A Farm Organizer Visits Fish Country: An Alaska Journal, Part I

Severine Von Tscharner Fleming

Alaska is the only state to have coastlines on three different seas: Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. Of the state's 375 million acres, an estimated 15 million acres of soil—crawling with oversized red worms—is suitable for farming.

With record runs of shin­ing, sil­ver-flanked salmon, Alas­ka rep­re­sents the last great food com­mons in the Unit­ed States. This sus­tain­able fish­ery” surges in year­ly runs, when mil­lions of strong, red-fleshed fish race upriv­er to spawn in clean water, under the reflec­tion of end­less toothy rows of white-capped moun­tains. For years I’ve been aching to go to Alaska.

The invi­ta­tion came last spring, from the Alas­ka Marine Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil and the Alas­ka Food Pol­i­cy Coun­cil. They’d seen me speak at the BALLE (Busi­ness Alliance for Local Liv­ing Economies) con­fer­ence about my work sup­port­ing cul­tur­al infra­struc­ture for young farm­ers in the low­er 48, and want­ed me to come speak with the young fish­er­man — the next gen­er­a­tion of marine stewards.

I’ve spent the last 10 years hip deep in the young farm­ers move­ment, with the mis­sion to sup­port, pro­mote and recruit” the incom­ing gen­er­a­tion of organ­ic agrar­i­ans. I’m a cir­cuit rid­er, orga­niz­er, grass-roots doc­u­men­tar­i­an and over­all cel­e­brant of the young farm­ers move­ment; direc­tor of Green­horns, an 8‑year-old grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion; found­ing board mem­ber of Farm Hack, an appro­pri­ate tech plat­form; and co-founder of the Nation­al Young Farm­ers Coali­tion.

Pri­or to my Alaskan adven­ture, I was up in north­ern­most Maine — a part of the low­er 48 that feels almost as remote as Alas­ka — film­ing an upcom­ing episode of Our Land, the Green­horns’ new film series. We were vis­it­ing the fam­i­ly home and veg­etable-freez­ing facil­i­ty of Mara­da Cook and her sis­ter Leah, aka North­ern Girl. Their fam­i­ly has been ship­ping food out of and around Maine for the past decade with their com­pa­ny Crown of Maine Organ­ic Coop, and have just begun their adven­ture in val­ued added” root vegetables.

As I left Presque Isle, Maine for Anchor­age, Mara­da (core part­ner on our sum­mer­long Maine Sail Freight Adven­ture) laugh­ing­ly teased, Bring back a bush pilot from Alas­ka.

Man-hunt­ing was low on the list. I had (and still have) ques­tions for Alaska:

  • What can the farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty learn from the high­ly man­aged, and high­ly abun­dant com­mons of Alas­ka? Are these lessons applic­a­ble to land?
  • What do young agrar­i­ans have to learn from the gov­er­nance and pol­i­tics of a wild fishery?
  • What does a wild fish­ery have to learn from the cul­tur­al activ­i­ties of agrar­i­an organizers?

The fol­low­ing arti­cles sum­ma­rize my insights into these ques­tions while doc­u­ment­ing this once-in-a-life­time chance to study com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions of the wild fish com­mons — the aspi­ra­tions and net­work shape of a fron­tier local food scene whose high­est aim is to avoid fur­ther plun­der of their mag­nif­i­cent nat­ur­al wealth.

A view from the car. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming) 

Rid­ing it down

First, a look at the­o­ries of management.

In 1968, Gar­rett Hardin described the phe­nom­e­non of the Tragedy of the Com­monsin which gra­ziers (cow own­ers), each pur­su­ing their own self-inter­est, over-exploit a shared pas­turage, or com­mons” — lead­ing to a col­lapse of the resource.

The basic les­son was: only pri­vate prop­er­ty can pro­tect resources from deple­tion and ruin. This is the view of the Koch-broth­ers fund­ed Prop­er­ty and Envi­ron­ment Research Cen­ter (PERC)— which cur­rent­ly ques­tions the effi­ca­cy” of our nation­al parks and pub­lic lands — an inter­pre­ta­tion that affirms, when it comes to con­ser­va­tion, the mar­ket” is the only ratio­nal sys­tem for admin­is­ter­ing land.

Begin­ning in 1604, the Eng­lish empire ratio­nal­ized enclo­sure of com­mons lands based on this same log­ic. Effi­cient farm­ing meant keep­ing sheep on pri­vate prop­er­ty, as opposed to shared graz­ing areas. Obvi­ous­ly, this is a les­son that applies just as much to aquat­ic sys­tems as ter­res­tri­al ones — water and land being the two faces of nature’s economy.

