Fish is a fighting word no matter what coast you home port in, what kind of metal or mesh you put in the water. There’s always something between you and making that landing — the weather, the water, the fish itself or the politics of its capture.
I live and commercial fish in a region of Alaska particularly known for its fish wars. The Kenai Peninsula is on the road system, with Homer at the end of it. It’s ideal for accessing both commercial and recreational fisheries; we can ship out fresh catch in short order, and tourists can park their rental cars and campers and step easily onto a guide boat or river bank. It has the basics of convenience, with a wilderness at your fingertips.
Like anything precious, over the years it’s made us both popular and polarized, and I grew up with the innate knowledge that we were a fishing people, but with a line down the middle of us — the one between commercial fishermen and sportsmen. Neighbor to neighbor, I would say most of us understand the value of a diversified working waterfront. That the public needs myriad ways to gain value from this incredible resource — through food, economy, culture and recreation. Our state constitution reflects that, and we’ve worked hard to protect it. But the top tier power struggle for access easily leaves that value behind, a trend exacerbated in recent history and mirrored up the food chain. From local fishery to national stage, in varying degrees across the country, fishermen are willing to fight their opposing sector into oblivion, convinced of a certain righteousness.
If there’s anything I hope my generation is able to improve on and off the water, it’s that.
We’ve seen major community schisms at the End of the Road. They cut deep, splitting local businesses, families and neighbors that had built lives and livelihoods alongside each other for decades. Every few years a new issue re-ups the ante on old bitterness, and fingers start pointing, who’s responsible for killing off the behemoth halibut and King salmon, who’s taking more than their share, whose boots or gear is mucking up the habitat. What to me seem like natural companions — Alaska’s community-based commercial and sport fishermen — have long stayed at loggerheads, at the expense of their common interests and the ability to problem solve the large-scale issues that impact all of us: habitat protection, sustainable harvest, ocean policy and substantial upheaval in the ecosystem.
Our multigenerational division is at best a mutually destructive waste of energy, and at worst a distraction from the actual threats operating outside our immediate ocean view. While I believe we need the push and pull of widely differing views to get to the reasonable middle, commercial and sport fishermen have been taking shots at each other long enough that we’re in danger of leaving that common ground behind for good. And what’s building in the wake of our community infighting is a blindness to the bigger picture:
Coastal communities rely on diverse fisheries and healthy ecosystems, and our behavior in the policy arena needs to reflect that unity before we get down to the brass tacks of who gets what. Our public-facing narratives all say that, but that’s hardly how we operate. Our commonality slips away all too easily, and “public resource” becomes something awarded to the individual rather than something made accessible for the broadest community good.
I won’t say I want us to stop fighting. That isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and I’m concerned that if it does, it means that we’ve chosen a winner and a list of losers, and one type of fisherman is sitting at the peaceful, lonesome top — Thanos before a bittersweet sunset. So no, let’s not stop fighting just yet.
But I would like to see us fight harder and first for the fish. For leaders and policies that are committed to growing the resource for everyone, and that understand that our communities are strongest when our fisheries are diversified. Our fishing families are relying on us to create programs that maintain access for new generations, and preserve a spectrum of coastal community livelihoods and recreational opportunities that aren’t narrowed to a single, steep path.
We also need to show the non-fishing public the value of that perspective. Commercial fisheries in particular are suffering from a public perception problem, one that we should have started fixing together a long time ago. For some reason we have yet to capture the hearts of the nation in the way of the American farmer, but we can and should, side by side with the recreational fishermen who also value this resource.
Instead we are prone to stereotyping one another for the public arena, pulling the humanity out of our respective identities so they’re easier to oppose through the loud speaker of modern media. Commercial fishermen are greedy pillagers, out for a buck with no regard for ecosystem or neighbor. The solo angler is an elitist trophy hunter, protecting an individual’s access to an experience over the public’s access to healthy food. Those stereotypes can be true on a case-by-case basis, but more often than not they’re exaggerations and assumptions that prevent us from valuing the important role both have in a healthy coastal community. In the end we are both ambassadors for the water and the land fish depend on, connecting people across the globe to the fish and ecosystems we so highly value.
None of this is new. But it’s becoming drastically more important. Our differences have prevented us from asking smart questions about the resources we share, and the biggest threats facing them in a modern era.
While we’re fighting about whether rod or net is more deserving of the salmon, whether that halibut should land on a charter boat or longline vessel, let us not forget to fight first for the fish. For science-based ocean and habitat policies that leave us something to fight for, for community access for this and future generations, for diverse working waterfronts that understand how their businesses complement each other, and the ability to evolve our fisheries, side by side rather than in opposition, for the greater good of the resource and those who depend upon it.