While the picture appears bleak for several Alaskan fisheries, resource advocates urge an end to crisis-based management, and a more traditional perspective on the ecosystem in general. “And now we’re managing as if we’re in this little time slot, we’re not thinking enough about the past and not thinking enough about the future,” says Linda Behnken. “Except for someone like Harvey (Kitka), who has a viewpoint informed by generational knowledge being passed on from time immemorial, we all fall prey to thinking it all started when we first arrived. And that becomes our baseline.” In the photo: In a ceremony held every spring, Herring Rock receives a blessing of water from the major rivers and streams that empty into Sitka Sound. (KCAW/Woolsey)

Although a number of Alaska’s fisheries have collapsed, or are otherwise under threat, some of the people most deeply involved in fishing advocacy believe that recovery is not just possible, but necessary to the well-being of our communities and our planet.

KCAW in Sitka recently held a one-hour forum on the Future of Fishing (12-16-22), and the three panelists all found reasons to be hopeful that continued research, traditional knowledge, and historical perspective will all play a role in charting a path to the future.

Harvey Kitka is a lifelong Sitkan, whose father was a commercial seiner around the time of statehood, when fishermen were paid by the fish, rather than by the pound. His grandfather seined prior to the arrival of hydraulics, and pulled the weighted webbing by hand.

As an indigenous Alaskan, Kitka has one foot in a millenia-old subsistence tradition, but both eyes on the future. He’s uniquely positioned to bring deep perspective to policy decisions, and he’s been no stranger to the testimony table at the state Board of Fisheries. He is an advocate for rebuilding Southeast herring stocks.

“I think one of the first satellites that took pictures of the Earth, at one time took a picture of Baranof Island,” said Kitka. “And it just happened to be the time when the herring were spawning. And it really shocked me to look at that picture and see that around the whole island was white with herring spawn. And now it’s just Sitka Sound, basically.”

“I would say the future of fishing depends on a fair measure of humility, really” said Linda Behnken, “We are seeing so many changes in our ecosystem right now, because of climate change.”

Behnken is the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. She’s been on both sides of the policy table, having served nine years on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. 

 “I think  we all suffer from –  except for someone like Harvey, who has these connections from time immemorial, and his viewpoint informed by generational knowledge being passed on – we all fall prey to thinking it all started when we first arrived. And that becomes our baseline. And I’m not just talking about herring,  I think that happens in a lot of arenas. And so if you start managing a commercial fishery, and this is the abundance – we’re looking at the fourth highest –  that seems huge, right, because it’s the fourth highest, but if you have Harvey’s perspective, and you have seen what herring stocks might have been back before the herring reduction plants, you really have a different baseline.”

Behnken draws parallels between Sitka Sound herring and the crisis in far Western Alaska. Only five years ago, the region’s commercial fisheries appeared robust. The rapid change demonstrates just how short a five-year window is.

“I’m thinking a lot about what’s going on right now in the Bering Sea, with crab with salmon, where we’ve seen these huge population crashes,” said Behnken, “and what that’s meant for the people who depend on those resources, whether they are the subsistence people of the Yukon, or the commercial crab fleet that’s just lost everything. That, yeah, the system’s changing, but there was a long time of people depending on those resources, watching things change with kind of glacial timing of receding and advancing  – but adapting. And now we’re managing as if we’re in this little time slot, we’re not thinking enough about the past and not thinking enough about the future. And with the changes might be bringing.”

Heather Bauscher chairs the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee, and has become a recognized face at both the Board of Fish and North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Bauscher represents a younger generation of Alaskans, equally concerned with community sustainability and the fisheries. The future that Behnken and Kitka are talking about is her future

“We’re not in the position that they are in out west,” said Bauscher. “But if we can’t get a handle on some of these threats to the resource, we might be in a position like that down the road. And I want to second what Linda said about the time spent at the meeting, the testimony was absolutely incredible. And I’m not as familiar with the (North Pacific Fisheries Management) Council process. This was a really big learning opportunity for me. And I’m grateful to people like Linda and like Harvey, that have been my mentors in these processes, whether it’s the Council or the state process or the subsistence process over the years, but it was a strong showing of voices from all of coastal rural Alaska and especially some strong voices from Southeast from both indigenous communities and commercial fishing. So, you know, despite the things that we’re up against, it’s always really inspiring to witness that. And remember that there is a growing movement on these things.”

Bauscher believes it’s possible to bring a new level of data to the policy table – something more than graphs and tables that go no farther back than statehood. Scientists tend to rely on things they can count, but so much of the observable world is full of information that’s been impossible to quantify. Bauscher is helping spread the word about an app called “Skipper Science,” originally developed by the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, that exponentially expands data collection in Alaska’s fisheries.

“So each year we’ve done this,” said Bauscher, “all these observations get standardized and become part of this report that we can hand off, and we finally successfully have proven to the different agencies that fishermen are capable of collecting this data. So one of the brand new projects, circling back to sablefish, we’ve been working with Seafood Producers Cooperative and local longline fishermen in Southeast Alaska to collect stomach samples that they then photograph through the app and upload, and it becomes part of a data set that (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) NOAA is going to be using to do full ecosystem analysis of the Gulf of Alaska, which is also pushing management towards ecosystem-based analysis and giving local fishermen a direct hand in. And we’re even paying (fishermen) them for it.”

When everyone who fishes has the ability to contribute information to fisheries research, Alaska’s policy makers will have a far broader perspective to draw on than they do now, and perhaps more courage to act for long-term benefits.

This will be a full-circle moment for Harvey Kitka, who has never needed an app to understand the natural world, and how best to manage it.

“Back in the 50’s and early 60’s we had 50-, 60-, 70-pound (chinook) fish being caught in Sitka Sound,” said Kitka. “Now we’re lucky to see a 30-pounder. What a world of difference in size and things. It would be nice to know what actually happened out there in the ocean. When only when only the herring were left (and other forage fish species gone) and this is one of the things I was so concerned about: The only thing that man controls is what we take, and if we don’t keep track of what’s happening in the natural cycle and try to adjust ourselves to, we’ll be hurting ourselves in the long run.”