But as it turns out, today both our pri­vate prop­er­ty and con­ven­tion­al farm­ing regimes — with their rearrange­ment of nat­ur­al sys­tems, water­ways and land­scape forms; with min­ing, degra­da­tion and genet­ic selec­tion — are in cri­sis. Most who study the issue rec­og­nize it can­not con­tin­ue to sus­tain our species unchanged.

So why would we try to apply pri­vate prop­er­ty log­ic to the ocean?

A dif­fer­ent perspective

Eli­nor Ostrum, win­ner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Eco­nom­ics, car­ried a dif­fer­ent mes­sage in her sem­i­nal work, Gov­ern­ing the Com­mons. Her con­clu­sions — after a career spent doc­u­ment­ing com­mon-resource based economies and soci­eties around the world — were far less com­pat­i­ble with econ­o­mized notions of indi­vid­ual self-inter­est and mar­ket-based solu­tions to which we’ve been unwit­ting­ly accul­tur­at­ed. Unlike Hardin’s exam­ple, which employed a con­coct­ed metaphor to prove a point, her work was based on actu­al study and doc­u­men­ta­tion of graz­ers and fish­er­peo­ple around the world who had man­aged (over cen­turies) to sus­tain the often del­i­cate and fluc­tu­at­ing ecosys­tems that sup­port­ed them.

She was inter­est­ed to learn how they mod­u­lat­ed indi­vid­ual self-inter­est, oppor­tunism, free-load­ing, greed and the impacts of tech­nol­o­gy on resource use. She stud­ied Alpine pas­ture sys­tems in Switzer­land, irri­ga­tion ditch­es, com­mu­ni­ties in Spain and the Philip­pines (to name a few), and dis­cov­ered the bot­tom up” rules that gov­ern both human and nature’s economies. These rules (below) and prac­tices were high­ly spe­cif­ic, but as sys­tems (not exclu­sive­ly reg­u­lat­ed by only the mar­ket, or only the state) they shared eight characteristics:

  • Define clear group boundaries.
  • Match the rules that gov­ern use of com­mon goods to local needs and conditions.
  • Ensure that those affect­ed by the rules can par­tic­i­pate in mod­i­fy­ing the rules.
  • Make sure the rule-mak­ing rights of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers are respect­ed by out­side authorities.
  • Devel­op a sys­tem, car­ried out by com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, for mon­i­tor­ing each member’s behavior.
  • Use grad­u­at­ed sanc­tions for rule violators.
  • Pro­vide acces­si­ble, low-cost means for dis­pute resolution.
  • Build respon­si­bil­i­ty for gov­ern­ing the com­mon resource in nest­ed tiers from the low­est lev­el up to the entire inter­con­nect­ed system.

Her con­clu­sion, after a career spent observ­ing sys­tem dynam­ics, was that nei­ther the state nor the mar­ket alone could result in the kind of adap­tive, fluc­tu­at­ing gov­er­nance that these sys­tems required for sus­tained health.

What this infers is that direct, stakeholder/​practitioner engage­ment with gov­er­nance sys­tems is cru­cial to the sus­tained health of ecosys­tems. In oth­er words, the reg­u­la­tion of the envi­ron­ment can­not be left only to the state, nor only to corporations.

Ostrum had won­der­ful words to describe the sys­tems that did work — fea­tures of sub­sidiar­i­ty, a pol­yarchy and poly­cen­tric gov­er­nance with mul­ti­ple agents of con­trol, and peo­ple local­ly embed­ded and in direct con­tact with the nat­ur­al sys­tem itself.

My study of Ostrum, pri­or to my trip, had been focused on issues of land access as it relates to respon­si­ble farm­ing and how com­mu­ni­ty own­er­ship of cru­cial farm­land resources can be struc­tured to max­i­mize stew­ard­ship by con­strain­ing use rights.” (See the Agrar­i­an Trust) But these lessons apply equal­ly to range­land man­agers, farm­ers and fish­er peo­ple. Per­haps look­ing across con­texts at one anoth­er might help us see our rel­a­tive predicaments.

A framed por­trait of a Homer man and his hal­ibut. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming)

The Alaskan commons

Turns out the last sus­tain­able fish­ery” in the world, is the last fron­tier we’ve got— the wildest of our com­mon pool” resources and a food source that approach­es the abun­dance of the buf­fa­lo. Unlike many com­mons, it seems to have avoid­ed tragedy because of mas­sive struc­tur­al effort. Unlike suc­cess­ful com­mons stud­ied by Eli­nor Ostrum, this com­mons is admin­is­trat­ed by the state, specif­i­cal­ly the Alas­ka Depart­ment of Fish and Game and the Pacif­ic Fish­ery Man­age­ment Coun­cil, as part of the Mag­nu­son-Stevens Act that has man­dat­ed sus­tain­able yield” man­age­ment of fish­eries since 1976.

