Fisherman, wife and mother, Yale graduate, national policy maker, former international commissioner and funding whiz Linda Behnken of Sitka has received a $250,000 cash award from the Heinz Family Foundation for her work promoting sustainable fishing practices and futures for Alaska harvesters and coastal communities.
Behnken began fishing in Alaska in 1982 to earn money for college. After earning a master’s degree at Yale, she returned to skipper her own boat. Not long after, she took the helm as executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) and has made favorable waves in Alaska and nationally ever since.
Under her leadership, ALFA was successful in securing a ban on trawling in waters off Southeast Alaska, in an area covering over 100,000 square miles.
ALFA’s Fishery Conservation Network forged ongoing partnerships between small boat fishermen and scientists to find ways to reduce whale interactions with fishing gear, map the ocean floor, avoid bycatch, and test electronic monitoring procedures.
To build recruitment for the profession, the ALFA team created a Young Fishermen’s Initiative and launched a crew apprentice training program. Behnken also co-founded the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust that helps young fishermen overcome the high costs of entry through a Local Fish Fund where repayments are based on the price of their catches.
ALFA was the first in Alaska to create a community-supported fishery called Alaskans Own, a subscription-based program in which customers pre-order a suite of local catches. Most recently, in response to the covid pandemic and low salmon returns around the state, Alaskans Own helped coordinate donations and delivery of thousands of pounds of fish to families and elders throughout Southeast and at Chignik.
At the national level, because there are no federal programs dedicated to training the next generation of fishermen (unlike farmers and ranchers), ALFA joined forces with the Fishing Communities Coalition to push for the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, which (if passed) would provide funding, training and education.
Behnken also has served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and as a U.S. Commissioner on the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
“Linda’s success in achieving collaboration between scientists, industry, and the fishermen who work the ocean for their livelihood is a model for effective environmental change,” said Teresa Heinz, Chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation. “Her efforts to drive policy and practices that protect the stability of Alaska’s coastal fishing communities and the ocean ecosystem on which they depend not only give us hope, they demonstrate what is possible when seemingly competing interests work together.”
Linda Behnken fishes commercially, now with her husband and two sons.