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

Severine Von Tscharner Fleming

Salmon is the most valuable commercial fishery managed by the State of Alaska. Fewer than one million acres (of Alaska's 365 million) are farmed.

Edi­tor’s note: Sev­er­ine Von Tscharnar Flem­ing was invit­ed to Alas­ka to study the com­mons and speak to young peo­ple on behalf of the Alas­ka Marine Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil and the Alas­ka Food Pol­i­cy Coun­cil. Part two of her three part report con­tin­ues here. (Read An Alas­ka Jour­nal Part I)

What is it about the ruth­less sea? An accul­tur­a­tion in agri­cul­tur­al land­scapes, full of flower buds, dew­drops, fresh hay, kit­tens and baby lambs can­not pre­pare you for the hard, chill­ing mechan­ics of a mech­a­nized fish har­vest. To my ten­der agrar­i­an eyes, the fish­ing busi­ness is bru­tal. We may call them stew­ards of the ocean” but lets face it — they are killing fish.

The ves­sels them­selves vary a lot in size — from com­bine, to dump truck to barn size — with hydraulics over­head and $60,000-plus nets piled up wait­ing for use. The fish get hauled in and killed by the dozens of tons by hulk­ing large steel ves­sels — machines out back, over­head, swing­ing in the air, these ves­sels bare­ly accom­mo­date the needs of the humans aboard. I think it must be like liv­ing inside a cot­ton gin, with wave-action. This fish­ery is for real — a har­bor full of boats, ware­hous­es, con­tainer­ized freez­ers, semis, box trucks and ice machines on such a scale as you can­not imag­ine. This is no rinky-dink out­fit. But then the scale of the land­scape (com­pared to a place like Maine) means that these boats are dwarfed by the har­bor they’re moored in, look­ing like lit­tle met­al toys.

The aver­age size of a salmon boat, accord­ing to the Alas­ka Seafood Mar­ket­ing Insti­tute, is 37 feet. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming)

Food man­age­ment

Reg­u­la­tors work­ing close­ly with biol­o­gists and fish-coun­ters are cred­it­ed with man­ag­ing the resource,” the health­i­est salmon runs and fish­eries in the world. No one can fish until the fish-coun­ters are sat­is­fied that enough salmon have returned upriv­er to repro­duce. Only then can the fish­ing begin. Of course, more than the tech­ni­cians, it’s the unedit­ed land­scape that’s to blame for all the fish — vast head­wa­ters of steep sloped for­est land­scape, the nat­ur­al wealth of ocean and uplands com­bine to sup­port this mega-ecosys­tem. Alaskans evoke “ the resource” fre­quent­ly in con­ver­sa­tion, and express pride in its guardian­ship. Indeed, one could argue that the ecosys­tem is opti­mized for salmon above oth­er species. Each year, the infu­sion of mil­lions of dol­lars into state-run smolt (baby salmon) hatch­eries yields fer­til­ized eggs by the mul­ti­mil­lions that get released into the ecosys­tem. The manip­u­la­tion of spawn takes a few forms, from fer­til­iz­ing ponds to fat­ten up the zoo­plank­ton which feed the baby fish, to notch­ing beaver dams to ensure the return­ing salmon can get up to their spawn­ing grounds, to elab­o­rate fish lad­ders across dams and roads that cut up the habitat.

These inter­ven­tions on behalf of the salmon rep­re­sent sci­en­tif­ic excel­lence” and mas­sive pub­lic invest­ment in the health and dura­bil­i­ty of the fish­ery. But they are by no means nat­ur­al.” Just to put the num­bers in con­text, these non-prof­it hatch­eries sell the right to fish the runs they sup­port in order to pay for their own oper­a­tions. The annu­al income they’re look­ing at (accord­ing to the brochure I picked up dur­ing my slide show there) was $2.9 mil­lion. That’s a lot of fish!

Man­age­ment involves a com­plex algo­rithm of stew­ard­ship and finance, and one key to its stew­ard­ship is that it’s shield­ed from glob­al plun­der. Until the Mag­nu­son-Stevens Act of 1976, for­eign ves­sels fished off the coast of Alas­ka with hard­ly any over­sight or restraint. In the 1950s, the threat to their fish­eries gave Alaskans incen­tive to fight for state­hood in order to pro­tect them­selves from plun­der, and this leg­is­la­tion cre­at­ed a frame­work and man­date to man­age for sus­tain­able yield.” It makes sense that a nation of our scale would cre­ate bound­aries and struc­tur­al efforts to ensure our access to one of the worlds most nutri­tious foods — the wild salmon. And the anadro­mous fish­ery has been pro­tect­ed and adju­di­cat­ed for our pub­lic ben­e­fit by decades of lit­i­ga­tion between var­i­ous con­stituen­cies, natives, rur­al pop­u­la­tions, sub­sis­tence fish­ers and sports fishers.