Thus far, the wild Alas­ka salmon fish­ery has been able (through bio­log­i­cal man­age­ment pro­grams paid for in large-part by state oil) to thwart the trend towards degra­da­tion that we’ve seen in so many oth­er ecosys­tems and so many oth­er fisheries.

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After a breath­tak­ing jour­ney down fjords and giant riv­er val­leys, I arrived in Homer for the First Annu­al Homer Hal­ibut Fes­ti­val. Held on Sep­tem­ber 19, my job was to give a talk to young fish­er­men and trans­mit lessons from the young farmer move­ment.” The Alas­ka Marine Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil, and a grow­ing inter­na­tion­al coali­tion of fish­work­ers, com­mu­ni­ty fish­eries and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed fish­er peo­ple believe that a fleet of small­er, local­ly-owned boats makes for a sus­tain­able place-based econ­o­my com­prised of those who will defend the water that feeds from pol­lu­tion, min­ing and over­fish­ing. What a plea­sure to be host­ed by orga­niz­ers with a base­ment full of frozen fish, a prac­ti­cal approach and who hap­pen to be expert jun­ket-coor­di­na­tors. (Here is a link to some of the local press atten­tion my vis­it received.)

A vol­un­teer serves lunch at the First Annu­al Homer Hal­libut Fes­ti­val. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming) 

Under the sea

For many ter­res­tri­als, and cer­tain­ly for me, the ocean and fish­eries are a for­eign place. We can­not see into the sea and don’t know much at all about what goes on there, except per­haps famil­iar­i­ty with the blan­ket-term over-fish­ing.” Young agrar­i­ans of the range­land know well that a blan­ket cri­tique — that the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment and For­est Service’s poli­cies lead to over-graz­ing,” for exam­ple — is not enough. Indeed after decades of hand­ing over min­ing, drilling, graz­ing and min­er­al rights on pub­lic lands, there’s a flank of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment call­ing for pri­va­ti­za­tion of over 400 mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands. Anoth­er flank, the Rain­for­est Action Net­work, is call­ing for a mora­to­ri­um on the sale of min­er­al rights on pub­lic lands.

We need to look more close­ly. We need to sur­vey what we already know. And we need to build from there.

Some of us have fol­lowed the cam­paigns against fac­to­ry fish—the Cost­co vic­to­ry against GMO salmon, GMO soy oil being sold as pel­letized fish food and the pol­lu­tion caused by fish farms. And we have heard hype about aqua­cul­ture projects and been con­found­ed by this glam­or­iza­tion of inter­na­tion­al fish farm devel­op­ment projects. We use kelp sup­ple­ments for our dairy ani­mals and soil mix, but don’t know much about the con­tro­ver­sy behind them. For the most part, we aren’t much con­nect­ed as pro­duc­ers with fish­er peo­ple whose fish-meal we farm­ers buy. (I hope this arti­cle may woo a few young farm­ers to study across the bound­ary of the seashore and help us dis­cov­er our com­mon causes.)

So, what’s the dif­fer­ence between a well man­aged and a poor­ly man­aged com­mons?

Suc­cess and failure

Farm­ers, farm­land, food com­mu­ni­ties and economies share much in com­mon with fish­er­men and fish­eries. We share an ecosys­tem. We share the water cycle. And we share an eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ship with hydrol­o­gy, geol­o­gy, topog­ra­phy, and the depo­si­tion of silts and nutri­ents over eons. Farm­ers and fish­ers face many sim­i­lar dilem­mas, the mar­ket and cli­mate not least among them. Where incom­ing farm­ers strug­gle with access to land and cap­i­tal, fish­ers face a gray­ing of the fleet and high bar­ri­ers for new entrants into a com­mon pool resource with declin­ing nat­ur­al cap­i­tal. Recent fish­ery col­laps­es have seen a con­trac­tion in the fish­ing fleet, con­sol­i­da­tion, for­eign invest­ment and a new kind of share-cropping.

From a gov­er­nance per­spec­tive, domes­ti­cat­ed lands have a more direct human feed­back loop than the wild ocean — and yet, many of the recent pri­va­ti­za­tion rules” in fish­eries apply land log­ic” to a wild, under­wa­ter sys­tem far beyond our com­pre­hen­sion. (But even then, look how lit­tle we curb our poor man­age­ment of the land, even when its con­se­quences are star­ing us in the face — over-graz­ing, soil ero­sion, flood­ing, soil com­paction, etc.) Imag­ine what habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion hap­pens below the sur­face of the ocean, in the for­eign aquat­ic. Who will speak for the fish? As my new favorite author, Paul Molyneaux, says, fish have over 90 per­cent infant mor­tal­i­ty, 100 per­cent illit­er­a­cy, zero health­care and no prop­er­ty rights!”

