My Turn: Intercepting fish cause of economic distress

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009

An Eskimo Elder in the village of Emmonak casts aside his pride, and writes a desperate plea for help. Food for the children, and fuel for warmth in the dead of an Arctic winter. Individual Alaskans came to the rescue, as always. How difficult this must have been to write. He could not support his family - a Native American who like his forefathers prided themselves on self-reliance.

The village of Emmonak is not alone. Individual circumstances differ, but economic distress is felt the length of the Yukon River.

How does someone starve of money, fish and oil in a rich nation and state awash in fish and oil? Greed, corruption and the benign neglect of a federal government entrusted to protect the powerless. It is an old story that deserves telling - to you and our nation.

For centuries, the Yukon has provided for the villages along it. Adequate food and a little cash. Folks don't need or ask for much. Pride and work ethic were strong. Survival required hard work. What changed to cause this crisis? The returns of chinook salmon dwindled and villages lost their only resource for food and cash.

Access to fish is not simply crucial, it is survival.

All too prevalent now is unemployment, reliance on government assistance, poverty, substance abuse and a male youth suicide rate that breaks your heart. All symptoms of an economy that has been destroyed. Pride gone, replaced with despair.

The chinook salmon runs dwindled in spite of heroic sacrifices by villagers to ensure adequate escapement. No river system this pristine has returned so few fish for so long with this much escapement. Something was horribly wrong. The fish were mysteriously dying at sea.

The villages got in the way of special interests making money. Campaign contributions were generous, and lobbyists hired. The villages had neither. Federal biologists parachuting in from big cities, their computers generating all the answers. Their job was to separate the indigenous people from their resource. It is an old story. Trawlers with an unlimited salmon quota, Alaska Natives with zero.

The chinook salmon were being intercepted on the high seas in huge numbers by the large multinational factory trawlers, harvesting the raw materials for fishwiches and imitation crab. Huge money. Overnight multi-millionaires. Over 800,000 salmon intercepted last year alone. This is the tip of the iceberg, as the trawlers had a billion reasons to under-report.

Federal biologists claim that quotas are "science based." Attend one meeting and you will see that quotas are lobbyist- and computer-based. Nobody goes to sea.

Fishermen tell a different story. Fishing harder and longer for less fish. Continually traveling farther north to catch fish, closer and closer to the Yukon. Fur seals, sea lions, salmon, bottomfish, and now Alaska Natives being destroyed by greed. A virgin Alaska resource gone.

Alaska 's largest fishery stolen! A fishery which could have paid dividends for 1,000 years. Alaskans are now left with a humanitarian crisis to pay for.

How could this humanitarian crisis occur without anybody knowing? The feds knew. How could they not speak up before Alaskans were starving? Some starve, and others are instant millionaires. Guess who the feds listen to?

NGO's like the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies sustainable fisheries, and Alaska 's own Department of Fish and Game have been conspicuously silent while this humanitarian crisis escalated. Where is the leadership?

This is economic genocide.

Alaska is the Saudi of seafood, but the profits go to Seattle. The fish were corruptly given away, and not to Alaskans. This policy is decimating villages. Seafood companies don't hire Indians for good jobs in Seattle, and only hire Indians in the villages if they are from India! Even the feds won't hire Native observers on trawlers.

This humanitarian crisis is only one Sundance documentary away from a Katrina-like event. Maybe a television documentary would provide this needless tragedy the attention it deserves.

Governor Palin's star power could make all the difference. Want to help? Take action! Mail a letter to Governor Palin. Tell her to get Alaska's fish back. Alaska's coastal communities should be granted 50 percent of the federal fish quotas, at least what the corporations received for free. This is an equitable permanent solution.

Enlist McDonalds to help. A fishwich doesn't taste so good when you see the poverty it created.

It is the right thing to do.

• Doug Karlberg lives in Bellingham, Wash., and has been an active commercial fisherman in Alaska for 37 years.

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