The labor

Fish pro­cess­ing is wet, cold-fin­gered work. Fil­let­ing, gut­ting, wash­ing, pack­ing, vac­u­um seal­ing. The suck pop sound of a freez­er door lurched open, alu­minum cast­ers, the slap of fish-heads into the slop buck­et, hot hood­ed teenagers with curved knifes, show-off phys­i­cal­i­ty and scrawly hand­writ­ing. The water in the har­bor is misty, with oily sheen, fil­a­ments of dead algae and paint flakes. A kiosk shows learn­ing videos” about ocean acidification.

The state seafood indus­try con­tributes 78,500 jobs to the Alaskan econ­o­my and an esti­mat­ed $5.8 bil­lion annu­al­ly. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming)

This seems like a cru­cial moment to get involved with the cul­ture and engage the idioms and atti­tudes of these young guys on the fish scene. Their atti­tudes, enti­tle­ment, con­ser­va­tion eth­ic, knowl­edge of the habi­tat, fish-size base­lines and expec­ta­tions of remu­ner­a­tion all con­sti­tute a dock­side cul­ture. Do they have the atti­tude of debt, diesel and a fat pay­day — like those boom-town, high-school lob­ster­men in Maine? Is it the machis­mo of a Most Dan­ger­ous Job” like the Bering Sea crab­bers, tum­bled on the biggest seas? Is it a bit like a rodeo, where the man­li­ness and scenery con­spire to keep labor costs low, and young blood flood­ing in the gates? These are ques­tions I can­not defin­i­tive­ly answer — but it seems so.

The Peb­ble Mine

Right in the glo­ri­ous head­wa­ter armpit of a penin­su­la that casts its scat­ter far out into the Bering Bea lies a mas­sive, poi­so­nous pock­et of gold. This is one of the largest plays” in the world of gold, cop­per and molyb­de­num (a high­ly sought after met­al used in mak­ing elec­tron­ics). In a sto­ry that feels like a Bat­man car­toon, Peb­ble Mine is backed by incred­i­ble hulks of inter­na­tion­al finance: Anglo Amer­i­can and North­ern Dynasty. These com­pa­nies, who are among the largest min­ing con­cerns in the world, want to build one of the largest mines in the world in the great (and one of the last) remain­ing Salmon runs of the world. Thus far the bat­tle to stop Peb­ble Mine has waged for more than 8 years — gal­va­niz­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ists, salmon fish­er­men and recre­ation­al users, most of whom live in the rich ecosystem.

Map of the pro­posed Peb­ble Mine. (Image: Flickr)

Bore­al exper­i­ment station

One of the talks I gave was 36 miles north of Anchor­age, in Palmer, at the load­ing dock/​processing area of the Matanus­ka Exper­i­ment Farm. Flanked by an under­ground rab­bits war­ren of pota­to stor­age caves, with exper­i­men­tal crops care­ful­ly select­ed for the food bank, it was a facil­i­ty built for many dozens of state-paid work­ers. The proud offi­cial­dom of framed notices and gov­ern­ment posters in the long hall­way fed into large but aban­doned-smelling class­rooms and soil test­ing labs, with equip­ment from the 1980s and ear­li­er. The exper­i­ment sta­tion is most­ly mori­bund now, the equip­ment — vehi­cles, heat­ed green­hous­es, barns, ware­hous­es of grain/​potato equip­ment, trac­tors and tillage imple­ments — all dor­mant. It’s capa­bly and lov­ing­ly stew­ard­ed by a skele­ton crew who over­see tri­als of the indige­nous super­food rho­di­o­la and a large col­lec­tion of rhubarb vari­eties from around the world. Giv­en our chang­ing cli­mate, it seems like these kinds of facil­i­ties could play a part in exper­i­men­tal crop­ping sys­tems— learn­ing ahead of the curve what crops will grow in our north­ern­most lat­i­tudes, places many cli­mate sci­en­tists think will soon see new rel­e­vance as pro­duc­tive ecosystems.

A child has a look around the the Matanus­ka Exper­i­ment Farm, part of the Agri­cul­ture & Forestry Exper­i­ment Sta­tion. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming)

Liv­ing the sub­sis­tence dream

Far up-riv­er in the Man­tanus­ka Val­ley, in the Chick­aloon Val­ley, I vis­tit­ed for­mer high-alti­tude trekker, avalanche expert and home­stead farmer, Allie Bark­er at Chugach Farm. Allie runs a mar­ket gar­den with pigs and chick­ens — all off grid. She sells pick­les at mar­kets in Anchor­age, and pre­serves a cave-full of self-suf­fi­cien­cy sup­plies includ­ing canned salmon, sauer­kraut, fer­ment­ed blue­ber­ries, hon­ey, canned moose, squash­es and stor­age cab­bages. She and her part­ner live off the land — wild and domes­ti­cat­ed — the sub­sis­tence dream. As I came to vis­it, she was launch­ing her part­ner Jed off into the riv­er in an inflat­able boat to hunt moose. Here, in the uplands of Alaska’s most agri­cul­tur­al val­ley, they are fight­ing one of the largest coal min­ing com­pa­nies in the world, try­ing to raise aware­ness that the open pit coal mine would blow dust on the best ground for Alaskan food secu­ri­ty. Clear­ly, the com­mons needs more defenders.