Young fish­er­man, old homesteaders

As it stands, the fleet is gray­ing. Accord­ing to an Alas­ka Sea Grant report, the aver­age age of fish­er­man is sim­i­lar to that of farm­ers, hov­er­ing around 65. Sim­i­lar to the quandary faced by young farm­ers look­ing for afford­able farm­land, young fish­er­men strug­gle to work them­selves into own­er­ship” in the way that was pos­si­ble in the 1970s and 1980s. Organ­ic farming’s back to the lan­ders” and the ear­ly entrants into the Alaskan Fish­ery found cheap ter­ri­to­ry in which to work. Since those hey­days, like the price of land, fish­ing per­mits, boats, fuel, nets and dock­ing fees have all risen with­out a cor­re­spond­ing rise in the price of the actu­al fish caught or food grown.

A pile of (expen­sive) fish­ing nets. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming)

Like young farm­ers, young fish­er­men point to the unjus­ti­fied infla­tion in the prices of fish­ing per­mits and absen­tee per­mit own­ers tak­ing ever larg­er cuts of the fish­eries quo­tas. They note that these cre­ate the incen­tive to fish a greater and greater vol­ume, which dri­ves the prices still low­er. In a pro­tect­ed fish­ery, there are only so many days, or pounds, that are per­mis­si­ble. But rid­ing hard up into reg­u­la­tions set by biol­o­gists and state reg­u­la­tors is no way to grow a con­ser­va­tion-mind­ed fish­er gen­er­a­tion.” Redefin­ing what sub­sis­tence fish­ing means to include not just food, but income gen­er­a­tion as well is one option. This, how­ev­er, this would be very risky.

In the real word, these price quan­daries dri­ve fish­er­men and aspir­ing fish­er-peo­ple to a patch­work of income streams. Strate­gies for farm­ers include leas­ing, direct mar­ket­ing, off-farm income and insti­tu­tion­al part­ner­ships. Strate­gies for young fish­er­man include off-fish sea­son income, direct and val­ue-added mar­ket­ing, diver­si­fy­ing per­mits, and work­ing oth­er people’s boats and fish­ing rights. Though there are excep­tions to the rule, for struc­tur­al rea­sons nei­ther of these options offer the prospect of a decent liveli­hood as the gen­er­a­tional skew clear­ly indicates.

Old­er fish­er­man, like old­er farm­ers, may scratch their heads and won­der why the young green­horns aren’t will­ing to boot­strap in, but there is no short­age of young blood milling around the dock or will­ing to work as deck­hands — they just aren’t mak­ing it as ves­sel own­ers and captains.

A leg­is­la­tor and a fish­eries trust

In atten­dance at my Hal­ibut Fes­ti­val talk was a diminu­tive, clean-clothed char­ac­ter in wire-rimmed glass­es. He didn’t look like a fish­er­man, but was the most obvi­ous­ly atten­tive and inci­sive voice regard­ing fish­ery policy.

Turns out he, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, is a 26-year-old state rep from Sit­ka who dropped out of Yale to return home and get involved in local gov­ern­ment. His pri­ma­ry pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is the health of the fish­ery and the com­mu­ni­ty it sup­ports. He’s involved in a scheme worth look­ing at— a scheme that bypass­es many of the issues asso­ci­at­ed with pri­va­tized quo­ta, con­sol­i­da­tion and absen­tee own­er­ship. It’s called the Sus­tain­able Fish­eries Trust.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Demo­c­rat, was elect­ed to the Alas­ka House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 2012. (Pho­to: akde​moc​rats​.org)

Sim­i­lar to a com­mu­ni­ty land trust, where farm­land is held in com­mu­ni­ty own­er­ship and its use rights” are leased by farm­ers, Sus­tain­able Fish­eries Trust shares the log­ic of com­mons-based gov­er­nance. In the case of the fish­ery, it is the quo­ta and the right to fish that is owned as a com­mu­ni­ty. This quo­ta is leased exclu­sive­ly to local, young, new entrant or con­ser­va­tion-mind­ed fish­er peo­ple who can bring the fish and wealth cre­at­ed ashore to the places clos­est to the resource. In this way too, the eco­nom­ic pow­er of the fish stays firm­ly sit­u­at­ed in local pol­i­tics and in the hands of those polit­i­cal con­stituents who share the home geog­ra­phy with its habitat.

(To read An Alas­ka Jour­nal Part II, click here)

Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Flem­ing, a mem­ber of the Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times Board of Edi­tors, is the founder and direc­tor of Green­horns, a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished in 2007 that pro­motes, sup­ports and recruits young farmers.
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