many responsibilities that Behnken shoulders. In her main job, she advocates for small fishermen and sustainable fisheries as director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association or ALFA. She and her husband also commercial fish with their two kids on their nearly 40-foot troller and longliner, the Woodstock. 

She’s so busy that when the president of the Heinz Endowments, Grant Oliphant, tried to get in touch with her this spring, it took multiple tries.

“I love the fact that when I was calling her to let her know about this, you know, we couldn’t connect for days because she was at sea fishing,” Oliphant said in a phone interview. “And I can tell you I haven’t encountered that before.”

When he did reach her, Behnken said she was practically speechless and humbled. She wished she could share the recognition with co-workers, fishermen and partner organizations.

“I think at one point I said are you sure you mean me?” she laughed.

The Heinz Awards were created in memory of the late Sen. John Heinz to honor creative individuals working to solve problems. Nominations come from a nationwide network of anonymous individuals. Behnken received this year’s environment award. Oliphant said she was chosen for her work with ALFA and other partners to protect the livelihoods of small fishermen, the local economies that rely on them, and the health of fisheries for future generations.

“So we loved the mix of thinking and doing that she embodies, and we also loved the willingness to work with everybody on behalf of the common good,” Oliphant said.

Behnken first came to Alaska in the early 80s when she was still in college. She took the ferry up in March, and by the time she disembarked in Sitka, she knew her relationship with the place was permanent. She crewed on fishing boats for years, and then she bought her own boat in 1991.

“One of the things that always impressed me fishing was how knowledgeable so many fishermen were about fisheries policy and about taking care of the ocean, taking care of the habitat, taking care of the forest,” Behnken said. “So I learned a lot about that aspect.”

While working on the water, she started noticing things that troubled her, like giant plastic bags thrown overboard by cruise ships and large-scale fishing operations that impacted marine ecosystems.

“[I] fished near trawlers and experienced what that was doing to the ocean,” she said.

Those observations pushed Behnken to earn a graduate degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and then start her work at ALFA. Since then, she’s accomplished a lot, from successfully advocating for a ban on trawling in Southeast Alaska to helping establish the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, which provides training and resources for young people interested in commercial fishing, to starting Alaskans Own, a community supported fishery that sells seafood shares around the region.

“Mostly what drives me is just my passion for the ocean and for small-scale fisheries. And for trying to make sure there’s a place for the next generation of people to have the same opportunities I’ve had,” she said. “I mean, for me, it’s been a great way of life, and I just want that to be there for my kids and other people’s kids.”

She’s still not entirely sure what she’ll do with the hefty cash prize, but plans to donate some to the organizations she helped found and to help pay to put her two kids through college.

“It’s just been a lot of years where fishing paid for my time involved in fisheries management, so that’s a nice piece to be able to give back to my family that’s put up with me being gone so much and being busy so much,” she said.

The large monetary award is meant to bring attention to work like Behnken’s and help people recognize its social value, Oliphant said. And to help compensate for the big personal sacrifices that many people fighting for societal change have to make.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.