Allie Bark­er and Jed Work­man on Chugach Farm. (Pho­to: spe​nards​farm​ers​mar​ket​.org)

Look­ing toward our future

On land, we’re learn­ing more and more about land­scape recov­ery, restora­tion, scar tis­sue and resid­ual tox­i­c­i­ty. We’re learn­ing that nat­ur­al cap­i­tal, when dimin­ished by extrac­tion, under­goes fun­da­men­tal changes that reduce com­plex­i­ty and bio­log­i­cal poten­tial, often for decades or scores of decades. We can see how rebound­ing hap­pens, some places slow­ly, some more quickly.

In the young farm­ers move­ment, more and more of us are enter­ing the field with reform on our minds, with an aim to heal land, restore wild-lands, and reclaim a bet­ter bal­ance between the domes­tic and self-willed ecosys­tems. I won­der if the incom­ing gen­er­a­tion of young fish­er­man, could team up with the mar­kets we’ve cre­at­ed — if they can ade­quate­ly artic­u­late their con­ser­va­tion eth­ic to the mar­ket­place, and whether direct sales, new eco­nom­ic mod­els and eco­log­i­cal­ly based eval­u­a­tion of fish-har­vest can give these play­ers a fair-deal in the mar­ket­place. Could every CSA in the low­er 48-Green­horns net­work make con­nec­tion with a com­mu­ni­ty fish­ery, and help dis­trib­ute fish at a fair price and large-enough vol­ume to our already ded­i­cat­ed consumers?

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Land and sea share the com­mons of ecosys­tem as a foun­da­tion. We think of land as pri­vate and water as pub­lic, but in fact more than one-quar­ter of U.S. acreage is pub­lic land, and increas­ing­ly the ocean floor, the right to fish and even the sea­weed grow­ing on the wild shore are becom­ing pri­va­tized. Con­fronting the com­mon conun­drum of land access, has made me a stu­dent of the com­mons and its management.

The cal­lus-like shapes extrac­tive cap­i­tal­ism can inspire

Alaska’s license plates say the last fron­tier.” Fron­tier sug­gests the edge of civ­i­liza­tion, and the begin­ning of the wild-lands. Fron­tier economies have their own pecu­liar log­ic and life­way — lum­ber camps, mine camps, boom­towns — in Alaska’s case this is dom­i­nat­ed by petro­le­um. With antlers stacked in hip-high heaps besides the hasti­ly built cab­ins and sheds, it felt like every sin­gle road we trav­eled was get­ting widened or repaved, and every sin­gle farmer we met was fight­ing a mine project. This is the fish­ery that inspired state­hood and carved out sov­er­eign­ty in a 200-mile zone around the splayed coast­line exclu­sive­ly for U.S. fish­ing inter­ests. Alas­ka, as an icon of wilder­ness, seems like a large, white-capped cap­il­lary of resource exchange. Most of what makes the econ­o­my tick and tock, is what gets flown, shipped, piped and pumped out of here.

A farmer in the field. (Pho­to: Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming)

Econ­o­my and Ecology

Anchor­age is a mighty big city. Eat wild fish!” read the bill­boards and yet, in the super­mar­kets here there is shrimp from Mex­i­co, farmed fish from Chile and not much in the way of local veg­eta­bles. It’s very clear that this econ­o­my is built on resource extrac­tion. Set­tle­ment pat­terns reflect the dis­tor­tion. The major­i­ty of food eat­en in Alas­ka is flown or barged in from the low­er 48 and deliv­ered to remote areas by bush plane. Most places set­tled by humans before the age of petro­le­um have a struc­ture that doesn’t require it quite so dra­mat­i­cal­ly. As a result of the ener­gy-seek­ing econ­o­my, there are hard­ly any farms here rel­a­tive to pop­u­la­tion. Indeed, most of the ter­rain is hard­ly hab­it­able for a land-based econ­o­my, except for this extreme import-dri­ven sup­ply chain that’s jus­ti­fied by mining.

Old­er places, in terms of human set­tle­ment, are usu­al­ly those ori­ent­ed around fish­ing and farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties. These places and geo­gra­phies often make more eco­log­i­cal sense in many ways — har­bors become ports, moun­tains become head­wa­ters, rivers become cor­ri­dors of trade. These kinds of places also make more sense from the per­spec­tive of an agrar­i­an democ­ra­cy. Strange bed­fel­lows join in alliance against a tox­ic mine. But what log­ic of con­ser­va­tion can work in a tum­bling cas­cade of bio­log­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal sys­tems whose mem­bers have nei­ther votes, nor dol­lars, nor lobbyists?

(To read an Alas­ka Jour­nal Part III, 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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